Enfants Terroirbles

The French may believe they’re the only ones that understand terroir. ADAM LECHMERE meets a new breed of Aussie winemaker challenging that notion

Allister Ashmead, the cerebral director and assistant winemaker at Elderton in the Barossa Valley, is being instructed as to the meaning of the word ‘terroir’ by a French visitor. ‘It is a unique word in that it has no translation in English,’ the visitor concludes. ‘Unique, yeah?’ replies Ashmead. ‘What about soufflé then? How do you translate that?’

The exchange encapsulates the difference in attitude between Aussies and French. Many French winemakers feel only they appreciate terroir. Australians either don’t have it, or if they are lucky enough to have it, they don’t understand it. Many subscribe to the view of the mayor of Beaune, who characterised the relationship between France and the rest of the world as ‘like terroir versus McDonald’s’.

But while the Old World dismisses Australia as a mass-producer of factory wine, in Barossa there’s a new generation working to put the region on the terroir map. This is the generation that is striving to move Australian wine onto its next great phase: appellations.

The irony is that, originally, Australia founded its success on basic, simple wines with a basic, simple message. You knew what you were getting with generic Australian Chardonnay or Shiraz. More recently, certain regions have established themselves as home to more individual wines: Margaret River Cabernet, Eden Valley Riesling. Now, with typically Australian despatch, a new generation of ambitious young winemakers is moving things on and gaining recognition for their dedication to regionality and terroir.

While the older wineries’ priority is to supply their considerable customer bases with consistent, high-quality wines, these young winemakers are pioneers with three watchwords: experiment, experiment, experiment. Their urge to establish niche regions comes with a recognition that viticulture on the world’s oldest continent is still in its infancy. ‘Is Barossa the right place to grow Cabernet, or Chardonnay?’ they ask. ‘Or Tempranillo, or Barbera?’

The remarkable thing about this part of Australia is the speed with which the ground shifts. Four or five years ago the wine press was full of features about a ‘new generation’ in Barossa – David Powell at Torbreck, Rolf Binder at Veritas, Chris Ringland at Three Rivers. These guys were pulling away from the traditional fruit-laden Shiraz (still produced in vast quantities) and crafting powerful, alcoholic, dense reds that got noticed by Robert Parker and made headlines around the world.

Today, you have the likes of Pete Clark and Andrew Wardlaw at Tin Shed handmaking delicate, minerally Rieslings (wild ferment, no filtration) that have been described as some of the best in Australia. ‘The terroir here in Eden Valley is radically different to the valley floor,’ Clark says. ‘It’s cool and windy – and as diverse as Alsace.’

Meanwhile, winemakers such as Paul Lindner at Langmeil are pushing their ancient Grenache vines to the limits and coming up with the sort of wine that can only be described as ‘massive’, with great jagged mouthfuls of tannin, pepper, spoonfuls of blackberries, all weighing in at a hefty 15.8% alcohol.

At the end of any tasting in Barossa they will pull out something that ‘will rip your teeth out and kick them down the street’, as one winemaker eloquently described the tannins in his own mega-wine. Rather than expressly trying to concoct huge tannins and alcohol, they are simply trying to see what the grape will do and how big the wine will go before it turns into gravel-textured port.

Experimentation

Every major winery has a young winemaker sitting impatiently in the yard with a truckload of grapes in urgent need of a press to put them in. Snooping around Veritas with Rolf Binder, I spy a basket press in among all the spanking new pneumatics. ‘Oh, Kym uses that,’ Binder says.

That would be Kym Teusner, Binder’s assistant winemaker, whose Avatar and Joshua – both fresh, spicy Rhône blends – can be found on the shelves at trendy Barossa restaurant Barr-Vinum, owned by Hallett founder Bob Maclean. Teusner makes just 500 cases of each in his spare time, and they’re sold around the world.

Similarly, Dan Standish, David Powell’s much-respected second-in-command at Torbreck, makes his own Standish Shiraz from 87-year-old vines. It had Robert Parker reaching for his thesaurus. ‘Fabulous’ and ‘spectacular’ were just two of the more restrained adjectives the Maryland guru used in giving it 92 points.

At Barr-Vinum, young winemakers have (very) long lunches and swap ideas. What they talk about most of all is regionality. Standish is thinking hard about this one. In six months he will have put together a committee of like-minded professionals to discuss ways of setting up an appellation system. ‘We’re talking long-term,’ he says. ‘We know the kind of resistance we’ll meet.’

Long-term means 25 to 50 years, to get sub-regions like Kalimna, Moppa Springs and Great Western delineated, to formalise experimentation, write label regulations, and work out a system to formalise vine age (ancient vines are Australia’s unique selling proposition when it comes to quality).

