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Variety or terroir – whose side are you on?

Innovation and passion recently presented themselves to me in two opposing guises. Which one do you most relate to?

Vineyards at Ataraxia in South Africa. Image credit: Ataraxia

Katherine Brown
, the third generation of family-run Brown Brothers wine group based in Victoria, Australia, is known for experimenting with grape varieties. If you’ve had Mondeuse, Tarrango, Cienna or Durif, or tried an Australian Graciano, Glera, Moscato or Dolcetto, then it’s likely been from Brown Brothers.

The family makes more than 70 wines from dozens of varieties, many first conceived in its ‘Kindergarten’ research winery. It also explores new vineyard sites, of which the family has four in Victoria and two in Tasmania, totaling 852ha.
The six sites span altitudes from 5m to 450m, rainfall from 345mm to 920mm and average January temperatures from 17°C to 23.5°C, with, naturally, a host of soils.

It’s a big operation, and with a big fanbase – for a key reason. The Brown Brothers philosophy is to make a wine to suit ‘your preferences, your palate, not our winemaker’s’.

For them, that means constantly bringing out wines of varying styles to appeal to evolving tastes, but not forgetting about loyal consumers who still want their old favourites.

It’s not an approach that all subscribe to. Kevin Grant, of Ataraxia in South Africa’s Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in Walker Bay, explained during a recent lunch that he makes just four wines from his 48ha (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, a Shiraz-based blend and a yet-to-be-released Pinot Noir) which, if you do the maths, is the same ratio as the 70 wines made from Brown Brothers 850ha.

His is a boutique operation – on the Skyfields, one of the area’s highest, coolest spots – and this ‘terroiriste’ knows every inch.

Many South African winemakers say they find more parallels with Old World Europe than the New World, and Grant adheres to the idea of specific grapes for specific terroirs.

‘The concept of one producer making eight reds and seven whites just in one area is alarming,’ he told me. ‘You can’t possibly have ideal conditions for that many different varietals.’

He said that giving consumers what they wanted was impossible, unless they wanted what you already had. And that means starting with the soil, not the grape.

‘You can’t enter the Queen’s Plate on a donkey and expect to win, even if you are the best jockey in the world. Ok, you might win one year if you pump the donkey full of steroids, but how long is it going to survive being treated like that?

Why not start with a thoroughbred to begin with – the best terroir you can buy? ‘There’s no need to do alchemy in the cellar if you are confident in what you have planted where.’

This isn’t intended to be a direct comparison of these wineries. But, it does highlight two very different winemaking philosophies, both intended to make consumers happy.

There’s no right or wrong, but which approach do you identify with?

Written by Tina Gellie

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