Ramblings: Style v Substance (3 of 4)

A sense of place

If you accept that a sense of place is one of the principal pleasures of wine, then it becomes natural to seek out a variety of distinctive goûts de terroir. I would suggest that, historically, the Australian industry has chosen not to cultivate a series of intricate regional identities, preferring instead to view regionality more broadly or not at all. And this has often served us well. Grange, our greatest wine, embodies this approach to wine, where an identifiable style of the highest quality is achieved by using appropriate raw materials without preciousness with regard to regional origin.

I think it’s telling, though, that we have only one Grange, whereas there are myriad top French (and Italian, and German) wines that are inextricably related to, indeed that leverage powerfully off, their regions. As complex as are the rules relating to AOCs, their very existence provides support for the idea that a product’s origin, it’s regional identity, can be a powerful indicator of (perceived) quality. So whilst a 1er Cru Burgundy may not be a good wine, chances are one’s initial impression is that it might be.

In addition, the complexity associated with Burgundy’s patchwork of vineyards, whilst perhaps forbidding to a newcomer, promises endless exploration and riches to the dedicated wine enthusiast. These nuances aren’t covered up; rather, differentiation between this or that soil type is an inherent mark of the top end. Terroir is priced into the product, and consumers lap it up. Not that it’s purely a matter of marketing. The Old World lesson here is that, as a matter of course, we gravitate towards a more and more nuanced feel for regionality as a culture of wine production matures over the decades and indeed centuries. It appeals to our natural urge to overlay taxonomies and to organise what may begin as randomness. It creates a journey for us to follow. And, perhaps most powerfully, it creates the tantalising prospect of an ultimate wine — a wine that best represents a specific intersection of variety and region.

On the subject of ultimate wines, Mollydooker and its kin may represent the ne plus ultra of a particular trend in Australian wine. Broadly, this trend is represented by large scale red wines, perhaps high in alcohol, often limited run, historically popular in the North American market. They are often associated with specific wine regions in Australia: McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley amongst others. Indeed, they have helped raised the profile of these regions substantially in the international market. Further, some such wines have achieved the rare feat of conferring on specific vineyards (or even plots within vineyards) an amount of prestige. One would usually think of Burgundy when beginning to understand a region in terms of its patchwork of terroirs, but our hard-hitting red wine styles have been amongst the few in Australia to encourage scrutiny to this level.

What’s interesting about some of these wines is they combine an identifiably indigenous style with a sense of regional identity. They are, one might argue, sui generis, both authentically Australian and authentically regional. No matter one’s personal taste, it’s worth acknowledging they represent a breakthrough direction of sorts. And, further, that this future might represent the future of all Australian wine.

At the other end of the stylistic spectrum, there’s the Hunter Valley. The Hunter is well known for its Semillon which is generally regarded as a singular wine style on the international stage. Historically, too, Hunter Shiraz has carved out its own niche, occupying a more delicate, medium bodied position than our full blooded red wines. Despite possessing some of the oldest vines in Australia, indeed the world, the collective portfolio of Hunter wines is, to my view, short on insight into these individual treasures. This is why the work Tyrrell’s is doing with its range of wines is so important. By identifying especially notable vineyards or plots within vineyards and bottling their contents, wines like the Tyrrell’s 4 Acres Shiraz move us in the direction of a Burgundian model of terroir. The results, I would argue, are distinctively Australian wines that capitalise on their uniqueness whilst acknowledging the beauty of a fine-grained understanding of regional character. These wines, though they borrow an Old World approaches to region, could never be made anywhere else. And they taste it.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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