Australia and Regionality - genuine terroir or a marketing spin?

Australia, terroir, shiraz, reisling People & Places Articles
  • Friday 30 January 2009

Australia is tackling the idea of regionality with gusto. But is it a case of genuine terroir or marketing spin?

Speaking a decade ago, Hugh Johnson came up with the best and simplest distillation of the concept of terroir. ‘With wine, unlike most products,’ he said, ‘where it comes from is the whole point.’ It seems obvious; it really is the point.

But it is one that, until quite recently, the Australians chose to interpret in the broadest fashion. The marketing triumph of brand Australia was to persuade us that the name of the grape variety, grown somewhere on the vast land mass, was all we needed to know to understand the wine in the bottle.

The wine was good, and consistently so. It was refreshingly simple, a world away from the unpronounceable appellations, denominations of origin and unfathomable classifications; and we lapped it up. Even Australia’s most celebrated wine, Penfolds Grange, has no defined place of origin, but is a blend drawn from many possible sites.

The grapes may not even come from the same places from one year to the next. It seems to validate, at the highest level, the notion that talented winemakers – thick on the ground in Australia – can create for themselves wines to rival any so-called terroir wine from elsewhere.

But the Australians have changed tack in recent years. Suddenly they would like us to take their regional differences rather more seriously. And they have approached regionality with a gusto worthy of any Old World wine region. If you think you know Australian wine, here’s a challenge: try naming all the country’s wine regions.

There are so many, even the Australians can’t keep up. According to one source, there are 85; another suggests it’s as high as 112. Even the most basic map includes more than 60 distinct areas (see the official Wine Australia map, overleaf). Australia suddenly seems complex and interesting.

But what does all this regional focus really mean? For regionality to carry any weight, it needs to be founded on the existence of distinct terroir differences manifest in the wines produced, rather than simply the name of the place they come from. To quote Johnson again: ‘There is no virtue in single variety wines for their own sake unless they are perfect interpretations of a singular terroir.’

Wine growers attempting to make wine true to its origins typically focus on the grape varieties that perform best, those that best express the uniqueness of their site. In many areas of Europe, they have little choice over which vines to grow if they wish to be

granted the status of the region’s name.

But, in Australia, it doesn’t seem to work like this. The people at Wine Australia have come up with the idea of ‘regional heroes’ – matches of 20 regions and ‘Australian wines from somewhere, rather than wines from anywhere’. The regional heroes are ‘regionally distinct wines, defined by a unique sense of place and a particular flavour that cannot be captured anywhere else in the world’.

To their credit, the Australians are upfront that this is a marketing strategy, which means that this type of regional definition will always reflect, to some extent, what the marketers feel the public wants. Adelaide Hills, for example, is defined as a regional hero for its Sauvignon Blanc.

But whether this is the best, or most placedriven, wine from Adelaide Hills is another matter. To me, the grape that shows the clearer sense of place here is the infinitely less fashionable Chardonnay (which was, incidentally, the first thing to be planted here in 1976).

And Aussie journalist Max Allen, on the Wine Australia website, seems to prefer Riesling, likening the Adelaide Hills wines to those from the more highly regarded Eden Valley. Go to Eden Valley, and Riesling is rightly defined a regional hero, though the highly distinctive Shiraz is not. It’s all a bit confusing.

The truth is, it will take more than a marketing strategy to change the perception and reality of Australia’s vineyards. Australia is a young wine-growing nation. For a long time now, many grape varieties have been planted in every region, with differing levels of success.

Take Clare Valley, a region that makes world-class Riesling. One might imagine Riesling to be the most widely planted grape variety here. Not so: it’s Shiraz, which accounts for nearly twice the amount under vine as Riesling, with plantings still growing.

Andrew Pike of Clare producer Pikes explains why it still produces a range of varieties in addition to its Riesling: ‘Yes, Riesling is the best, best-selling and most profitable thing we do – but everyone else does lots of things. We need more than one string to our bow.’

Michael Hill Smith AO MW is co-owner of Shaw + Smith, a premium producer in the Adelaide Hills. ‘To understand regionality in Australia, you need to think of what a region does that is special,’ he says. ‘In the Adelaide Hills, there’s no doubt it’s Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.’

Shaw + Smith’s renditions of these grapes attest that both are successful, especially its seriously good Chardonnay. But Hill Smith also makes a Riesling, a creditable Pinot Noir and a tasty, fresh Shiraz. A long list of varieties is grown here, including Nebbiolo, Pinot Gris,

Garganega, Fiano, Viognier and Gewurztraminer. In some cases, unlikely Wine Australia

Perth bedfellows are planted side by side. At The Lane, for example, Cabernet Sauvignon

grows alongside Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Are the Australians just naturally curious and creative in planting so many different varieties, even when they appear to know – at least in some cases – which varieties are bestsuited to their sites?

