We asked eight top Australian wine growers to sum-up in their own words what it is about their particular 'patch of dirt' that makes it special when it comes to making fine wine.
Wine Society buyer, Pierre Mansour, says that the key to unlocking the potential of Australia's wines is understanding the geographical distinction of its vineyards. This might seem an obvious thing to say, and in other parts of the winemaking world this 'understanding' comes out of a legacy handed down through families and communities over thousands of years.
Wine writer Andrew Jefford charts the crucial ways in which Australia's fine-wine landscape is changing and the importance of terroir in his article Mateship with place, which we reproduce for members' interest here.
But Australia has some of the oldest soils on the planet and access to all the accumulated learning of their European counterparts as well as an increasing understanding of which grapes are best-suited to each particular soil type. Cool sites offering longer hang-time for grapes, deep soils providing protection from drought and old vines are often the key features that unite the regions producing the country's finest wines. The prodigious age of some of the old vines proves that the original grape-growing pioneers had a good nose for terroir too.
Here eight of today's grape-growing pioneers tell the story of their terroir in their own words.
McLaren Vale, South Australia
Hunter Valley, New South Wales
Chester Osborn of d'Arenberg talks about why McLaren Vale in South Australia is such a good spot for making premium wines
'Making great wine in McLaren Vale requires an intimate understanding of the many factors that affect grape growing, such as climate, altitude, aspect, soil and geology. While this holds true for any wine region, the diversity of all of these factors within the borders of McLaren Vale demand studious attention and a sensitive feel for the land. Multiple generations of my family have worked the same plots of land, sharing insights gained over many decades.
McLaren Vale's climate is of the Mediterranean type: warm dry summers and cool wet winters, with low relative humidity and relatively high evaporation. In McLaren Vale, the chance of rainfall or frost during the harvest period is rare. This is one of the reasons why the region is such a marvellously predictable place to grow grapes and make premium wines.
The proximity to the sea is one of the biggest influences on the climate of McLaren Vale as well as the Lower Mt Lofty Ranges which form the Sellicks Hill ranges and which border McLaren Vale to the east. The result is that hot summer days are moderated by cool westerly, southerly or easterly breezes off the surrounding ocean, and also the 'Gully Winds' from the Hills. This makes for a prolonged ripening period during which time the grapes accumulate flavour and intensity (and they help cool down the vineyard workers!).
Having a Mediterranean- type climate means there tends to be a smaller temperature variation. The average January temperature in McLaren Vale is 20.9°C. Annual rainfall is anywhere from 650-700mm. 150-200mm falling between October and April, which means that rainfall is winter dominant, though we do get some in the growing season.
There are numerous microclimates within the region, however, determined by variations in soil type and altitude as well as the various geological landforms. This means we can make wines using fruit from these different microclimates to add complexity to our blends.'
Chester Osborn of d'Arenberg talking about Viticulture
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Mac Forbes talks about the Yarra Valley, Victoria's first grape-growing district
'The Yarra Valley is Victoria's first wine-growing district with our grape-growing history going back 160 years. While generally considered a cool-climate region, the Yarra is incredibly diverse in terms of soils, elevation (50m-1000m), rainfall and climatic influences. Due to this range of influences, it has taken some time to establish what should be planted where, which in turn leads to the question of what grapes are most suited to the Yarra.
And the answer is almost as complicated. The warmer lower Yarra is more suited to the later- ripening varieties such as cabernet and shiraz with the cooler upper Yarra offering much more suitable conditions for the early ripening varieties like pinot noir and chardonnay.
In my own endeavours to seek out and work with sites that are strong in personality and character, it is paramount to find locations that offer better balance and harmony with the vine. Everything that we believed about the Yarra as a region 30 years ago hasl changed. The idea that we can grow anything anywhere has matured into a respect for site and the matching of site-appropriate varieties.
As a result, Yarra wines are more interesting and less dependent on winemaking for character. We are finally beginning to make wines that are truly individual and tell the story of the development of our understanding and what it is that distinguishes the Yarra from any other region in the world.'