‘I don’t think you should grow Chardonnay in Barossa,’ Standish says. He doesn’t want to legislate against it, but he wants a body of research with real weight that would prove there are grapes better suited to the terroir.

So did Standish open a few bottles of Shiraz when he read Parker’s verdict? ‘Not really,’ he says. ‘I would have preferred not to get the Parker points for such small production wines.’

Parker points are a double-edged sword. Some of Barossa’s old guard feel the magic touch of the critic can be similar to building your house on sand.

Charlie Melton, whose Charles Melton wines are among Barossa’s most sought-after, says you have to put in the hard slog of selling door to door to get a solid basis for your business.

‘If you get 95 points from Robert Parker with your first effort, you don’t need to go out and sell the stuff. The Americans lap it up and then you think that’s all you need to become famous.’ Wolf Blass said the same. ‘The little guys are going to find it difficult if they don’t get 95 points next year.’

Standish, Teusner and others are no dilettantes, however. They will often talk about sales before they mention soil profiles. You imagine they picked up the nuts and bolts of international marketing before they learnt to walk. Kym Teusner has outlets in a dozen key cities around the world. The story is the same no matter how small the production. ‘If you want to guarantee interest abroad, only give them two dozen bottles,’ says Ben Glaetzer.

Glaetzer is the perfect example of this new coterie of winemaker-entrepreneurs. He works with his father Colin at the family winery high above Tanunda. He has also used Barossa Vintners, the Glaetzer cooperative/consultancy, to turn himself into a sort of Barossan Michel Rolland, vinifying and consulting for up to 30 different producers at once. Barossa Vintners has 40 open-top fermenters with a combined capacity of 10,000 tonnes. It’s a well-established business, but what is interesting is how Glaetzer has transformed it.

‘Five years ago, 85% of our business was with large wineries: Southcorp, Beringer, Orlando, Burge,’ Ben says. ‘Now we don’t do any bulk processing. I’ve carved up the customer base, rejected a few clients and aimed to lift the quality of those labels we make for.’

One of his clients is Joe Ceravolo, who has grown grapes on his St Andrews Estate on the Adelaide Plains for 25 years. He went to Glaetzer when he decided to make wine for himself. Glaetzer makes the wine or advises, and gives marketing assistance. Clients pay on a tiered basis, at around Au$550 per tonne. Glaetzer has shares in, or owns, a handful of the companies involved.

It’s a unique set-up, and it exploits the experience of its members to the full. Ceravolo, for example, knows international markets. ‘Joe has more input into how it’s selling than how it’s made,’ Colin says. ‘He’ll come back and say things like “The Shiraz is a bit tannic for the Swiss market”.’

Another cooperative is Eden Valley Wines, formed from the defunct winery of the same name. The EVW label fronts 12 producers and growers, most or all of whose grapes go into the wines – so far a Riesling and a Shiraz – made by Stephen Henschke and Jim Irvine.

With grapes sourced from several different wineries, the wines ‘give a character of the valley’, says Richard Sheedy of Glen Eldon, whose grapes go into EVW. As for the relationship with elder statesmen Henschke and Irvine, Sheedy says ‘their word is final’.

The willingness to give footholds to anyone wanting to make their mark takes different forms. Orlando’s head winemaker Phil Laffer ‘keeps a corner of the Riesling vineyards to give to young winemakers to do what they want.’

The great advantage of this kind of informal arrangement is that the ‘apprentice’ can experiment as much as he feels is reasonable, taking on the challenge of defining and understanding terroir and regionality.

Few doubt that regional rather than varietal labelling is the way forward, but the most common belief is that it will evolve rather than be imposed. ‘I would be nervous about an AC or any kind of mandate,’ says Yalumba winemaking director Brian Walsh. ‘But sub-regions will evolve naturally. We all have to keep polishing our act and it has to be regionally defined.’

How consumer buying habits will change is another matter. A generation raised on mass-produced, uncomplicated wines is not going to take easily to the idea of Australian terroir. Many believe regional labelling should be approached with caution. Wolf Blass winemaker Chris Hatcher warns against ‘screwing everything up by trying to go exclusively down one route’ – terroir that is – while Decanter columnist Hugh Johnson doubts ‘if the world is ready for grown-up Australian appellations’.

‘We’ve got to re-educate people,’ says Jonathan Scott of the Australian Wine Export Council. ‘We’ve got to make wine unfamiliar again.’ It’s a huge job, but one that has to be taken on if Australia is to keep its market. Make a Shiraz, and any Shiraz grower in the world can steal your market. But if you make a Barossa Shiraz, it’s yours and yours alone.

Adam Lechmere is editor at large of Decanter