In the first of a two-part feature Peter Dean lunches infamous Dave Powell, the winemaker and ex-founder of Torbreck, who is now back with a bang and a range of top Australian Shiraz through his new winery, Powell & Son, a joint-venture with his son Callum.
Lunch with Dave Powell of Powell & Son is a lively affair that confirms him as one of the most controversial and talented winemakers currently working in Australia.
In researching Dave Powell before my lunch with him to discuss and taste his new range called Powell & Son, I came across a story from Jancis Robinson about how this most outspoken of winemakers had tried to show her his arse.
Well a mark on his arse to be precise.
Soon after meeting him it’s apparent that this legendary winemaker – the man who during 20 years made Barossa Valley’s Torbreck winery world famous and was then forced out – is very much the ‘bad boy’ of the Barossa.
Lunch with Dave Powell is like dining Shaun Ryder with Shane MacGowan pouring the drinks. You just know it has the potential to end badly. Very badly.
Powell explains how he met Alessandro Marchesan of Zonin UK, which will be launching the wines in the UK, at a restaurant in Hong Kong. As an aside he discloses nonchalantly that this first dinner together ended at 8… in the morning.
The first thing he said to me before lunch was “I just need to nip out for a smoke, you stay here and have a line of coke or whatever you do… oh sorry you’re not in the kitchens are you.” Big cheeky wink.
One story he tells is how he wound up Jean-Noel Gagnard of Domaine Romanée-Conti by querying whether he checked his wines before he poured them at a prestigious vertical – in front of 100s of esteemed paying customers. “Every time I meet him he always pretends he’s never met me before.” No shit Sherlock.
Another story, in similar circumstances, has Powell putting Stephen Henschke on the spot in front of a large audience by suggesting that Stephen should “Pick the fruit when it’s fucking ready.” A visit to Nerthe in the Rhone ends with Powell querying them with “What the fuck are you doing?”
Every story Powell tells is coloured by hi-jinks and peppered with language as colourful as the Shiraz that makes his beautiful wines. Underneath, though, is a refreshing directness and Aussie humour that is good-natured and well, frankly hilarious.
I just bet that this is the first lunch in 67 Pall Mall’s exclusive private dining room that has had a world-renowned winemaker use the C-word in quite such profusion in mixed company. The paint was peeling.
Life after Torbreck
As for the T-word, conversation about Torbreck and its aftermath did dominate proceedings at first. The winery, that was named after Powell’s spell as a lumberjack in Scotland, was founded in 1994 and from humble beginnings as a share-farming winery grew into a world class outfit with The RunRig and The Laird being some of the world’s most sought-after Australian wines. After the winery was bought in 2008, Powell and the winery’s new owner, Peter Kight, fell out so badly that Powell declared himself bankrupt in order to start afresh.
Most of what Powell says about the Torbreck saga would require a good lawyer to scrutinise and, thankfully, it is no longer relevant. The new wines that Powell is showing under his new label Powell & Son are simply blinding. The first sniff of the entry level red is enough to know that you are in the company of a real master.
Although Powell has more than one son, Powell & Son is a collaboration with just one – his 21-year old Callum Powell, a third year oenology student, who has recently being studying at Jean-Louis Chave in the Rhone. And Powell stresses that this is a partnership.
“The hardest thing for him to get right is freshness and elegance… as for me I am not subtle or elegant unlike my wines.”
When Callum thought that a wine was too reductive.. “I’ve told him to make sure he picks his fights,” Powell grins.
Powell declares that there is a fine line between a wine that is faulty and complex, particularly when it comes down to ‘funky’ notes, and eschews an approach where the envelope is very much being pushed at all times.
“You never learn anything in life by playing it safe.” He avoids filtering and fining and likes to leave the wine to spend time without intervention or, as he puts it, “Leaving the fucking thing alone.”
It’s hard when tasting Powell’s wines to connect the man with the wines he makes. One minute he’s saying “I’m left-handed and I only do two things with my right hand… go figure that out.” (Another big cheeky wink).
The next minute he’s pouring an elegant and fresh red with a sublime balance of fruit and backbone that makes you pause, think and salivate for more.
So what were the wines like?
We tasted five reds and a Riesling that were all hugely impressive and are covered in depth in a special tasting feature.
The top single varietal Shiraz Steinert is from vines that are 120 years old with grapes the size of blackcurrants. There are 360 cases produced with the trade price £450 a bottle.
“It’s important to have a wine like this. It helps the winery from a prestige point of view but it also subsidises a lot of the other wines. At the end of the day you have to ask yourself ‘do I want to buy a Ferrari?’ ”
“The Loechel is better value for sure but it’s like do you want a Filipino or an Eastern European hooker – they’re both expensive.”
And with that I bid a hasty retreat before I get sucked into a lunch that ends somewhere the middle of the next day, which it very possibly could have.
I am very much buying some of Powell’s new wines. I have gone for the Grenache Shiraz Mataro, and the two Shiraz – Barossa and Barossa and Eden Valley. See the separate Tastings feature for details.