Roman Bratasiuk of Clarendon Hills

Roman Bratasiuk of Clarendon Hills

Australian winemaker Roman Bratasiuk is not that easy to get to know. Bratasiuk produces seven Syrahs, five Grenaches, three Cabernets and a single Merlot on his twelve Clarendon Hills vineyards in McLaren Vale, just south of Adelaide. Faced with half a dozen of these wines over dinner at Rothmann's Steakhouse in Manhattan recently, my task was to dip into the sensory experience of the wines and yet learn a thing or two about the enigmatic man behind them.

Most wines tend to show threads that allow you to compare them to wines you already know; these wines are by contrast unique one-off events. A former biochemist for the Australian government, Bratasiuk came to know wine first as a connoisseur with a passion for Burgundy and Bordeaux. As a winemaker, he is self-taught. Despite his reverence for the French model, he has not attempted to reproduce French wine on Australian earth. To do so would not be in keeping with the concept of terroir, the serf-like symbiosis of plant and place.

All the Clarendon Hills wines are single varietals, a very un-French thing to do with these particular grapes. At 14.5% alcohol, they weigh in at about the average for the big reds of McLaren Vale. In strict observance of terroir, they are also vineyard-specific, which itself is not the usual Australian way of handling things. To mix a grape from one soil type with that of another, even if the grapes are botanically identical, would constitute a sacrilegious waste. Without terroir, why bother to make wine?

The single Merlot from the Brookman vineyard in Blewett Springs is a case in point. Why Merlot? The answer is clay, the same force that drives the best Merlots of Pomerol. “The clay soil restricts the roots, yielding small berries and a good richness of flavor,” Bratasiuk tells me. “The result is a natural control of the vine. It's all dry farmed.” The 2004 Brookman ($65) drinks well now, as do all these wines, but, as Bratasiuk stresses, “It's just at the beginning stage of its evolution. It needs 25 years.” Here is a man who takes the long view. Fortunately he has the satisfaction of seeing his oldest son follow him into the wine industry. “Alex has worked with me on the past three or four vintages,” the proud father relates. “He loves every aspect of the business.”

I make the mistake of asking Bratasiuk what he thinks of Italian wines, something I will not do twice. He is not too enthusiastic about Rhône varieties either, he tells me, which naturally leads me to ask why he is making Grenache. “Because Grenache has done well in Clarendon,” he answers. “It was first planted there in the 1830s.” The 2004 Romas, at $110, is the winery's flagship Grenache; the 85-year-old vines are planted on steep, rocky ground. The yield is a minuscule half ton per acre. The wine, a superb, concentrated berry with mocha and nutmeg, seems to have a Cabernet kick.

“This Grenache is like Pinot Noir on steroids,” Bratasiuk remarks. “It's aromatic but there's a lot more to it.” I do some quick math. As a red Burgundy buff, Bratasiuk undoubtedly drinks more Pinot Noir than any other grape, yet produces none. The Clarendon terroir and Pinot Noir just do not mesh. (Of course there are exceptions, but that quintessential red Burgundy grape has not thrived in Australia, otherwise, I imagine, Bratasiuk would be vinifying it somewhere).

Terroir is obviously important to Bratasiuk, but so is the incontrovertible mathematics of old vines. Nearly all the Clarendon vines are ungrafted, on their own vinifera roots (since phylloxera has never affected isolated South Australia) and were in place in Clarendon before Bratasiuk even toyed with the idea of becoming a winemaker (or in many cases before he was born). These vines yield two tons or less per acre, and give a “more intense expression” to the wine. Has Bratasiuk, then, simply worked as a steward to allow the vines to express themselves and their terroir in these intriguing wines? He has done much more, of course. He tells me there are 200 variables to winemaking (alas, without enumerating them). The specs tell me a key variable is wild yeast, used for all these wines, dry farming, extended maceration, no fining or filtering, and otherwise traditional methods of viticulture and vinification, but a little probing yields a true Bratasiuk hot button, and the button is made of oak.

The oak used to age these wines is entirely French, entirely expensive, and painstakingly coopered according to Bratasiuk's specifications. The tight-grained oak for the Syrah (a term her prefers to Shiraz) and the Grenache is from Tonnellerie Cadus in Ladoix-Serrigny, just north of Beaune in Burgundy. The various Syrahs are aged in a mix of old and new oak, except for the $350 Astralis, which benefits from 100% new oak. All the Grenache varieties age in older oak. The oak for the Merlot (40% new) and Cabernet Sauvignon (100% new in all cases) is coopered by Tonnellerrie Nadalie of Bordeaux. All sixteen wines enjoy 18 months barrel aging. “The key to this oaking,” Bratasiuk relates, “is cooler toasting over a longer time frame than is often the case. The result is effective oak that avoids that obvious over-toasted and burnt effect. Great oak lifts tannins, lifts the wine's perfume, lengthens the finish, integrates grape tannins with wood tannins, and adds a lovely harmony and integration to the wine.”

The ultimate perfectionist, Bratasiuk doesn't just put in his barrel order and wait for the container to arrive at the Adelaide docks; he spends a great deal of time in France monitoring the coopering. That seems thirsty work to me, but with obvious compensating factors once corkscrews and decanters come out. It is well that Bratasiuk prefers French wines even to his own; we benefit from the exacting standards of a passionate winemaker, and if he is not drinking the wine, that leaves all the more for us to enjoy.

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Bratasiuk is the model of an exacting winemaker.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


Roman Bratasiuk and Elliot Essman

The author (pouring) and Roman Bratasiuk taste Clarendon Hills wines.

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