Both Sides, Now

image“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” - F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s 4.30pm on a Friday and I’m tasting the new and extremely impressive 2012 releases from Samuel’s Gorge with assistant winemaker Tom O’Donnell…the promise of pulling the scab off something cold and frosty beckoning. The jocular nature of an afternoon gleaming with the temptation of knock-off drinks does nothing to diminish the intelligence of the insights offered. “The art of craftsmanship, that’s at the heart of winemaking,” Tom offers. “Our wines aren’t about single sites or one set of techniques. They’re composition wines.”

Terroir – making sense of things or confusing the matter?

An interesting place to end up after a visit last month to taste some of the 2012 Scarce Earth Shiraz wines. The Scarce Earth project is McLaren Vale’s structured effort to explore specific sites within the region with the aim of gaining a greater understanding of the effect of geology, soil and microclimate on the wines produced. Geology is prioritised at this stage and oak is scaled back, leaving the fruit in a state of undress. Transparency is sought. Given the fetishisation of distilled terroir amongst the vinous community these days, it’s an endeavour which should reap as much in the way of commercial reward as it does in terms of knowledge.

imageAnd ever since Scarce Earth’s inception in 2009 the wines have been good. My journey begins at d’Arenberg’s Eight Iron Vineyard with a look at three vintages of the Eight Iron Scarce Earth Shiraz. There is a clear thread connecting the 2009, 2011 and 2012 releases despite vastly different vintage conditions each year; earthy tannin, lavender and violet florals alongside purple fruits.

Of the seven terranes that make up the taxonomy of the geology founding the region, this site lies in the Blanche Point Formation of “Limestone Country” – and you can see some of that limestone in the image on the upper-right. Under d’Arenberg’s classification it’s in the “Beautiful View” subregion which we used to know as the Seaview subregion. You might begin to see an issue that I believe needs to be addressed sooner rather than later…

Under the old scheme of things (or at least the one I grew up with) McLaren Vale has six defined subregions; furthest from the sea is Blewitt Springs, with Seaview to the west. Heading south-west you’ll hit McLaren Vale which was home to the famous Tatachilla and Hardy’s Tintara operations. Directly south of Blewitt Springs lies the sprawling McLaren Flat subregion. In the deep south you’ll find Willunga and finally the Sellicks Foothills overlooking the beaches. It is one schematic to make sense of the heterogeneity of the area. The seven terranes referred to in Scarce Earth is another. Finally d’Arenberg have a map of the Vale listing just four subregions; Beautiful View, Blewitt Springs, McLaren Flat and the McLaren Sand Hills. It’s all beginning to look a little messy isn’t it? In order to communicate the appreciable and crucial diversity of McLaren Vale to consumers and visitors it would seem to me that at least one of these taxonomies has to go.

The community of McLaren Vale comes across as one of the friendliest in Australian wine. Divisions exist but I haven’t seen enough of them to suggest that a less convoluted depiction of what renowned viticulturist Toby Bekkers’ describes as “an artist’s palette of a landscape” can’t be agreed upon.

Scarce Earth – a work in progress

A similar experience of knowledge being gained recurs as I taste through mini-verticals from Scarce Earth producers other than d’Arenberg. Last year the 2011 Shottesbrooke Single Vineyard Shiraz stood out amongst all those bearing the project’s moniker as exceptionally pretty with white pepper, linearity and mouth coating chalky-stalky tannins. The 2012 is gutsier and the 2010 has put on a few kilos but the familiarity between all three is impossible to deny. They all display the hallmark elegance of Blewitt Springs and may well end up exhibiting traits that come to define the “Sand and Sandstone” terrane. It’s easy to see the potential benefits that may come in another five to ten years. And that’s how most are looking at it. As Cradle of Hills viticulturist Tracy Smith mentions, “there may have been a few who wanted instantaneous results but the majority seem to recognise that this is a long term project.”

Conversation with one of the co-creators of Scarce Earth, Dudley Brown of Inkwell Wines, has brought up the idea of the process allowing McLaren Vale to discover where its best grapes are grown – which blocks, which vineyards, which subregions. Ultimately this could result in an understanding of which distinctive patches of dirt warrant separate bottling…the distilled terroir treatment if you will. But perhaps just as interesting is the notion that certain blocks, geologies and sites that show attractive traits yet are not of the same quality will have their character mapped in detail, enabling confidence when they are included to add complexity and balance to regional blends. Terroir is but one possible way to approach wine and the current infatuation of consumers when it comes to the concept is a relatively recent phenomenon in this country.

False Dichotomies

“Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere,
I’ve looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun,
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I could have done,
But clouds got in my way.
– Joni Mitchell

The words of F. Scott Fitzgerald are used to open this piece in a deliberately misleading manner. ‘Composition wines’ and single site wines are not opposing ideas at all. Knowledge of one can inform the other. The excitement I felt on this visit to McLaren Vale lay in the informed and intelligent blending of Toby Bekkers and Samuel’s Gorge winemakers Justin McNamee and Tom O’Donnell as much as it did in any one site I visited or tasted. “For me terroir is just a fact,” remarks Bekkers. “Terroir doesn’t mean a wine is going to be good.”

