The New World's Most Exciting New Terroirs
- Friday 5 June 2009
Chile: Coastal Casablanca by Peter Richards
Casablanca is one of those rare names that holds a peculiarly strong associative power. To some it is bustling Morocco, to others Bogart’s tortured affair with Bergman, to Spanish speakers it is the White House of Washington DC. But to wine lovers, it’s the coastal region which first set the standard for cool-climate Chilean wines. And even in this context, today Casablanca means many different things to many different people.
The region’s first significant wine development was in the mid-1980s. This bowl-like depression in Chile’s coastal hills acts like a natural trap for cool ocean air, encouraging the slow ripening so crucial to quality whites and delicate reds. Vineyards slowly colonised the flat, sandy plain and so was born its reputation, cemented in the 1990s, as a source of zesty, commercial whites (and a few reds) ideal for everyday drinking, if not much of serious quality.
Anyone lucky enough to have visited one particular part of Casablanca in the past five years, however, or try its wines, will have come away with a very different picture. That of a region of undulating hills and sunshine tempered by afternoon breezes, where neat, closely planted vines littered with smudge pots colonise the hills. And finally, importantly, where if you ask for a glass of the local wine, you’ll be given a complex, herb-scented red or an intensely structured white, more European than South American.
Welcome to coastal Casablanca. This exciting, unofficial sub-region is fast becoming one of Chile’s most acclaimed areas for cool-climate wines made from naturally low-yielding vineyards set on well-exposed granite slopes with fine red clay soils. The climate is sunny but fresh, with the varying elevation, exposure and coastal influence conjuring a tapestry of 2009microclimates. So far, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc have been the standouts. Many more are set to come.
Because of its greater proximity to the ocean, coastal Casablanca is cooler than central and eastern parts of the region. Cono Sur winemaker Adolfo Hurtado explains that long maturation gives natural complexity. ‘For our Sauvignon Blanc, we normally harvest 45 days later in coastal Casablanca than Curicó. This slow ripening means a lot in quality.’
American-owned Kingston is one of the area’s most promising producers. Winemaker Byron Kosuge, who spent 14 years at Saintsbury in Carneros, California, says Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are the stars. ‘They have New World generosity with Old World structure. At their best, they give the best of both worlds.’
For Casas del Bosque’s Felipe García, it’s all about Syrah. ‘It’s the emblematic variety of this sub-region.’ Felipe Díaz at Loma Larga, where the production includes Malbec and Cabernet Franc, puts a different slant on it. ‘Our aim is to produce wines of the same quality as those from France’s cool-climate areas, but to sell them at half the price.’ For Andrés Caballero, head winemaker at Viña Casablanca: ‘The wines show style, uniqueness, and consistency. Each of them reflects the origin where they come from. They are wines to be remembered.
Australia: East Coast, Tasmania by Huon Hooke
Tasmania has untold tracts of unexplored land that would suit fine-wine viticulture. Of the existing sub-regions, perhaps the one with greatest potential is the East Coast. It’s not new: Freycinet and Spring Vale estates were founded in the early 1980s and are both doing well, especially Freycinet, which already has a great reputation for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay still wines. Coombend – now part of the Tamar Ridge group – was established at the same time and has been greatly expanded, with new plantings overseen by Tamar Ridge’s viticulturalist Dr Richard Smart. But the East Coast’s planted area is still small, and in the eyes of Constellation Wines, producer of top bubbly from Tasmanian grapes (like Hardy’s Arras and Bay of Fires), its potential is vast.
Freycinet paved the way with its excellent sparkling wine Radenti. Now, US giant Constellation is buying grapes from several vineyards in Swansea for its top fizz. It’s been encouraging farmers to plant vines – particularly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, on their centuries-old family grazing properties.
Constellation’s chief sparkling winemaker Ed Carr is excited about the East Coast. While he used to buy mainly Pipers River and Tamar Valley grapes, both in the north of the state, he now finds the former too herbal and the latter seldom of Grade-A standard. Tasmania’s best grapes come from the Derwent Valley, Coal River Valley and other sites in the south such as Ouse and the Huon Valley. But these are cold, inland areas with high frost risk and fruit-setting problems. Carr needs certainty of supply, and the East Coast delivers that.
