A Top 10 Terroir
- Tuesday 16 December 2003
Like all wine countries, Australia has a relatively small number of truly great vineyard sites, as a proportion of the total planted area. These are the jewels, the rare places where the right vine has been planted in a soil and climate that suits, and the
viticulture and winemaking are done in sympathetic ways, tried and tested over a long period.
Applying the word ‘terroir’ to places both broad and specific may be construed as a liberty. Terroir is seldom, if ever, constant within entire regions. Hence you’ll find here a mix of regions, sub-regions, single vineyards – and even parts of vineyards. The one common theme is the production of distinguished wine over a substantial time-frame. The following 10 (in alphabetical order) have been selected for their stature, and in an effort to be democratic and share the glory.
HILL OF GRACE
This single vineyard has been producing wine for more than 130 years, and some of the vines – which the Henschke family fondly call The Grandfathers – are as old as that. The 1958 was the first wine to bear the now-famous Hill of Grace name, which the Henschkes adopted from the adjoining Lutheran church Gnadenberg (Hill of Grace). The present custodians, Stephen and Prue Henschke, wanted to extend plantings and replace old vines that died, and so they hand selected planting wood from the best old vines to ensure the integrity of the vineyard’s ‘bloodline’ would be preserved.
Hill of Grace is unirrigated and the soil is a deep, fine, brown, sandy to silty loam topsoil over deep, red clay-loam. It is moderately fertile and is deep enough to sustain the vines in the normally dry summers. Yields are naturally low. Being in the Eden Valley at 400m high, it’s substantially cooler than the Barossa floor, and the wines are more elegant, with flavours ranging from spice, pepper and a hint of vegetable in cooler years to sweet plum and a hint of blackberry in the hotter years. While normally full bodied, it is seldom a blockbuster.
Henschke Hill of Grace 1998 *****
Quite vegetal/spicy Eden Valley Shiraz aromas, attractive. Elegant but powerful, ripe palate with spicy/plummy fruit, hints of liquorice/ anise, and fine tannins. Palate structure is smooth and quite lovely. A magical wine with a great future. 2005–2025+. £119.95; L&W
Kalimna has been a key vineyard for Penfolds since the 1940s. Every year, it provides the core of Grange, Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon, Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz and various other top Penfolds red wines, including the eponymous Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz. In addition, it’s given us many of the Special Bin wines that Penfolds makes in outstanding years, such as 1962 Bin 60A, 1980 Bin 80A and 1990 Bin 90A, 1967 Bin 7, the 1953 Grange Cabernet and 1996 Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon. Block 42 itself is the spiritual heart of what is now a large vineyard. Here, the ancient vines produce tiny yields of essence-like wine that is the foundation of Bin 707. Planted in the 1880s, it is ‘perhaps the world’s oldest Cabernet-producing vineyard,’ according to chief winemaker Peter Gago.
Kalimna is at the northern end of the Barossa Valley, where the altitude is slightly higher than the Barossa floor. Grange creator Max Schubert believed Kalimna to be the greatest red wine vineyard in Australia. The soils vary, but the best are sandy and quite poor: because the roots go so deep the soils can sustain modestly cropped vines in dry summers without watering.
Penfolds, Block 42, Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 *****
Nutty oak aromas over concentrated blackberry and dark-plum fruit, touches of dark chocolate and vanilla. Concentrated flavour, with serious tannins. Statuesque. 2008–2030+. N/A UK +61 8 8560 9389
LEEUWIN ESTATE, BLOCK 20
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay is one of Australia’s best, most ageworthy Chardonnays. It has held that position virtually since the first vintage – from young vines – in 1980. The Horgan family knew they had something special on their hands when the 1980 was released in 1982, at the then stratospheric price of $17.
Margaret River produces several other superb Chardonnays but Leeuwin hit the nail on the head first try, and many years before anyone else. The reason is Block 20, beside the driveway near the front gate: the block of Gingin clone Chardonnay vines that always forms the core of the wine. There is something very special about this terroir. It is free-draining sandy loam which sustains the vines through the dry Margaret River summer without irrigation. And it naturally gives low yields. It is protected from the damaging salty sea winds that can lash the region’s vineyards.
Art Series Chardonnay ages happily in most vintages for up to 10, and sometimes 15 years – extraordinary for Australian Chardonnay. It was partly good luck that led Leeuwin to plant Chardonnay on this site, which has led to a wonderfully concentrated, pungently tropical-scented, classy wine.
