“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





19 July 2013


The terroir of Doug Govan's vineyard behind the Victory Hotel on Sellick's Hill obviously involves a pot of gold : a great Australian publican in his back yard, straddling the McLaren Vale - Southern Fleurieu boundary and the meeting of Kurrajong formation and the Heatherdale Shale, praise Bacchus and Pan! Beyond him up the scarp you see the scrub on the 600 myo Wilpena Group, which reappears in the Flinders Ranges, a day's drive into the north.

Oz terriers off to terroir class
patching the seamless cloth
in spite of the Old Yurp voodoo 

Having spent three decades imposing its modern irrigated vineyard technology on the ancient landscape of Australia, much of the wine industry here is rather belatedly discovering the marvels of terroir.

From the seventies through the nineties, most big commercial outfits seemed to think their viticulture could be imposed on the country in such a way that it would supply a constant line of flavour regardless of site.  Of course this still occurs on a vast scale, and there are still many winemakers who think this strange French term, which covers aspect, geology, topsoil, micro-climate, altitude and latitude and the way the vines react to this complex web of influences, is merely Old World voodoo.  

While they stand dazzled in the new dawn, things are gradually changing, but there’s no need for faux-conservative panic.  There's still plenty of Roundup being squirted around, and irrigation water we can scarcely afford.  Some dudes just love that squirtin feelin.

As it has long been the Australian industrial norm to blend batches of fruit from vineyards spread vast distances apart in pursuit of a standard, unchanging product, the determination to overwhelm terroir with science was a powerful leveler of flavour in most of the wine made here.

Smell the terroir!

But while even the broadacre grapeyard mentalities are changing, the smartest winemakers have always been aware of the special distinctions of their favourite sites – they simply didn’t use the French word for it. 

David Wynn’s acute eye spotted the essential nature of cool(ish) Coonawarra and its limestone when he virtually created that grand region in the early fifties.  At Penfolds, Max Schubert knew the value of unique vineyards like Magill Estate on the rubble of the Adelaide Hills piedmont, and the ancient siltstones of Morphett Vale when he wrote his recipe for Grange in 1951.

Wolf Blass fell in love with the minty muddy soulfulness of Langhorne Creek, on the Murray River estuary, in the early seventies.  Peter Barry and his brothers were then learning from their father, Jim, the unique beauty of wines from disparate sites like Florita and Armagh in the Clare Valley.

And in the Barossa, smarter vignerons like the Lindner family spotted the distinctive style of vineyards like their 1843 planting of Shiraz in the alluvium of Langmeil, while the great Peter Lehmann, just across the creek, was discovering the wonders of the ironstone of his famous Stonewell Vineyard.

Best to blend into your environment when farming : Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides)

The Henschke family were then beginning the repair of the priceless Hill of Grace vineyard. I once took some British wine merchants to visit that remote site beside its tidy Lutheran Church to find the ground had been planted with radishes between the rows.  Years of horse and tractor work had compacted it as hard as a kettle drum.  Master viticulturer Prue Henschke had planted fast-growing root veggies in there which she let rot in their place, leaving thousands of little cone-shaped holes in the ground, each filled with nutrient, each admitting air and water which would have normally run off.  To plough it would have seen it blow away or erode by rain.  I knew then that Australian viticulture was changing to better respect terroir.

Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds, understands better than any the bewildering array of terroirs Australia offers.  He uses this knowledge, not just to make stunning wines like the single-vineyard Block 42 Kalimna Barossa Cabernet (1880s planting) that filled the $168,000 Penfolds ampoule (twelve copies; sold out), but to spectacular effect when he’s selecting vineyards for the mighty Grange, which can include parcels of fruit from a web of special sites hundreds of miles apart.  

It’s ironic that in this case we use a constantly-refining knowledge of terroir to make a blend to a certain style, but it’s little different to what the Krug family does in Champagne when they select the parcels for their ravishing vintages.

It’s just bigger here.

McLean's Farm : the Old Vines of tomorrow : 12 year old unirrigated bush vines in the Cambrian Kanmantoo Group sandstones and schists on the Barossa tops - the most Australian-smelling vineyard on Earth?

Gago’s encyclopaedic understanding of hundreds of special terroirs spread over great distances is a vital tool in coping with the recent changes of climate.

“Thanks to Max Schubert, who pioneered the method, travelling vast distances and shopping round for fruit to be made and blended to a specific Penfolds style is a great advantage in presenting wine of the best possible quality,” he says.  “Our main weapon in our engagement with climate change is our geographic flexibility. Starting with our usual appreciation of the unique individual vineyards, our best advantage is our ability to use both latitude and altitude to suit our goals.”   

Ironstone and sands, Tim Geddes' place, Blewett Springs, McLaren Vale.


“After that forensic vineyard selection, the more wines that survive our severe classification tasting procedure, the deeper is the pool of flavour, complexity, and structure of the Grange.”The most exciting development in Australia’s new yearning for better knowledge of terroir is the move to understand its geology.  Much study has gone into the influence of altitude, proximity to the ocean, and local climate patterns, but now the vignerons are beginning to look deeper beneath their feet.  Soil is scant in this ancient land, and winemakers are realising the rocks that feed their vine roots offer a bewildering range of flavours.

Saddleworth and Stoneyfell?  If so, 800 myo Burra Group rubble, deposited from far above at an agitated rate. But it's nearly the highest point of McLaren Vale, right atop the range of the Willunga Escarpment, and the mountain it came washing and tumbling from is long gone.
Nascent geological studies are underway in the Barossa and Clare vignobles, but the leader in the research of its true geological history is McLaren Vale. There, the established producers, like Wirra Wirra, Olivers’ Taranga, Coriole, d’Arenberg and the Jackson Family’s Yangarra Estate and Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard, and of course the ancient Kays Amery, all pick individual blocks according to their terroir.  As have done the best of the Barossa.  But increasingly, McLaren Vale’s doing it with more direct reference to its complex geology. 

Smaller, newer outfits are showing this respect from the start, actually choosing their vineyard sites with this in mind.  Previously vineyards were simply planted on the flattest ground because it was easier.

“With the South Australian government’s Geological Survey we finally published a precise scientific map of McLaren Vale in 2010,” says Dudley Brown, former chairman of the local winemakers authority and proprietor of the tiny Inkwell winery.

Freshwater and marine sediments at Port Willunga.  This is typical of the bottom geology of much of McLaren Vale.

“Great geologists like Bill Fairburn and Wolfgang Preiss spent decades combing this region. Local rock doctor Jeff Olliver helped finish the work.  We’re learning that we were already growing grapes on around fifty unique exposed geologies from seven distinct epochs covering 750 million years of history.  This is profoundly changing decisions on what varieties and clones people are planting and replanting, and where.

“This has a deep influence on the range of flavours this place can offer.

“We’re discovering that McLaren Vale could well have the most complex geology of any major wine region in the world.  Even on my little thirty-acre plot I have two quite disparate geologies which I now pick separately.  Completely different flavours! It’s very, very exciting.”  

Alluvial sand, clay and loam at Langmeil, Barossa. The Freedom Vines groovin in their real slow jive since  1843.

1 comment:

Adam said...

I see a better future in Australian wine. Let's hope others get it! Great article. Thanks.