The vineyards, in sight of the ocean, seldom suffer spring frosts and because the prevailing winds are from the west, there’s none of the salt-spray or other weather issues that might be expected. Summers and autumns are dry, allowing the grapes to ripen with little threat of damage from moulds or excess water.
Carr is also enthusiastic about the soils: well-drained red-brown soils without excessive fertility. And of course the climate is among the coolest in Australia, ideal for the Champagne varieties either in sparkling or still wine. Aside from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, the East Coast suits Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Gewurztraminer. The combination of these assets makes the East Coast highly appealing. Land is available: farmers are keen to diversify. The only real risk seems to be water, though at this stage there is enough from creeks and rivers draining from the interior.
South Africa: Elgin by John Platter
First there was a scramble for the cooler sites along South Africa’s south coast, a 3,000km-long, largely untapped viticultural treasure. Cape Sauvignon Blancs raised their game; showed how explosively upfront they can be from these maritime spots, if sometimes lacking weight. Then it became fashionable to resuscitate neglected 1950s vineyards of such unchic varieties as Chenin Blanc, Cinsaut and Grenache in Cape Town’s hinterland: untrellised bush vineyards with ultra-low yields. Now there’s a trend to strike inland, to try ancient hillside planting of Rhône varieties on mountainside elevations with compensating cool nights. And there’s another renaissance in Cape Town’s southern suburbs like Constantia, sites of European settler plantings 350 years ago.
Though promising, all this activity is still too formative for styles and varieties to be matched definitively to climates, and soils. The ‘somewhereness’ as opposed the ‘anywhereness’ of wines is a work in progress. Producers are yet to become established in these newer or revived areas, let alone know their vineyards.
But dozens of wine wards have been added to the official growing areas, and the South African drinker can look forward to a vastly expanded choice. Areas to watch (the official Wine of Origin certification on the label will identify them) include Upper Langkloof, Barrydale, Cape Point, Voor Paardeberg, Stanford, Elim, Bot River, Lamberts Bay, Darling and Constantia.
But one area is building a track record featuring more than flashes of brilliance. Elgin, in the coastal uplands just east of Cape Town, was until the 1990s South Africa’s prime apple-growing region. Elgin’s soils (shale but mostly decomposed granite) are often said to be too rich and moisture-retentive for high-end cult wines. They need careful managing to curb excessive vegetation and over-cropping. But this is a relatively cool appellation, not nearly as blustery as some, like Elim, at Africa’s most southerly tip.
Whites have been the main draw. Riesling and Gewurztraminer (from Paul Cluver), Sauvignon Blanc (Iona, Neil Ellis) and Chardonnays (Oak Valley, Neill Ellis, Paul Cluver) have grown in stature and consistency. Across the varietal spectrum the signature is pure, uncluttered, juicy fruit in the attack. Finishes may fall off a little, but maturing vineyards, tightening yields and more experience in the cellar should fill them out.
Reds, though sound, have been less striking. Wine scientist François Knight is hesitant about Pinot Noir in particular: ‘We haven’t found the ideal sites yet; we may never find them,’ he says, though Elgin’s are among the country’s best.
Thelema’s Gyles Webb, among South Africa’s top winemakers for 30 years, has invested heavily in Elgin. He reports early crops of Petit Verdot, Cabernet, Shiraz and Pinot are ‘worth watching’.That means they’re damn good. Also up-and-coming: the first release from the man known for growing top Pinot for others James Downes of Shannon Vineyards.
Argentina: Uco Valley by Anthony Rose
When Nicolás Catena decided to plant the Adrianna Vineyard in 1992, he plumped for Tupungato up at 1,445m in the Uco Valley. Trial and error had led him to realise the importance of cooler temperatures at altitude. The Decanter Man of the Year 2009 (see April issue) was derided at the time for his pains but it didn’t stop him planting the 1,130m Domingo Vineyard, also in Tupungato, in the same year, followed by Nicasia at Altamira in San Carlos, 1,180m up, in 1995. Catena wasn’t moving out of Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza’s Médoc, but he wasn’t keeping all his vines in one basket either. He had become aware that there was a brand new treasure chest out there waiting to be filled if the challenge of matching grape variety to terroir for wines of finesse was to be met.
