Finding the best wine in Australia
Glory to the Grape
In an issue celebrating ingredients, is there a more worthy contender than the wine grape? Not to mention those dedicated to bringing out its best.
There isn’t a fruit in the world more revered than the wine grape. It even has its own god, with Dionysus/Bacchus said to be the most cheerful of the deities. His divine role was to spread the art of viticulture throughout the world and he is said to have been trailed by a partying throng.
While Australia’s modern vines may be presided over by mere mortals, their commitment to creating the perfect conditions for their grapes to thrive is no less devout.
This dedication has its foundations in the selection of a region, which for Nicole Samodol’s family involved an extensive search. “We travelled across New South Wales looking for the best site and the Orange wine region was a standout for us. We were attracted to Orange’s cool climate and its status as an emerging wine region.”
Nicole Samodol and James Manny of Rowlee; Nicole Samodol in her Orange region vines.
In 2000, Nicole’s parents planted a vineyard on the northern slopes of Mount Canobolas, allowing them to take advantage of another of the region’s unique attributes, its soils. As Nicole explains, Mount Canobolas is “an ancient volcano that has been weathered down to produce beautiful basalt-based soils - deep red in colour, full of nutrients and rich in organic matter thanks to its previous life as pasture for livestock.”
Today, Nicole and her partner James Manny manage the vineyard, nurturing its grapes for their boutique brand, Rowlee.
Another appeal of the Orange region is its elevation – it is home to Australia’s highest altitude vineyards. Pip and Justin Jarrett of See Saw Wines have been growing grapes in Orange since 1995 and Justin describes the altitude as one of the region’s best features.
“The range of altitudes is a unique story on the world stage,” he says. “It allows us to grow different varieties at different altitudes and get very different flavours out of them.”
The Jarrett’s three vineyards vary in elevation from between 600m and over 900m, which, Justin says, “has allowed us to discover perfect growing conditions for each variety.”
For instance, their Pinot Noir is above 700m, while their Shiraz is below 700m. “There is less intervention required to achieve exceptional wine when you are growing it in its ideal environment,” Justin concludes.
See Saw grapes in all their glory; Brian Mullany of Grove Estate.
Altitude also gets a mention when Brian Mullany of Grove Estate lists the benefits of growing grapes in Hilltops wine region.
“The altitude is just right for reds and whites at around 500m to 550m.” To altitude he adds soils – “beautiful red soils”, and climate – “We are cool enough to grow great whites and just warm enough to ripen even the later ripening reds such as Nebbiolo and Cabernet Sauvignon.”
All of these factors – soil, climate, altitude – contribute to what the French conceptualise in the term terroir. That is, the qualities and characters of the finished grape are a result of the interplay of all the factors in its natural environment. And, of course, harnessing all these factors is the viticulturist – the human element of terroir.
An early start at Grove Estate; Richard Leask of Hither & Yon
As Richard Leask of Hither & Yon in McLaren Vale describes, “As a winemaker, you can enhance the attributes of your terroir through considered and respectful land management that then flows through to the wines you make and therefore I strongly believe the opposite to be true.”
Peter Saturno of Longview in the Adelaide Hills agrees, saying, “Of course, the way you manage the vineyard will certainly show in the fruit. It’s a fine line to help the vineyard along, as well as letting it show itself without harsh intervention. Lots of methods can help the vineyard speak of its place, from soft pruning to soil tilling to managing crop load.”
Brian, meanwhile, has a unique take on the human contribution. “I think the element that comes through is the struggle the wines have with the wine writers and judges at shows who struggle to see the greatness of some of our wines.”
“When the wines don’t rate,” he says, “then I feel for the wine. I know it’s a great wine, it’s just that some people don’t understand it. Now that is how I add to the terroir, some people just don’t understand me. Not even me!”
While viticulturists can be consistent in their management of the vineyards, nature is a much less stable beast.
As Justin describes, “The biggest challenge, as with any farming, is nature: frost, drought. An extreme climate equals great viticulture challenge.”
Brian echoes this sentiment, saying, “The most fascinating thing about viticulture is how easy it is to grow a grape vine, but how difficult it is to grow great wine grapes year after year. We are very dependent on nature, particularly in the Hilltops where we rely on natural rainfall.”
But, for many growers, there is also excitement in this challenge. “We love the variation each vintage presents,” Nicole says, “and we have an obsessive focus on quality above all else. This means we are prepared to sacrifice a vintage if the fruit is not exactly where we need it to be.”
Richard sees the benefits for the wine drinker too, not just in vintage conditions, but also in the effects of time. “Vintage variations take our customers on a journey through the years and growing seasons. The same is happening with the wines as the vineyards mature and develop different characteristics. That gives them a real sense of place and connection to our vineyard and they can watch the evolution of our single blocks over time, and every year is different.”
Adding to the complexity of vineyard management is that each grape variety has its own personality and preference for certain conditions.
The Rowlee vineyard is a single site divided into four sections with, Nicole explains, “our most prized vines grown on the higher elevation blocks. This includes our Chardonnay, Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir and Arneis. On the lower elevation blocks we have a significant Pinot Gris planting, alongside Riesling and different clones of Pinot Noir, which can tolerate and thrive in higher soil moisture.”
For Richard, it’s each variety’s penchant for particular conditions that brings them to life. “Shiraz I call Goldilocks as it likes everything just right – too hot and it sooks, too wet, it grows like a triffid! Cabernet is pretty stoic and strong and seems to look the same, year in, year out.”
Justin also paints a picture of contrasting vineyard personalities. “We find that Prosecco brings joy to the vineyard – big bunches, huge leaves, and Chardonnay is the child who doesn’t do well at school, but shines in the winery.”
For Brian, Nebbiolo is like a child who needs careful nurturing to reach their potential. “It loves to do good things, but tends to overdo it. It will overproduce and then we need to thin it and it just powers through to the finish.”
Brian Walsh (left) Chairman of Longview with CEO Peter Saturno; Justin Jarrett of See Saw Wines.
Peter is of a similar opinion, saying, “Whilst Nebbiolo is my favourite, it is easily the most difficult to grow.” To Brian’s point about rapid growth, he adds that being the last to pick, it has longer time on the vine and therefore exposure to more issues and elements. Yet, he adds, “Ask most wine industry people and they will say some of the greatest wines made today are made with the Nebbiolo grape.”
These viticulturists all have a deep understanding of the terroir of their sites and the grapes they grow, and while they may be mere mortals, as Richard describes, they deserve greater reverence. “It’s an incredibly intuitive and difficult profession,” he says, “with a large proportion of the wine’s final quality ultimately determined by the skill of the viticulturist. I still don’t think we acknowledge and celebrate them enough.”