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Bruce Tyrrell of Tyrrell's Wines on the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Australia's most northerly wine region
'The Hunter Valley is the most northerly of the premium Australian regions and the harvest is usually the earliest and the shortest in Australia. The climate in the summer can be humid often with high rainfall particularly leading up to harvest. We get our ripening earlier in summer. This is particularly important for our semillons as we pick them at lower alcohol levels with better acidity and ripe flavour. The strength of acid is what gives Hunter wines long life.
Shiraz is generally at its best at between 13% and 13.5% alcohol. The wines are savoury and medium bodied with the same ability to live as the semillons. Chardonnay also benefits from the earlier picking as it is very low in malic acid and lives long like the shiraz and semillon.
Yields are generally low so grape quality is good, and there is an inexplicable affinity between the terroir and semillon and shiraz grapes for which our region is rightly famous. White grapes do particularly well on the sandy, alluvial loam soils and reds flourishing on the volcanic, podsolic soils.
My family have been growing grapes here since 1858.This is the best region in Australia!'
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Vanya Cullen of Cullen Winery on Margaret River, Western Australia, a region 'ideal for growing quality cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and malbec'
'The modern Margaret River wine industry was created after a paper was written by Dr John Gladstones in 1965.
Dr John described a maritime Mediterranean climate where the equitable temperatures, moderated by closeness of the Indian Ocean, would make ideal conditions for growing quality cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and malbec. The ancient soils which are typified by granite and ironstone topsoil with an ironstone subsoil going onto clay add to this story of a great home for cabernet sauvignon.
Margaret River is a large area being 110 Kms long by 27 Km wide and is defined by the Cape Naturaliste on the northern end and Cape Leeuwin on the southern end. There are thousands of miles of ocean in between Margaret River and the next land mass which is the Reunion Islands.
What makes Margaret River unique ?
The evenness of climate, purity of environment and age of the soils… all these give great potential for unique quality wine with a strong sense of place.'
Vanya talks more about her region and wines in this short video
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Claudio Radenti of Freycinet Vineyards on Tasmania, Australia's most southerly wine region
'What is it about Tasmania's terroir that makes it special and makes it stand out from other Australian regions? The short answer is coolness of climate. Tasmania's cool, maritime climate makes it a very exciting place as it bestows the potential to make some of the nation's finest wines, particularly sparkling wines and those made from pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling.
Vineyard site selection is key and given the right combination of grape variety , site (north to east aspect, shelter from westerly winds, frost free in spring) ,soil (free-draining and slightly hungry as opposed to super rich and fertile), attention- to-detail viticultural and winemaking practices , the pinnacle of sparkling, pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling production can be achieved. Why would you want to make wine anywhere else?!
The sparkling wines are fine and delicate with amazing length and persistence of aftertaste; the whites are elegant, lively, refreshing and crisp with intense varietal aroma and flavour; the pinot noirs vary from succulent, pretty, lighter, feminine styles in the cooler sites to more robust fuller masculine styles in the warmer sites.'
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Ben Glaetzer of Heartland & Glaetzer Wines on the Barossa Valley, a region of rich heritage renowned for the quality of its shiraz in particular
'Wine has been a way of life in the Barossa since 1842 and the best wines of the Barossa sit comfortably alongside the great wines of the world.
Wines from the Barossa are distinctive in flavour and style, expressing the unique characteristics of the region.
The Barossa is home to some of the oldest shiraz, grenache, cabernet sauvignon and semillon vineyards in the world. Whilst an old vine is not a direct indicator of potential quality, these ancient vines are noted for their low yields and great flavour and intensity. Their root structure and trunk thickness encourage great diversity of flavour and character.
The soils in the Barossa are very old and vary widely throughout the region from deep red and grey clay through to sandy soil and loam. Each soil type influences the wine in different ways resulting in complexity when parcels from various vineyards are brought together. Barossa soils in general lead to full rich complex flavour, highly suitable for premium wines.
