The Ben Ean Still – 2011 Heritage Award winner ….
Hunter Valley Living Legend Karl Stockhausen shares the history & stories of this wonderful Hunter Valley icon with Rhiannon Stevens.
Each year in the Hunter Valley, we celebrate and acknowledge excellence with our Wine Industry Awards and induction of our Hunter Valley Legends. In 2011, the Hunter Valley Heritage Award was presented to the Ben Ean Winery Old Still House.
Despite being formally recognised as having integral historical importance to our region, little is known as to the origins of the Still at Lindemans Ben Ean. It is believed the Still was already in place when the Ben Ean property on McDonalds Road Pokolbin was purchased from John McDonald by Dr Henry Lindeman in 1912. Who better to ask about this icon than the amazing Hunter Valley Legend – Karl Stockhausen?
So what is a Still?
A still is a permanent apparatus used to heat and then cool liquids to condense and capture vapours. The Ben Ean Still is a simple Pot Still, with a single chamber heated by a steam boiler piped from the Ben Ean Winery.
The purpose of the Ben Ean Still was to collect alcohol and produce Brandy. Pot Stills only give one condensation due to having one pot. The first distillation results in low concentrations and the process is repeated to get higher concentrations. When Karl had used the still in the early 1960′s the first distillation would succeed, however secondary distillations would frustratingly lose alcohol in the process. As the Still is made of copper, the natural properties of Copper remove sulfur from the alcohol. In doing so, the metal eventually corrodes. The carry-over to the condenser column metals were so eroded that alcohol escaped. A Customs Officer informed Karl that they may have to pay duty on the alcohol losses and Lindemans Head Office quickly replaced them with new ones! The Pot itself and the Condenser are of the original Still.
When Karl Stockhausen first arrived at Ben Ean in 1955 there were large stores of Brandy from the Still. Karl recalls being appointed Winemaker and Manager of Lindemans in 1959, and using the Still to recover losses from left over grapes after pressing, through distillation. The labour intensive process was fraught with losses and by the early 1960′s, Karl had convinced his directors to retire the Still. By 1964 the Still was no longer in use and Karl could invest his passions into making Hunter River Riesling (Semillon).
Karl is cautious to assume the Brandy from the Still was used to fortify wines such as Port or Muscat styles. This is because it would have been difficult to produce high concentrations of alcohol (Ethanol) used in Fortified Wines. In order for this, the Still would have required a rectifying column which separates the different alcohols respective of their different boiling points. This means that the Still at Ben Ean was likely there to satisfy a personal preference for Brandy consumption.
Is it a taste for Brandy which has paved the way for Australian wine?
Until the 1960′s the majority of Australian wine on the market was fortified in the style of Port or Sherry. Perhaps it was the shortage of beer and spirits during the second world war which encouraged the consumption of fortified and table wines. Alternatively the appeal of a sweet, rich wine with brandied complexities to an early wine drinker may have begun the evolution of Australian palates. A preference to Brandy may have lead to a taste for fortified wines, which evolved into curiosity for table wines.
A growth in Australian wine sales from 1960 owes to greater popularity in styles such as the semi-sweet Ben Ean Moselle, enjoyed characteristically of the era with an Alpine Lite! Karl Stockhausen blushes as he tells this iconic wine of the 60′s wine boom was first made at Ben Ean in 1956, but was not yet what the market wanted. Later, the market became enamoured by the fruit friendly forwardness of the Ben Ean Moselle. Many a wine drinker owe their interest and evolution of their own palates to the entry-level Ben Ean Moselle, which became the biggest selling white wine for over a decade.
In the late 1960′s dry red wine sales were greater than whites. Karl recalls 1965 Vintage as peculiarly dry and hot whilst still producing an unusually large crop. This meant all open fermenters were full, leaving none to take the quickly ripening fruit. They managed to leave off harvesting the Shiraz it until well into March. When they finally harvested, the sugar content in the fruit was exponentially high, leading to high alcohol percentages and worried Winemakers. At the end of Vintage, Karl explains the Lindemans directors came to the Hunter Valley to taste the wines. “They were the best range of Hunter Reds they had ever seen”. Top shelf styles, Karl describes as “fabulous wines” all still revered today. Karl proudly tells me that recently a bottle from 1965 broke the record, selling for almost $2000.
Other influential styles that Karl Stockhausen has been involved with include the iconic Hunter River Riesling, which was an alias for one of the three Semillon styles he produced at Lindemans. The next trend, for shoulder pads and oaked Chardonnay emerged in the 80′s.
But what is it about these wine styles that give them decade long demand? Karl’s theory rests on The Obvious. Literally. Karl explains, “It was not the flavour of Chardonnay but the obvious oak that made it popular. Sauvignon Blanc, although opposing in style also carries obviousness of character.” Karl explains that wine drinkers are searching for characters they can recognise in their wines. For fortified wines it was the Brandy base, Moselle was sweet supple fruit, Chardonnay was buttery vanillin oak. For Sauvignon Blanc it’s about gooseberries, crispness and green notes. But it’s more than often too hot to grow this variety in the Hunter Valley. McGuigan Wines have now announced their market friendly home grown competitor, affectionately named The Semillon Blanc, using our Hunter Valley reliable and faithful staple, Semillon. Karl describes this wine as a “modern late picked version of Semillon, with full varietal flavour up front, something that lends well to current palates”.
So what for the future, as we all become more familiar with the wine world and more informed about personal preferences of style. What wines will be fashionable? I am a product of the 1980′s and can’t go past a good Chardonnay, but I’ve always said drink what you like. (That way no one has to share!)
Take the opportunity to go back to our roots and enjoy the Hunter Valley’s heritage Ben Ean Still for a wine tasting at Lindemans.
This article was published in Breathe Magazine Summer 2011-12, Breathe Magazine – Issue 31, Summer 2011.