I fully support these early forays into comprehending vineyards but I don’t feel that the concept of terroir deserves the kind of unequivocal valorisation that it is receiving in wine circles. A preoccupation with terroir as a sole end is a clouding of vision, a straight jacket thrown over possibilities. Taste the 2012 Scarce Earth wines, they’ll take you on a journey. Taste the 2011 and 2012 Samuel’s Gorge reds and the 2012 Bekkers Syrah and you’ll discover that the destination isn’t as obvious as you may have first thought.

“It’s opener, out there, in the wide open air” – Dr Seuss

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13 Responses to Both Sides, Now

  1. Mike Bennie says:

    I really enjoyed reading this; thoughtful and personal.

  2. Thanks Mike. The thoughts had been percolating in my head for a few weeks now. Good to get them out there and hear that they make some kind of sense.

    • Mike Bennie says:

      Vintage JP.

      MVale is possibly Australia’s most progressive wine region, certainly showing mettle in looking at where wine is grown, comfortable with experimentation, engaging with important concepts of sustainability, bringing community together. I see Scarce Earth as yin and yang, the ‘two opposing ideas’ so to speak – pointless and meaningful in a way. Marketing hype, questionable motif for the wines (and the 2011s I reckon for the most part should have not made a grade, but at least show vintage vagaries to an extent), but at the same time useful in cataloguing wine from the region, applied to site. Vogue at times moves us to appreciate style over terroir, and vice versa, but in the end, the fascination is in detail, over drinkability or pure visceral pleasure – something has to take it to the next level. The mapping of place in MVale, and the carriage of that information through these wines, should be applauded, foremost.

      • It’s certainly up there with regard to progressiveness. I love the dynamic model that sustainability officer Irina Santiago-Brown has developed and took the opportunity to sit in on a session of the McLaren Vale Sustainable Wine Growing course delivered by James Hook while I was in the region. No labels, no exclusions – just a community of growers dedicated to improving their methods and the quality of their fruit.

        I only tasted the majority of 2011 Scarce Earth wines briefly last year at a session with winemakers and media types. By and large I thought the wines looked good but I only had a couple of minutes with each. As with many wines from the 2011 vintage, I’ve found the differing reactions to them fascinating. A number of people find them more to their tastes than Vale Shiraz from a more typical vintage, others are less taken with them. Important to include them within the process though regardless of which way you fall.

        And yep, I certainly applaud the approach taken via Scarce Earth, especially as it doesn’t seem to set itself up as somehow superior to the methods used to produce other Shiraz wines within the GI (well, apart from the pricing I guess).

        • Mike Bennie says:

          Well said, and yes, the sustainability work is very interesting. Irina’s co-authored article (Transnational Comparison of Sustainability Assessment Programs for Viticulture and a Case-Study on Programs’ Engagement Processes) is lengthy, but worth the read – progression is writ large.
          And hope to catch you soon!

  3. Attila says:

    Scott Fitzgerald quote totally threw me. I’ve been thinking about the terroir subject in the McLaren for a while. Thanks for writing this article, very nicely done.

  4. Cheers Attila. That particular F. Scott Fitzgerald quote may be one my favourites….and there’s plenty to choose from.

  5. Rory says:

    great piece.

  6. Paul Starr says:

    Good stuff. The more I brew, with craft brewing culture being very much obssessed with style, less so with function, and barely at all with terroir, the more I think current thinking about ‘fine wine’ is very narrow.

    I suspect it won’t be many years before the current focus on quality = terroir expression (which is best done as single site + single variety) looks like a fairly silly orthodoxy.

    • To me the equation whereby terroir is essentially linked to quality already looks like a rather silly orthodoxy Paul, but I’m rather sensitive to reductive viewpoints and orthodoxies :) I do hope a more critical approach evolves at some stage. I can only see it being a positive for both distilled terroir driven wines and wines that operate on a different model. Specificity of intent and experience and the resultant diversity offers its own rewards in my opinion – there’s little need to get hung up on one approach.

  7. Paul Starr says:

    I’ve been meaning to write something on styles of wine-thinking for a while. The current vogue for valorising ‘wines of place’ squeezes out other ways of thinking and talking about quality in wine. In particular, the ‘what style of wine is this’ and ‘how would you use this wine’ questions that are key for consumers are disconnected from it’s-a-terroir-wine pitches and frames.

    For me, wines can reference place, style and function, as can the stories we tell about those wines. This is also not exclusive. We don’t need to put place on a pedestal as what ‘fine wine’ is about, consigning style and function to a vaguely embrassing bargain-bin category of ‘commodity wine’.

  8. Paul Starr says:

    In a funny way, cheese has this sorted so much better than wine. You can be making high-quality cheese and explain or pitch to market with reference to where it came from, how it was made, what style it falls into or how it might be used – or any combination of these.

    Fine wine discourse looks impoverished by comparison.

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