Site really matters — it’s the vocabulary of fine wine

To wine boffins the names Chambertin, Corton-Charlemagne, and Montrachet conjure images of wonderful, though breathtakingly expensive, wines. Stripped of mystique, they are simply names of time-proven vineyards now firmly protected by French law and embedded in wine lore.

Not just the names, but the prices paid by generation after generation of wine drinker, show that once we move beyond beverage-standard, the enduring factor in wine quality and character is vineyard site. Hence, the emphasis in French, Italian, and now Australian consumer-protection laws on defining wine-growing regions.

This concept of region and vineyard of origin is, as Brian Croser puts it, the international language of fine wine.

In France, recognition and protection of regional and vineyard names came after the emergence of specialties – a process that took centuries of trial and error.

The French experience suggests that we can benefit as we narrow our focus from zones, to regions, to sub-regions, and finally to individual vineyard sites.  Hopefully, we can learn, too, from French mistakes.

While their very top wines remain models of their styles to winemakers around the world, they appear to have suffered commercially from abuse of great regional names (Burgundy is the classic example). And rigidity of regulation tends to stifle innovation.

Only over the last decade has Australia formally defined its broad wine-growing zones, and made solid progress on defining regions and sub-regions within those zones. But the hearts and minds of domestic wine drinkers are well ahead of the law.

If our drinking has moved just one step above Jacobs Creek or Lindemans Bin 65 we know that district of origin defines the character of the wine we drink. We know that Margaret River Cabernet, in general, tastes unlike wine made from the same variety in Coonawarra; or that Barossa Valley and Hunter Valley shiraz are generally two different beasts.

But what the French have shown, and Australian wine makers and consumers are now discovering, is that infinite sub-division of the best regions yields not just variety of flavour but bigger dollars for the producer. One chases the other provided outstanding quality is there in the first place.

Look, for example, at Henschke’s ‘Hill of Grace’. The late Cyril Henschke developed a following for the wine from the 1960s. Son Stephen took over in the late 1970s gradually polishing winemaking techniques while his wife Prue nursed the best grapes possible out of the impossible looking ‘Hill of Grace’ vineyard.

Century-old shiraz vines struggle each year to ripen a small crop of berries that make a most distinctive full but elegant red that ages beautifully and now captures the noses and palates of astute wine drinkers around the world. If you want ‘Hill of Grace’ now, best queue up or be prepared to pay Grange-like prices at auction — perhaps an indicator that ‘Hill of Grace’ may the ‘Chambertin’ of tomorrow, albeit with an Australian accent. But note the long-term consumer rating preceded any official one.

Many of Australia’s significant wines are multi-regional or multi-vineyard blends. But as wine makers — supported by growing numbers of avid drinkers — increasingly seek to isolate and bottle distinctive parcels from particular vineyards or even particular sections of a vineyard, the individual vineyard label is destined to grow in appeal and value.

There are plenty of examples of single vineyard wines. For example, the Rosehill and Lovedale Vineyards – established by legendary Hunter winemaker Maurice O’Shea in 1945 – excel at producing shiraz and semillon respectively. Now in the hands of McWilliams with the wines made by long-term Hunter winemaker, Phil Ryan, the vineyards produce highly distinctive, world-class wines.

Or, in southern Coonawarra on the Parker Estate, there’s a patch of vines that makes the best Australian merlots I’ve tasted (Parker Estate 2000 and Peppertree Reserve 1996). When winemaker Peter Bissell was making the Parker wines, he told me that the merlot on Parker’s vineyard was established from cuttings off Balnave’s vineyard. But the Parker block produces merlot ‘three times as good as the Balnaves stuff’.

Now this is on flat land that all looks the same to the casual observer. Peter says that the Parker vines lie not on the traditionally superior free-draining terra soils of Coonawarra but on a little clay pan. The vines struggle. They’re small, they bud early, they set a small crop naturally – and produce remarkable wines.

What all of these single plots have in common is the ability to make superior and distinctive wine. In the case of the Coonawarra vineyards, the remarkable thing is that individual plots may be apparently contiguous with other vines that don’t perform as well.

All of which suggests that as wine drinkers we ought now be identifying the great vineyard sites before the prices do a ‘Grange’ or a ‘Hill of Grace’ on us. It’s a rewarding journey, not just financially, but in the enjoyment of different flavours based essentially on vine behaviour in different sites.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007