Near and yet so different

We’re all familiar with the idea of regional wine specialities, like Coonawarra cabernet, Barossa shiraz, Marlborough sauvignon blanc and Mornington Peninsula pinot noir. And with a growing focus on regions, we’ll enjoy increasing numbers of intra regional specialties – like Andrew Seppelt’s wonderful shiraz-grenache-mourvedre reds of the western Barossa reviewed here two weeks back.

As we move into sub-regional wines – including those from individual vineyards within a sub-region, and even wines from a few rows of vines within a vineyard – we begin to hear the French word terroir. It evokes a sense of place and attributes distinctive wine flavours to geography – all the physical and human factors contributing to its production

While the notion seems far-fetched to some, there’s no denying just how different two wines can be, even when they’re made by the one vigneron from one grape variety grown in neighbouring vineyards. How can vineyards in such close proximity produce such varied flavours?

Terroir lies at the heart of the French wine naming system, based on regions, varieties suited to those regions and, in the case of Burgundy, a complex subdivision that finally draws a line around sometimes-tiny individual vineyards.

It’s easier to grasp the bigger picture behind that system than to perceive the finer, individual vineyard differences. Northeastern France, for example, is the domain of pinot noir and chardonnay in a big sweep from Reims in the north almost to Lyon in the south.

In the north, around Reims and Epernay, sparkling Champagne eventually triumphed as the regional specialty, principally because it’s too cold to make still table wine reliably.

While Champagne is a single appellation, the wines are not all equal. Behind the best wines lie the best vineyards – and these are officially graded, even if the vineyard names seldom appear on labels (though this is changing).

The best Champagnes from the best vineyards are unique. No other sparkling wine has the same combination of flavour intensity and finesse. Unfortunately there’s a lot of ordinary material parading under the name, so it’s a matter of caveat emptor.

A little to the south, at Chablis (the northernmost part of Burgundy), pinot noir drops out of the equation altogether, leaving chardonnay to make a white like no other in the world. Drinking Chablis has been described as like “sucking pebbles” – an evocative, if desperate, way of conveying its unique, lean, delicious, mouth watering, bone-dry character.

To me it’s the best value, most distinctive chardonnay on earth. And mere ‘Chablis’ does the job. You don’t have to move up the scale to ‘Premiere Cru’ or ‘Grand Cru’ (all based on defined individual vineyards) to enjoy the regional flavour. But the increments in quality are there when you buy wines from leading producers.

Further south, in Burgundy proper, chardonnay and pinot co-exist along the slopes stretching from Dijon to Macon, south of which the gamay grape takes over in the plump and juicy wines of Beaujolais.

Burgundy’s awe inspiring pinot noirs and chardonnays, like Le Chambertin and Le Montrachet respectively, make up only a small portion of total production. These vineyards are good enough to have individual appellations under French law. But even lesser Burgundies bear a general resemblance to these wines, albeit across a comparatively wide spectrum of styles. What’s notable is that there’s a general regional style and, within that, a range of distinctive sub-regional style, and within those sub-regions individual vineyards that produce superior wines over time.

Like Champagne, though, there’s a lot of dross trading under the Burgundy name, so it’s an expensive area to explore without expert guidance.

In Australia, too, chardonnay and pinot noir make a natural pair in our cooler regions. They’re the dominant varieties, for example, in Tasmania, the cooler parts of the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Macedon and even in our neighbouring Tumbarumba region.

Unlike their French counterparts, however, our winemakers are not constrained by rigid laws specifying what they can and can’t grow. Over time regional specialties emerge, often after decades of trial and error. But even where regional specialties emerge, unlikely varieties thrive on particular sites and winemakers continue to experiment, with both traditional and new-to-Australia varieties, typically Spanish or Italian.

On the Mornington Peninsula, for example, pinot noir has emerged over the last forty years as the dominant specialty, followed closely by chardonnay. Pinot now makes up about forty per cent of Mornington’s annual grape crush and the best rate, to my taste, among the purest and finest in Australia.

The Mornington producers have already noted sub-regional flavour differences in their pinots based on variations in latitude and altitude. But what’s more intriguing, and harder to explain, are the flavour difference in wines from neighbouring vineyards.

Over the Christmas break we enjoyed two sub-regional tastings – the Western Barossa, and three individual vineyard 2007 vintage pinot noirs from Mornington producer, Ten Minutes by Tractor.

The Wallis, McCutcheon and Judd vineyards are all, literally, ten minutes by tractor from the winery at the cool, elevated, southern end of the Peninsula. Each was planted in the mid nineties and each has had some underperforming clones replaced by better ones between 2003 and 2007.

There are minor altitude differences between the vineyards and variations in soil and aspect; but one vigneron makes all three wines using the same techniques and same oak barrels – suggesting that the flavour variations may be attributable to a complex of factors (yes, this is where terroir becomes a possibility).

Shortly after opening the wines, the two older male tasters preferred the Judd Vineyard wine for its exuberant fruit and power over the delicate, understated McCutcheon and the firmer more savoury Wallis. On the other hand, a younger female taster found the Judd wine overwhelming. She was an inexperienced wine taster but perceived quite big difference among the wines.

After sipping away for a while both of the male tasters preferred the perfume, elegance and purity of the McCutcheon wine, elevated the solid, savoury Wallis to number two position and relegated Judd to third place – a lovely wine, but a bit bigger and more obvious than the other two (we finally saw what our your female companion had perceived at first sniff).

We were getting picky, as all three are outstanding by any measure — pure, varietal, complex and silky smooth. Chris Hamilton from Ten Minutes by Tractor tells me they offer this three vineyard tasting at cellar door and there’s no clear winner. People are fascinated by the flavour difference, but each wine has its followers.

The wines are available at cellar door (see www.tenminutesbytractor.com.au) and at fine wine outlets.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

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