The Uco Valley was in fact already being plundered as a blending source by companies like Trapiche and Pulenta Estate, aware of its potential for violet perfumes and smooth black fruit flavours, but few had taken the plunge of moving lock, stock, and literally, barrel. Uco is, after all, an 80km trek south of Mendoza City.
It was overseas investors looking for the right terroir for Malbec, and less expensive land than Luján, who pursued Catena into Uco. Clos de los Siete, Bodega Lurton, Salentein, Masi, O Fournier and Finca Flichman pitched in while others extended their vineyard holdings to the valley. Neighbours joined the party too, among them Chile’s Santa Rita at Doña Paula, San Pedro’s Finca La Celia along with Argentina’s own Finca Sophenia, Andeluna, Gouguenheim and Antucura. According to Doña Paula’s Edy del Popolo, ‘In Uco, you have all the right conditions for big wines: intense colour, fresh fruit aroma, firm tannic structure, bright acidity, more balanced sugar ripeness and better ageing potential.’
Bordered by the high Andes on its west, high hills to the east and desert in the south, there’s something Shangri-la-like about the Uco Valley in its isolated beauty. An inaccessible oasis 100km long by 50km wide at a latitude of 34° south, the valley straddles the three departments, heading south: Tupungato, with 7,860ha (hectares) planted; Tunuyán, 6,170ha; and San Carlos, 6,405ha. Some 45% of the total is Malbec, including 3,000ha of
vines more than 25 years old, most concentrated in Tupungato and San
Carlos. Thanks to irrigation from the Tunuyán and smaller Las Tunas rivers, it was traditionally a fertile vegetable basket. With the advent of drip irrigation in the 1990s, a critical mass of vineyards began to be planted in the steeper, less fertile areas of Uco’s Andean foothills, unreachable by flood or furrow irrigation.
Uco Valley soils are geologically young at 30,000 years old and there’s hardly a producer who hasn’t dug a hole to show that the Uco does terroir. The main constituents are alluvial sandy loam containing sand, clay, gravel and rounded pebbles; and colluvial, rocky soils. While the slope is often imperceptible despite an altitude of more than 1,000m in most places, broadly speaking the closer to the Andes, the higher the vineyard and the rockier and poorer the soil, hence a lower natural yield. Because of low annual rainfall of 300mm and the varying water retention in the soil, controlled irrigation from rivers and underground wells is a key feature. Thanks to sophisticated soil mapping, row orientation is also adapted for more morning sunshine and to allow transpiration rates of the vine leaves to be closely monitored for even ripening.
Now planted to 20,435ha of vineyard, Uco is often, but not always, higher and cooler than Luján and Maipú. Solar radiation, bracing mountain breezes and the sharp contrast in hot day and cold night temperatures are the catalysts for ripeness, colour, perfume and freshness.
New Zealand: Gimblett Gravels by Bob Campbell MW
Six years ago Australia hosted the first Tri-Nations Wine Challenge, a competition that compares the top wines from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. The Syrah/Shiraz class comprised 30 wines, with entries split between each. New Zealand appeared to have little chance of success. It has been making Syrah for only a short period from vineyards that in 2008 covered just 257ha (hectares), compared to Australia’s 42,806ha (2007) and South Africa’s 8,100ha (2003).
But New Zealand wines took first, second and third place. Even more startling was the fact they were all made from grapes grown in the same Gimblett Gravels vineyard (though each had been made by different wineries). Craggy Range owned the vineyard. In 2001, it sold a small parcel of Syrah grapes to neighbouring producer Kingsley Estate, which had lost its entire crop to frost. Craggy Range also swapped some of its Syrah grapes for Pinot Noir from the Martinborough winery, Te Kairanga. Kingsley Estate 2001 Syrah won first place, Craggy Range 2001 Block 14 Syrah was second, Te Kairanga 2001 Syrah third.
