On Wednesday, The Sydney Morning Herald/Age inaugural Good Wine Guide’s Winery of the Year was awarded to Henschke, the South Australian winery internationally renowned for its single vineyard Hill of Grace Shiraz. Henschke first produced Hill of Grace in 1958, and the wine is one of Australia’s earliest examples of a single-vineyard wine. Today Hill of Grace has distinguished company in the single-vineyard category. Two thirds of the 94 wines in the Good Food Wine Guide’s highest “three glass”  category are single-vineyard wines. (Singled out for greatness by Helen Pitt, The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 November 2010)

Wine critic and Good Wine Guide author Nick Stock argues that “we need to be championing wines that have a strong sense of place – what the French call terroir.” The prevalence of so many single vineyard wines in the top ranking suggests that winemakers are moving in that direction, but what exactly does terroir mean and how is it best expressed?

Jay McInerney recently wrote a very interesting article about Nicolas Joly, the proprietor of Coulée de Serrant, which is a domain in the Anjou region of the Loire Valley making world-class Savenièrres. In 2000  Joly founded Return to Terroir and is a leading champion for biodynamic viticulture. (Mr. Joly’s Particularly Pure Terroir by Jay McInerney, The Wall Street Journal, 14 October 2010)

Joly is also a “fierce defender” of the French appellation contrôllée system, which came into being in the 1930s and codified years of regional practice based on the idea that wines should uniquely reflect their terroir or place of origin. Essentially, it restricts the planting of certain varieties to specific regions. The white grape Chenin Blanc, for example, is only planted in the Loire Valley where it is deemed best suited.

Australian winemakers face no such restrictions regarding which grapes to plant in the country’s various wine regions. Huon Hooke notes that “Australia has probably at least 20 regions that consistently produce outstanding Shiraz.” (Why is Kiwi wine a step ahead? by Huon Hooke, The Age, 28 September 2010)

But is the freedom to experiment with various varieties in different regions necessarily a disadvantage when it comes to expression of terroir?

For years, the best Australian Shiraz was associated with the South Australian regions of Barossa, Eden Valley and McLaren Vale. But over the past decade, winemakers like Tim Kirk of Clonakilla and Nick Spencer of Eden Road Wines in the Canberra district have demonstrated that cool-climate regions can make equally flavourful Shiraz in a more elegant style. So here’s an excellent example of how the freedom to experiment carries some advantages!

Joly argues that the best wine is made in the vineyard. “I really do almost nothing to the wine,” he says. “It pretty much makes itself. Press it, put it in barrels, that’s about it. All the work has been done before, in the vineyard.” Joly also believes that wine is unlikely to convey its sense of place or terroir if the vineyard is bombarded with pesticides and fertilizers and the raw material is manipulated by too much technical intervention.

Henchke, like Joly’s Coulée de Serrant, uses organic and biodynamic principles as natural alternatives to the energy-intensive fertilizers and pesticides. Indeed, many of Australia’s best wineries are incorporating these practices into their vineyard and winery management. Castagna, Jasper Hill, Cullen Wines and Ngeringa, for example, are all members of Joly’s Return to the Terroir.

As Cullen commented in its newsletter, Grapevine Winter Edition 2010, since adopting biodynamic methods in 2003, “the quality of wines has increased through having greater liveliness, a better balance between the grape flavours, sugar, acid and tannin levels, and the advantage gained from an earlier ripening of the fruit. The wines now require no additives and benefit greatly from having a lower alcohol content than previously.”

Perhaps strong evidence that using organic and biodynamic principles when practicable are important for producing high quality wines that best express their terroir or sense of place?

I admire Coly’s modesty in suggesting that his wine “pretty much makes itself” but I don’t think you can afford to discount the role of the winemaker in any discussion about expression of terroir. Tom Shobbrock of Shobbrock Wines and the Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine’s Wine Australia Medal ‘best new talent’ 2010 Winner, is a winemaker who employs biodynamic principles and like Joly practices natural or low-intervention wine making. But he is also one of Australia’s most innovative and experimental winemakers, constantly trialling new blends and varieties. (Tom Shobbrock by Huon Hooke, Gourmet Traveller Wine, Oct/Nov 2010)

In my opinion, great wine makers and great chefs have a lot in common. When blessed with the best raw materials they weave magic, and their results can surprise and sometimes challenge previous ideas about what makes a great wine!

Now getting back to the single vineyard, single variety idea as the best expression of terroir. Henschke notes that the Hill of Grace vineyard is “planted predominantly to Shiraz, but a surprise to many is that it also includes other varieties: Riesling, Semillon and Mataro (Mourvèdre), with Sercial now only a distant memory. But this planting of several varieties in the ‘garden’ as the old Barossan growers called their vineyard, is typical – a sort of hedging their bets against the vagaries of Mother Nature. The whites are used in Eden Valley varietals, and the Mataro… well, that’s one of Mother Nature’s later maturing varieties. It has gone into Hill of Grace at times, but usually it just doesn’t ripen enough.”

Some of the best wines in the world are blends of different varieties and vineyards. Indeed, Hill of Grace’s more famous competitor, the iconic Penfolds Grange, is, “the original and most powerful expression of Penfolds multi-vineyard, multi-district blending philosophy,” according to Penfolds. And no one would argue that Grange is not a unique expression of Australian Shiraz!

Certainly all of the discussion around terroir in Australia at the moment is important in countering overseas perceptions, in particular, that Australian wines suffer from too much technical intervention, and lack individuality and complexity.  But hopefully it won’t stifle two impressive attributes that have propelled the industry forward in the past: innovation and experimentation!

Photo Credits: Henscke Hill of Grace and Tommy Ruff Shiraz Mourvèdre, Shobbrock Wines