Delicately sidestepping the debate over the merits and otherwise of South Australian wines, NED GOODWIN MW raises a glass to the produce of regions less torrid
RECENT POSTS ON wine bulletin boards about the ageability of Australian reds have left me bemused. They make me wonder about the validity of the yea-or-nay claims in either camp. One thing I did note, pertinent to either polemic, was that most of the wines criticised as ageing poorly or flatlining – meaning to soften and change for a while before hitting the wall of ever after – are from the state of South Australia, though there are obvious exceptions, including Grange and Hill of Grace, praised by most pundits as being highly ageable.
We can surmise that many wine drinkers, Australian or otherwise, perceive Australian wine as South Australian wine. Given the warm to very warm climate throughout most of that state, Australian wine is seen as largely powerful, red, bumptious and rather high in alcohol. Moreover, South Australia makes more wine than any other Aussie state.
The critical zeitgeist of the mid- to late-1990s – such as Robert Parker and his particular taste for ambitious, robust wines of a flattering persuasion – was also responsible for these perceptions, with many of the state’s wines lauded as never before. Scores in the mid to high ’90s on that merry-go-round of speculation saw Barossa’s finest wines, for example, escalate in price overnight and land on top wine lists in New York and London. The Australian wine bureaucracy sucked on the yolk of hype and fame, failing its responsibility to speak on equal terms about cooler Australian regions and their diversity.
After all, regions such as Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Macedon, Beechworth, the Hunter and Tasmania – all privy to a diversity of soil types, climates and compelling vintage variables that evince terroir rather than a subsuming sunniness – were left hanging.
To its credit, South Australia’s bevy of premium wine regions, the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and the substantially cooler Adelaide Hills, provide us with many superb wines. The best are etched with a strong sense of place. However, Australia is a very big land, offering great climatic and geological diversity, with soils among the oldest on Earth.
So it’s time to take a look at Australia’s cooler side. Below are some notes that I wrote some time ago on two fine producers. Both create wonderful wines in the state of Victoria. Those searching for wines of poise and intrigue, and wines to nourish rather than to bludgeon, will not be disappointed.
Jasper Hill is a fully fledged biodynamic estate based in Heathcote in the state of Victoria. It’s owned by the Laughton family, who have made exemplary wines for just over two decades.
The un-irrigated vineyards comprise Shiraz, some Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo, Grenache and a smattering of Riesling, though Shiraz expresses itself across the flagship cuvées Emily’s Paddock and Georgia’s Paddock with resonance and force, and yet with a svelte texture and invigorating freshness, affirming that things are as they should be.
This is just as well, as the district’s ancient Cambrian soils – deep loams over basalt – are 500 million years old and demand respect. Indeed, they’ve been proven to be among the oldest soils on Earth, meagre and bereft of nutrients, yet geologically and structurally complex. This ensures that the vines have just enough (rather than excessive) water and nutrients to ripen.
There are no additions to the wines aside from a judicious amount of sulphur dioxide. Given the way that these wines are made, they sing of place with gorgeously detailed tannins, compelling freshness and layered aromas that reverberate across the palate. Time has proven that they also age well over decades.
While the 2007 and 2008 vintages proved difficult due to drought and water stress, the 2009 marks a return to greatness. It’s a wine that will age beautifully.
Julian Castagna’s wines hail from Beechworth, a granitic terroir at the foothills of the cool Australian Alps. The site, directly in front of the Castagna home, is nurtured with biodynamic attention to detail. Unorthodox applications, including cow skulls filled with manure, are applied to the ecosystem in the holistic belief that biodynamic rhythms encourage biodiversity, the foraging of the vine’s root systems and a healthier, more balanced vineyard, not to mention a less wasteful world.
This philosophy – a spiritual, ethical and ecological approach to the grape – is to be admired, for while its effects on the eventual wine are debatable among certain circles, the world has never been solely about that which is empirically “provable”. Wine is beautiful partly because of the abstract forces that allow it to speak differently each and every time we open a bottle. Once it ceases being so, I will find another job.
Moreover, if tilling the land biodynamically allows one to sleep better at night and wake up each morning enthusiastic and optimistic about one’s lot, then I’m all for it. I feel intuitively that there’s a certain energy that blesses us in our endeavours of comprehending that which is not within our immediate sphere of control. The Castagna family no doubt feel the same way and this energy permeates the household: kitchen, hearth, winery and vineyard.
At large, the Castagna wines are effused with notes of smoked meat, violet, five-spice and white pepper, all honed into a savoury meld of nourishment and verve by sprightly tannins. Acidity is nervy and marked, yet never shrill, while the tannins are svelte and ripe. The wines have great energy across the board, with the ineffable tang of the 2002, just hitting its straps, suggesting that many Australian wines do age well. Very well indeed.