Big makers must deliver the regional message

Terroir’, or a sense of place, is the vocabulary of the fine-wine world. It’s the language of regions, their climates and soils and the grapes that work best in particular circumstances. The wine drinker’s fascination with origin progresses to the peculiarities of individual vineyards sites and the subtle differences of wines from various locations within a region.

Australia’s has ‘terroirs’ galore, manifested by the tremendous spread of our more than two thousand small vignerons and legion of independent grape growers. But in our conquest of world markets we’ve limited our vocabulary largely to a generic sunshine-in-a-bottle, multi-region-blend message.

This promises a base for our next round of expansion as we take our regional stories to the world. To achieve this, however, our big winemakers – those leading the current, but faltering, export success – must embrace the ‘terroir’ concept – not just mouth it, but comprehend it and take it to the world.

They don’t need to use the French term ‘terroir’ – and perhaps may better off without it even though we don’t have a comparable English word. But what it sums up for Australia is our tremendously varied regional and intra-regional wine stories, some just a few decades in the making, others stretching back to the mid nineteenth century.

The concept underpins all of our successful small makers and many of our locally successful big company upmarket brands – for example, the Foster’s-owned Wynns of Coonawarra. Indeed, for Australian wine drinkers the name Wynns, Coonawarra and cabernet sauvignon are indistinguishable – making Wynns a model of a wine brand, intimately linked to its region and the region’s varietal specialty.

The link exists not through slick marketing but through the Wynns wines enjoyed by Australians for almost sixty years ¬– what’s in the glass tells the Coonawarra story.

But after Australia’s decade of export success, the story of this fifty-eight-year-old brand remains little known outside Australia, even in our biggest export markets, the UK and USA. In the latter, said winemaker Sue Hodder in Canberra last week, the trade accepts Wynns shiraz because shiraz is seen as Australia’s special variety, but rejects Wynns cabernet, partly because it upstages American cabernets in Foster’s portfolio.

Meanwhile back in Australia the Wynns regional story moved on to individual vineyards earlier this decade – reflecting the fact that even in a flat, apparently homogenous region like Coonawarra, quality and shades of flavour vary widely, even over short distances.

The focus began in earnest after the disastrous 2002 vintage says Hodder.  A vineyard rejuvenation project, already being led by Allen Jenkins, gathered pace across Wynns vast holdings, spread across Coonawarra.

Allen worked closely with Sue, monitoring grape quality, and ultimately wine style and quality, across scores of blocks and even rows of vines within blocks.

The first individual vineyard wine that I recall from the project was Wynns ‘Harold’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2001, sourced from a nine-hectare block purchased by Wynns from Harold Childs in 1966 and replanted to cabernet in 1971. The block sits about half way between Coonawarra village and Penola on the northwestern corner of the Riddoch Highway (dissecting Coonawarra north to south) and Stony Road. You can see the vineyard by searching ‘Stony Road Coonawarra’ on Google Earth.

Eight years on Harold 2001 looks young, with a beautiful floral lift to the varietal aroma and a fresh, supple, elegant ripe-berry palate. It’s a delight to drink and quite distinctive in the Wynns line-up, albeit in the Coonawarra family mould.

What a contrast Harold presents to Wynns ‘Messenger’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. This is a fuller, riper, earthier style (still very much Coonawarra cabernet) from a 3.3-hectare vineyard planted in 1975 on what would’ve then been Coonawarra’s southwestern fringe. Apparently the block performs well in warm years like 2005.

In another different vein Wynns ‘Johnson’s’ Shiraz Cabernet 2003 presents a round, soft palate (thanks to the shiraz) with bright, fresh, red-berry flavours. Sue says the block always delivers these distinctive flavours in both cabernet and shiraz. The block’s cultivated history stretches back to the 1890s. Wynns acquired it in 1951 as part of their original purchase. Today it has 32 hectares of shiraz, planted in 1925, and 19 hectares of cabernet sauvignon, planted in 1954.

And from the ‘Alex’ block, located one kilometre north of the Wynns winery, comes a new cabernet from the 2006 vintage. It’s very deep and ripe with rich, supple, clearly varietal palate – an open, appealing style and a pleasure to drink now. It’s from a block acquired by James Alexander in 1892, bought by Wynns in 1982 and planted to grapes in 1988.

These single vineyard wines present some of the colour and shade of Coonawarra, variations based partly on quantifiable climate differences (Coonawarra’s flat but grapes ripen almost two weeks later in southern Coonawarra than they do just 15–20 kilometres north) and partly to less quantifiable factors like variation in soil types. And that’s overimplifying what’s behind the fascinating flavour difference.

The single site wines add spice to the core range which has also benefited from a decade of vineyard rejuvenation. The just released shiraz 2008 presents a beautifully fragrant, vibrant, elegant face of Coonawarra shiraz – medium bodied, spicy, supple and with cellaring potential, despite its drink-now appeal.

Good old black label cabernet 2007, made in tiny volumes thanks to frost and drought, is elegant, refined and pure in its varietal character. Its bigger brother, John Riddoch 2006, is all power and grace – a beautifully aromatic cabernet of great intensity and harmony.

These are all wines that tell their own regional story. They’re graceful, delicious and varied but have a regional stamp. There’s no marketing artifice, just an honest story of the land, the vines and the people tending the vines and making the wines. The evolving story is best told directly by winemaker Sue Hodder and viticulturist Allen Jenkinson. The role of the marketers is to understand this story and help Sue and Allen pass it on to wine drinkers. It isn’t like marketing fast moving consumer goods or even like marketing big beer brands. They’re different worlds and we live in hope that Foster’s might grasp it and take some of our greatest wine names to the world.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009