Winemaker Brian Croser, a selfproclaimed ‘terroir-ist’, recently stated his vision for the future of quality wine in Australia. ‘Astute winemakers are growing the varieties best suited to their site in a way that allows the production of wines that best express the site without manipulation,’ he says.

This last qualification will surely be a sticking point for many. To what degree will producers be willing to give up the interventionist winemaking that has guaranteed their wines shelf space across the world? Absence of manipulation implies greater variation in quality, albeit a truer expression of reality (or terroir).

Croser acknowledges the problem. ‘Growing wine to the best quality that the vineyard will naturally allow,’ he says, ‘is in direct philosophical conflict with the concept of making wine of the highest hedonistic quality by whatever winemaking techniques are available to manipulate wine composition.

Almost every wine in Australia (including the famous, citric Clare Valley Riesling) has acid added to it by the winemaker (see p37). Most vines are irrigated. Does this mean site expression, in the truest sense, is limited to very few, if any, of Australia’s wines?

Top Barossa producer Charles Melton dry-farms all of his land, and requires the grape growers he buys from to do the same. He believes the decision to irrigate is market-led rather than a function of the needs of the vine. ‘Anyone could dry farm here,’ he says. ‘Most years the vine finds its natural balance.’

As you might expect, his yields are lower than most. But he is optimistic that others will

follow suit, saying he sees a ‘regeneration of the old way of growing grapes, after a 30-year hiatus’. Drew Noon MW is another winemaker producing superlative wines from old, dry-farmed vines in McLaren Vale, again at very low yields.

So there are signs that Croser’s vision of reduced manipulation is taking hold at the high end of the market. But for almost all producers, some degree of manipulation is a given. Toby Bekkers, the general manager of Paxton Vineyards in McLaren Vale, says: ‘The best way to obtain top quality wine is to have ultimate control over water.’

At Peter Lehmann, a Barossa producer that sources fruit from the entire valley, winemaker Ian Hongell does not even use the word ‘terroir’. ‘Our philosophy is to be expert winemakers,’ he says.

The Lehmann range comprises a consistent set of wines, almost all blends from growers across the Barossa Valley, yet the best wine I tasted on a recent visit was the 2006 ‘1885’ Shiraz. This is made from old, ungrafted vines from a single five-acre site, dry-farmed by the same family for six generations.

Similarly, at Penfolds, the stand-out wine for me in a long line of good and great bottles (including Grange 2003) was the 2005 Cellar Reserve Barossa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, made from a single block of old, ungrafted vines. It tasted like it came from somewhere.

A factor that is evident time and again when tasting Australian wines is the impact of old vines on quality. Stephen Henschke, owner of the eponymous iconic winery in Eden Valley, reveals that he thinks the terroir character of his Hill of Grace wine is as much a function

of the age of the vines as the specialness of the vineyard site.

‘We have 20-yearold vines that are not ready to go into the wine,’ he says. ‘They’re not showing old-vine character.'The main reference point Australian winemakers use to define their terroir is climate and, within this, the factors of a site that make it cooler.

So it seems logical that in Australia’s most extreme cool climate, the evidence of terroir

should be more apparent. In a way, it is. The range of varieties grown in Tasmania is certainly more limited than elsewhere, dictated by the more restrictive terroir that more closely resembles cool regions in Europe.

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay dominate, and are principally destined for the excellent sparkling wines. Rieslings, too, are good, and deliciously pure. Like everywhere else, there’s always the exception that proves the rule. Here, it’s the well-respected Domaine A, where

former Swiss IBM manager Peter Althaus chooses to swim against the tide.

In his winery, maps show ‘The Four Major Winegrowing Regions of the World’: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne and Tasmania. While the rest of Tasmania pursues sparkling wine and variations on the Burgundy grapes, he has opted for the less obvious choice: Bordeaux.

Against the odds, he makes impeccable red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. ‘It’s light that ripens grapes, not heat,’ he maintains. ‘I’ve never had any trouble ripening Cabernet grapes here.’

The history of Australia’s terroir is only just being written. While there are many wines that clearly do show clear expression of their origins, most winemakers still relish the freedom to do as they please to satisfy the demands of a changing market – a notion that does not

sit easily with ‘terroir’ wines.

Any agreement (much less legislation) over what they should plant for the optimal expression of their land in a given place seems a distant prospect.

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