The varied soil and temperate Mediterranean-like climate in the Barossa are perfect for shiraz which is typically velvety, intensely flavourful, yet approachable with ripe, soft tannins. The relatively low rainfall during the growing season helps the shiraz build its intensity of rich fruit and full flavour. Warm and sunny days during the ripening period again assist the rich flavour development which often includes notes of dark fruits and chocolate. The cool nights ensure the grapes do not ripen too quickly, allowing them to develop balanced acidity and fine tannins.
The Barossa is Australia's most famous and recognisable wine region with this recognition based on its long-term reputation for producing high-quality wines, most notably shiraz.'
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Jeff Grosset of Grosset Wines on the Clare Valley, South Australia, one of Australia's oldest wine regions renowned especially for the quality of its rieslings
'Clare Valley is situated 120km north of Adelaide with a continental climate and vines planted at 400-500m-relatively high for Australia. The region is unique because it produces world- class, generously flavoured dry rieslings from some of the oldest soils on the planet (well over 500 million years old in places), while at the same time being renowned for producing shiraz and cabernet blends, some of these amongst the most outstanding in the country.
The fact that the Clare Valley can produce full- bodied reds and elegant dry rieslings has been a source of fascination to many. European riesling producers, similarly acknowledged for their white wine quality, who would struggle to ripen even pinot noir at their sites are particularly intrigued.
The answer lies in the weather conditions. A predominance of clear, sunny days, blue (pollution free) skies and a rapid drop in temperature at night due to the lack of cloud cover, results in good acid retention. Warm sunny conditions allow generous flavours to develop in riesling and at the same time permit full ripeness of shiraz and even late-ripening cabernet sauvignon.'
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Sandro Mosele of Kooyong on the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
An hour from Melbourne and surrounded by water on three sides, Mornington is Australia's only maritime vineyard region
'Essentially, Mornington has a very strong maritime influence that results in wines which can be very elegant but powerful at the same time. Surrounded by the ocean on Victoria's southern tip, it is a cool climate with vineyards grown over a base parent rock of Baxter sandstone and soil being duplex clay of sedimentary origin. The fruit expression is strong and purity is always to the fore.
Put simply, Mornington Peninsula is dominated by two main soil types. The first is found to the north and is a sedimentary duplex sandy loam over a parent rock of sandstone, this is where our Kooyong estate is. The second is of volcanic origin and is a deep red soil over basalt which is found to the south, the site of our Port Phillip Estate.
At Kooyong Winery we focus on producing domain-grown pinot noir and chardonnay of exceptional quality and the Mornington Peninsula region is ideal for this. The domain is composed of five vineyards, all located on our Tuerong property. Each vineyard has its own unique environment, which is reflected in the fruit it produces.
The most expressive section of each vineyard is used to make our single-vineyard range, with the best of the remaining vineyard area going to the Estate Blend.
The soils of Kooyong are distinctive. The bedrock found at depth is sedimentary: an ancient weathered sandstone dating back to the Ordovician period some 450 million years ago. The surface soils are sedimentary also, only this time laid down by a marine incursion which occurred during the Miocene epoch 5-10 million years ago.
Because the tidal deposition was relatively shallow and the site is quite gently undulating, it means that although Kooyong's soils are classed overall as a Duplex Clay Loam, different parts of the vineyard express differing percentages of sand, loam and clay. These differences influence the flavours of the wines from each vineyard markedly. Importantly also, the marine transgression also brought in granules of sandstone, sometimes encrusted with iron oxide. These sandstone and ironstone pebbles are found in great numbers in some areas, less in others.
The silicaceous influence from the sand in the pebbles imparts minerality to the terroir of Kooyong wines, and the ironstone where present adds further complexity to the wines, giving a characteristic firmness and masculinity to structure already present. Lastly, because the sediments deposited were highly weathered to begin with, the Kooyong soils are poor in fertility. This affords us good control of vine vigour.