Leeuwin Estate, Art Series, Chardonnay 2000 ****
This is a trifle oaky in its youth, but shows trademark Leeuwin concentration and power. The aromas conjure toasted nuts, grapefruit, figs and tropical fruits, and it floods the mouth with flavour. 2005–2012. £25; DDi
The first vineyards in the Yarra Valley were planted during the 1840s–1860s in the Lilydale area by early settlers named Ryrie, de Castella and de Pury. Their properties, Chateau Yering, St Huberts and Yeringberg, were all planted on fairly poor, grey sandy loams: old, heavily leached Silurian mudstone soils on the gentle hillsides rising above the lazily flowing Yarra River.
It was to this history that Dr John Middleton looked when he selected Mount Mary. It’s a moderately elevated, sloping, north-facing site on just that kind of soil prized by the de Castellas. Guill de Pury had it easy: his Yeringberg property had been in the family’s hands for 100 years and he just replanted in one of the earlier sites. The style of wine these two vineyards produce is similar, and quite different from much of what the Yarra Valley produces these days. Elegance is the keyword: the wines are medium bodied at best and moderate in alcohol. Fine boned, subtle, well-balanced, very drinkable wines are the end result. And the better vintages age beautifully for at least 25 years.
Middleton abhors the modern fashions of high alcohol, added tannin and excessive new oak. The Mount Mary and Yeringberg wines are products of their special terroir, which they share with only a few others, including Warramate and parts of Yarra Yering and Coldstream Hills. Good wines are made in many parts of the valley but few achieve the same graceful result.
Mount Mary, Quintet 2000 ****
Only 12.2% alcohol, but a deliciously refined, elegant red wine. It smells of blackcurrant with complex crushed-leaf, meaty and cedary touches. Subtle, tautly structured and intense. 2005–2020+. £59.95; VdV
THE LIMESTONE RIDGE
The best red grapes in Coonawarra have always come from the same strip of land: a small part of that famous ‘cigar-shaped strip’. It’s a slightly elevated north-south ridge, a short hop west of the main Penola-Naracoorte Road, which has shallow red topsoil, with chunks of limestone breaking the surface. It’s especially well drained and low in fertility. Hence it’s low in both vine vigour and grape yield. Wynns sources its John Riddoch Cabernet grapes from here; Lindemans its Limestone Ridge and St George, Beringer Blass its McShane block. Brand and Redman both have some of their oldest vineyards here (including Brand’s Original Vineyard), and Zema Estate also have its roots in the land. But it’s Southcorp that owns the lion’s share of this area, including the original Wynns and Lindemans blocks.
Today, there are some superb reds being made from vines away from this ridge: Penley Estate, Petaluma and Balnaves are all on the other side of the road. But all the great wines of the 1940s to 1960s which still drink superbly (Woodleys, Wynns, Lindemans, Redman) and which pre-date the huge expansion of the region, originate from that ridge.
Lindemans, St George, Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 ****
Bouquet of dusty, earthy, cedar-cigar box developing Cabernet fruit, with flecks of mint and toasty oak. Firm, fine structure, medium to full bodied, and very alive in the mouth. Up to 2014+. £16.99; Evy, Maj
If ever it can be said that red soils produce the best red wines and white soils the best whites, it’s in the Lower Hunter Valley – especially the Pokolbin sub-region. Here, dry white Semillon is a world-unique style. It’s early harvested, low in alcohol 10–12%), unwooded, fermented dry and bottled early. The top exponents are Tyrrell’s and McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant, whose vines are on poor, white to grey, sandy soils.
Mount Pleasant’s famous Semillon vineyard is Lovedale, an unglamorous-looking, flat expanse near the Cessnock Airport, which Hunter legend Maurice O’Shea first selected 57 years ago. His first vintage, the 1950, won trophies, and the flow continues today.
Tyrrells’ best Semillon vineyards are ancient creek beds, where the vines are planted on well-drained, sandy loams. They have names such as Short Flat, Long Flat, DeBeyers and HVD. All are poor but deep soils producing modest tonnages of extraordinary quality grapes. The most famous is Vat 1, but Tyrrell’s makes four or five other superb wines. The wines age for 25 years-plus, gradually evolving into golden, toasty, beeswax and honey-scented nectar.
Mount Pleasant, Lovedale Semillon 1998 *****
Starting to show the mellow lemon-curd and lightly toasted aromas of age, but still fresh and vital, this has many years ahead of it. It has a touch of honey and a long, crisp finish. Up to 2010+. N/A UK. +69 2 4998 7505
And so to the red soils, which are of completely different origin, being volcanic and found on the hilltops. They are also well drained, but more fertile and seem to contain the trace elements needed by red grape vines. Lakes Folly’s Cabernet and Petit Verdot-based red, as well as Mount Pleasant’s Rose Hill, OP & OH (part of which yields the Maurice O’Shea shiraz), Tyrrell’s Ashmans are all planted on these soils. Some of the vines at Mount Pleasant and Tyrrell’s are also extremely old.