Syrah from the Gimblett Gravels area of Hawke’s Bay has continued to score well in Tri Nations events, earning top place in three out of six years. Its Merlot has won the top wine vote in four out of six years. At a Bordeaux versus Gimblett Gravels reds tasting in London this year, Jancis Robinson MW said ‘The Gimblett Gravels wines tasted were the closest comparison to the Bordeaux wines of any wine region (in the world) today.’ An extraordinary performance when you consider that Gimblett Gravels covers just 800ha and has been making red wine for less than 30 years.
Gimblett Gravels is Hawke’s Bay’s vinous hot spot – literally. Stony, arid soils make the land useless for crops or sheep grazing. All but 30ha is planted to vines, with 80% devoted to red varieties. There are many high performers, but the hero is Syrah. Because it was a late-starter, Syrah comprised just 80ha of vineyard area. The best examples of Gimblett Gravels Syrah now sell so quickly and at such high prices, it has already begun to overtake plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot (44% of vines) and most white grapes.
At best, Gimblett Gravels Syrah offers a wonderful mix of power and finesse with dark berry, lifted floral aromas and black pepper. Some are co-fermented with a bit of Viognier to give added suppleness and perfume.
California: Sonoma Coast by Linda Murphy
California’s Sonoma Coast winegrowing region – the true Sonoma Coast – isn’t new, yet it’s evolving so rapidly, it seems as if it was born yesterday. I’m not talking about the Sonoma Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA), established in 1987, which is an enormous 200,000ha (hectares), a quilt of soil types, weathers and elevations spread over coastal Mendocino County on the north, Russian River Valley at the centre, Marin County to the south and portions of Sonoma Valley and Carneros to the east. There are vineyards 50km from the ocean entitled to have ‘Sonoma Coast’ on wine labels – akin to advertising beachfront property for sale in Arizona.
The real excitement is over the true, unofficial Sonoma Coast AVA, a rugged, isolated, narrow band of vineland hugging the Pacific Ocean, between Annapolis near the Sonoma County/Mendocino County line and Bodega Bay on the southern Sonoma coast. Here, vineyards are planted among old redwoods and oaks, on ridgetops just 5km from the sea. They’re buffeted by storms and salty winds, yet at 370m elevation, the vines are just above the fog line, so they get enough sun to fully ripen grapes in most vintages. Thin, shallow clay, sand and rock soils contribute to extremely low yields, and while the wines are made in small quantities, they are well worth the search for those with Burgundian tastes.
Chardonnay and Syrah do well here, but Pinot Noir is the star. The wines are floral and spicy, structured and elegant, with faint saline notes, minerals, crisp acidity, and lower alcohols (up to 14%) than Pinots made from warmer climes. Many wines also have an earthy, forest note that elevate them above the simple Pinot Noirs so common in California.
David Hirsch (Hirsch Vineyard, 1980) and Walt and Joan Flowers (Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard, 1991) were the first to plant modern-era grapes on the true Sonoma Coast, near the hamlets of Fort Ross and Cazadero respectively. Early on, Kistler and Williams Selyem bought their grapes, famed consultant Helen Turley planted Chardonnay and Pinot at her Marcassin Vineyard, and one of her clients, Martinelli, installed its famous Blue Slide Ridge Vineyard.
Burgundy-trained Ted Lemon became an idol with his Littorai Pinots from here, and even Bordeaux varietal-focused Napa Valley wineries began investing: Jayson Pahlmeyer in Wayfayer Vineyard, and Ehren Jordan of Turley Wine Cellars, who bought land to make Pinot and Syrah for his Failla brand.
Today, there are more than 50 growers in the true Sonoma Coast, including Jess Jackson, whose Land’s Edge and Far Coast vineyards provide grapes for the Hartford Court brand, and Joseph Phelps, whose Freestone Pinots and Chardonnays are top-notch, as are Nick and Andy Peay’s Pinots and Syrahs. Among my favourites are the Pinots from McDougall, planted in 1998 by the late Warren Dutton, now providing grapes for Dutton-Goldfield and Kutch Wines. Volumes are so small that exports are rare, but here are three to try…