Australians break new ground in the quest to understand terroir.
On a recent trip to Australia food and wine writer Nina Caplan discovered some fascinating experiments taking place that take 'understanding your patch of dirt' to a whole new level.
An ancient land
There's nothing new under the sun, or the topsoil - as Australians should know, since their vineyards sit atop some of the oldest land on Earth. It is one of many problems with looking to the old world for guidance, a habit acquired by the first settlers to plant vines on this continent almost 200 hundred years ago, and a hard one to shake.
The Germans and Swiss who settled in South Australia and Victoria had hundreds of years of experience to draw on and their experiments, as anyone who has ever drunk wine from Barossa Valley or Geelong knows, were very successful.
This, plus the 'cultural cringe' - that residual feeling that Europe had sophistication and know-how as well as age on its side, and should be followed in all things - meant that even as the settlers became citizens, winemaking in Australia was very much influenced by the old world, particularly, as is the way of these things, by France.
Standing on their own two feet
Still, as Antipodean winemaking techniques have grown more and more sophisticated - and as the direct attachment to the old world recedes into the distant past - some of the most forward-thinking winemakers are starting to look away from the slopes of Burgundy or the vast winelands of Bordeaux at their very different, very fragile soils, and wonder what their focus on distant terroir has caused them to miss beneath their feet.
Why terroir matters
Variations in terroir have arguably been important since some Greek or Phoenician decided to plant vines on one hillside rather than another - or at least pulled one up when they noticed that the results were better across the valley.
Some of it is purest common sense - if your malbec grapes like dry weather and high elevation, then you'll seek out a hot and high patch of your property to plant on; if you have heat-sensitive pinot noir you may plant in a hollow or introduce a row of trees. It is also probably the case that vines have adapted to the place in which they found themselves.
Adapting to your surroundings
Châteauneuf-du-Pape reds are distinctive partly because, long ago, the grenache, syrah and other red grapes planted there found their roots warmed by the local galets (large pebbles), which trap the sun's warmth; the assyrtiko grape has somehow learned to survive on the volcanic rock of Santorini - and not just survive but produce pure and expressive white wines which trap an essence of the parched landscape.
For a long time, Australia's myopic focus on certain particularly prestigious parts of France meant that they missed out on this kind of mutual accommodation between grapes and soil.
Energy & determination overcome disadvantages
That and the country's youth, in wine terms, make up a major disadvantage - to say nothing of scorching heat, insufficient water and frequent bushfires. Not that you'd know it from the wines. If Australian winemakers can accomplish as much as they have through sheer energy and determination, what will they achieve without old world traditions to hold them back?
Taking the notion of terroir a step further…
We are starting to find out. A few Aussie winemakers are taking the notion of terroir - the idea that your wines will express the land that nourished them - a step further. Planting carefully and picking judiciously, one vineyard before another, is all very well, but what about tiny variations in the soil, or a dip that means that one part of a vineyard sees less sun than its neighbours? How can winemakers who pick neighbouring vineyards at different times be sure that the soil differences obediently follow their boundaries?
The answer is that they can't. Mac Forbes, who is such a relentless improver of his vineyards that each year, he bottles a few experiments under the label EB - experimental batch - has moved on from an obsession with vineyard ('if it weren't for single sites I wouldn't be here') to an even more microscopic obsession with sub-regions.
He picks one of his vineyards at several different times, depending on when the grapes taste ready, and considers the complications and expense justified because he is being faithful to the needs of his grapes, like a parent whose children have different educational requirements.
Luke Lambert, another talented young winemaker in the Yarra, also picks different parts of the vineyards separately - and does the same for different clones. 'It's the only way do go about things properly, I reckon,' he tells me. 'It changes every year, depending on ripening, just a matter of keeping your eyes open and spending lots of time out there in the paddock.'
View of the Yarra Valley, Australia
The scientific approach
Forbes and Lambert don't have the cash to make their experiments scientific, but someone else does. Doug Rathbone has been busily giving a whole new meaning to the notion of liquidating a pharmaceuticals fortune since 1996, when he bought Yering Station vineyard in the Yarra: he has since added Xanadu in Margaret River, Parker Coonawarra Estate and Mount Langi Ghiran in the Grampians, which makes The Society's Exhibition Victoria Shiraz and Billi Billi Grampians Shiraz.
Rotundone - the compound that gives pepperiness
Last year, in conjunction with the Australian Wine Research Institute and Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the Rathbone Wine Group sponsored a fascinating study of rotundone, a compound found in grapes that gives them a peppery character - so, a valuable commodity in places like the Grampians, which is renowned for peppery shirazes.
The study is dauntingly thorough, with pretty graphics detailing everything from elevation to wetness to the amount of electricity in the soil and the interaction between all these factors, concluding that their effect on the concentration of rotundone is important, and that anyone who wants healthy, peppery shiraz grapes would do well to pay attention to where they plant on the most miniscule scale.
Putting the findings into practice
Rathbone's wineries are acting accordingly, picking a given vineyard at up to four different points, to give each grape the best possible chance to express itself in the glass.
The researchers believe that theirs is the first study of this kind, and that it could have an important influence on wine style, if winemakers pay sufficient attention, but I'd say it could do more than that: it could lead people away from the endless, torturous organic-biodynamic wrangles and towards a different attitude to the soil.
Precision viticulture - the way to go
This is not to denigrate any kind of natural winemaking; I would simply suggest that adding soil mapping and other kinds of precision viticulture into the mix is a good idea. But then, ideas are one resource that Australia has never lacked.
It seems likely that one of these days, some of those venerable old world wineries may look across the vast distances that separate them from this cheeky upstart, and see something that's nearly as important to great vines as the soil they stand in: a willingness to break new ground.
Nina Caplan is an arts, food, drink and travel writer with a regular column in the New Statesman. Her father Harold Caplan was a great champion of The Wine Society and served on the committee of management for 11 years.
More articles on Australian terroir:
Australian Regional Heroes - some of our top Australian wine growers talk about what it is that makes their 'patch of dirt' so special.
Mateship with place - award-winning wine writer Andrew Jefford talks about the crucial ways Australia's fine wine landscape is changing.
> Find out more about Mac Forbes and the Blind Spot range of wines.
More articles by Nina Caplan.
> Browse Australian wines