Hunter Shiraz is one of Australia’s most distinctive wine styles: its elegant body, moderate alcohol, soft-tannin finish and earthy, leathery, sometimes tarry flavours make it one of the easiest Aussie reds to recognise. These days it can be overshadowed by blockbuster Shirazes from other regions, but at its best, Hunter Shiraz can be beautifully balanced, very complex and long lived.
Lakes Folly, (Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Shiraz, Merlot) 2001 *****
This smells invitingly of blackberry, mulberry and violets. The structure is elegant with a medium to full body and good length. It’s all about grace and subtlety, rather than power or dimension. 2005–2021+. £25 (1999); Lay
POLISH HILL RIVER
The Clare Valley is one of Australia’s four best Riesling regions, and for sheer number of outstanding brands is the best. Watervale, in the central valley, lower lying and on calcareous soils, was traditionally regarded as the best Riesling terroir. But today, Polish Hill River, a distinct sub-region east of the main valley, is mounting a spirited
challenge. Led by Jeffrey Grosset, the most successful Riesling maker in the country, Polish Hill River is slightly higher and cooler, its grapes ripen later, and its wines are more flinty, minerally, austere and longer ageing than those of Watervale. Altitude and exposed, chilly, windy sites are a major factor, but so is the soil: a poor, slate-based soil that is more like the Mosel than anywhere else in Australia.
Grosset makes more of his Polish Hill Riesling but sees fit to price it above his equally revered Watervale – which is telling. Others making superb Polish Hill River Riesling (they can’t label it Polish Hill as Grosset has that trademarked) are Pike’s, Paulett’s, Wilson Vineyard and O’Leary Walker. For those who like to cellar Oz Riesling and cherish the buttered-toast and honey complexities of aged bottles, ‘Polish’ is an exciting place.
Grosset, Polish Hill, Riesling 2003 *****
The 2003 is a big, full style of Polish Hill, with body and richness. It has lemon pudding
aromas with flowery and yeasty/bakery accents. Dry and savoury with lively acidity. Powerful, lingering and balanced. Up to 2010. £16.99; BBR, DBy, F&M, Hnd, HvN
Nowhere else in the world is there a wine quite so luscious, so decadent as Rutherglen ‘liqueur’ Muscat. Nowhere does red Frontignac achieve such amazing sugar concentrations and yield such mesmerising juice. The reason this only modestly fashionable, great dessert wine is possible is the region’s weather. Cool nights and hot days in summer, then a long, warm, dry autumn and a late ‘break’ permit the Muscat grapes to hang late on the vines, without risk of fungal disease. They achieve very high sugars, with 17–20? Baumé normal and 27? or more possible in the best years. Great fruit, with the help of ancient blending stocks, allow wineries such as Morris, Chambers and Campbells to produce dizzyingly heady old blends that are now expensive and sought-after worldwide.
Morris, Old Premium Liqueur Muscat *****
This sweet, fortified Muscat combines the fresh grapiness of youthful wine with depth and complexity. It smells of raisins, Muscatel, honey and roasted nuts, with a hint of leather furniture. Rich and luscious. £38; FFW
Margaret River has deservedly sprung from nowhere to establish itself as one of the world’s great wine regions. But the best red grapes come from the sub-region where it all began: Willyabrup.
The first Vasse Felix vines went into the low-fertility, buckshot-gravelly, ironstone-based soil in 1967. The Cullen family planted there in 1971; Moss Wood in 1969, all within a few kilometres of one another. And while Leeuwin Estate and Cape Mentelle went further south to the cooler area between Wallcliffe and Margaret River township, Pierro, Sandalford, Evans & Tate, Lenton Brae, Ashbrook and Ribbonvale piled into Willyabrup. As did many more.
Not all these names always produce great Cabernet, but Moss Wood and Cullen do. It has to do with unirrigated vines, and low-vigour sites, where the soil is poor – but still able to sustain vines in dry seasons in a heavily winter-dominant rainfall area, without irrigation. The best Willyabrup Cabernet-based reds have a riper spectrum of flavours and a fleshy, concentrated, yet silky richness that distinguishes them from their peers.
Moss Wood, Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 ****
Perhaps not an outstanding vintage, yet undeniably concentrated, smelling of ripe blackberry with hints of anise and violet. Soft, rich and full bodied. 2005–2015. £35; Lay
Huon Hooke is the co-author of The Penguin Good Australian Wine Guide, £6.99