Andrew Jefford March '10 column: A master of principles

People & Places Articles
  • Monday 22 February 2010

Making wine skillfully is a fine achievement. Being a role model, though, is something else. It signifies that everything along your way would be worthy of emulation, from the first
stirrings of vocation through to the dissected entrails of achievement. Perhaps it’s the pioneering spirit, but Australia is well endowed with figures of this sort. Such as Ron Laughton of Jasper Hill.

He’s a food scientist by training, and formerly made cheese and other dairy products for Kraft. (Indeed, he knows the secrets of one of Australia’s cultural icons: Vegemite.) In the late 1960s, he travelled to Europe and worked in the UK for three years, giving him exposure to European wines. When he came back, he planted a vineyard at Heathcote in

Central Victoria. ‘I was raised on a farm, so I had a feel for soil and didn’t mind getting dirt under my fingernails.

The training in science helped, then I saw the wine regions of Europe as a young adult,

and it all kind of coalesced.’ Perhaps my views of food scientists are prejudiced, but I’d assume that someone with that kind of background would adopt a masterful approach to wine production, designing wines to meet a perceived market need, then using technique to deliver the blueprint.

In fact, the lessons Laughton drew from his former life were the opposite. ‘It taught me about flavours and about how fragile they are. As a food scientist, I also recognise that I don’t add flavour – that nature has produced all of the flavour in the grape.

Whatever I do runs the risk ofdamaging those flavours irreparably – so I do as little as possible to get the maximum amount of flavour out of the berries given to me in the first place.’ In the 1970s, technique was ascendant. Laughton’s path was a lonely one.

From day one the vineyard was organically cultivated and dry-grown: two more strokes against the current. ‘If you need to irrigate, you’re in the wrong place,’ he says.

Laughton had noted that grey box eucalypts replaced ironbarks in Heathcote, and that the grass and treeheights were higher than in the quartzes to the north and the granites to the south. That was what led him to the distinctive, deep, nourishing red soils he christened

(with artistic licence) ‘Cambrian’. He now practises biodynamics: why? ‘I had a conundrum.

How can I replace what I am removing in the wine without upsetting the place? My answer is biodynamics. Not to top up your soil with elements, but to keep it alive so thatit can regenerate its own elements.’ He sorts his fruit twice; he uses wild yeasts; he doesn’t acidify, or add yeast nutrients or tannins; he allows his reds to macerate with their skins for a full six weeks. I’m not saying that any of these stratagems should be obligatory or ubiquitous.

It’s not the practices which matter so much as the principles, and particularly Laughton’s tough-minded commitment to expressing place in his wines. He’s spent most of the last 30 years battling the tide. Now it’s turning. If you want to taste terroir from Australia, begin with Jasper Hill.Laughton’s Rieslings, for example, are uniquely glycerous and mineral: imagine white Hermitage made with the Riesling grape, and you’re there.

Pure Heathcote, of course, and the antithesis of the pan- Australian Riesling ideal, which is

something pristine and edgy. Give them time: the 2002 is perfect now. The Viognier has been an age coming (it took nine years to produce its first vintage, 2009) but it reflects the solar force of its origins with intricate, aroma-decked lusciousness. The Nebbiolo is more open and succulent than the grippy new stars of the Adelaide Hills (Steve Pannell,

Protero, Arrivo), but it still works as a complete wine, built around a core of fruit which shuttles enticingly and singularly between rosehip and chocolate.

The Grenache, by contrast, is less raisiny and more sinewy than the varietal norm, its fruits shaken with earth. Then, of course, come the great Shiraz wines: Emily’s Paddock (which includes some Cabernet Franc) and Georgia’s Paddock. Georgia is fleshy; Emily mineral.

Both, though, are aromatically complex, deep and searching, and those aromas push the same triggers which the garrigue-scented wines of the Languedoc and the Southern Rhône do in France.

It’s not thyme or rosemary here, of course, but crushed grey box eucalyptus leaf, pounded laterite, the dry blonde grass of Mount Camel, broken brushwood, camphor and leather. They’re rich but perfectly balanced: cathedrals of sunlight. And role model. So is there a ‘school of Ron’? Strangely, it would seem not. Even in Heathcote, he remains one of a kind

(his partner Michel Chapoutier aside), and nationally few have mentioned him to me in the admiring tones reserved for others. Laughton is too single-minded to care much about this. But I regret it.

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