On his way back down south for another vintage David Pike turns his mind to the weighty topic of the emergence of regionality in WA’s wine growing centres.
ALTHOUGH vintage has not started just yet in Margaret River I have decided to pop into my work place of last vintage and start getting my hands dirty and familiarising myself with the winery equipment again.
As I was driving down to Devils Lair I took the long way around via Manjimup, Pemberton and up through Southern Margaret River and it got me thinking about regionality and terroir and how important I believe it is starting to become.
In recent times many wineries have shifted their winemaking emphasis from the winery back to the vineyard. With greater importance placed on vineyard management we have seen many more controls being introduced, and wine makers have discovered an intensity of fruit flavours in specific vineyard sites. Techniques such as integrated pest management have reduced the amount of chemical sprays by introducing natural predators such as Guinea Fowl to prey on unfriendly vineyard pests. Viticulturists use other methods such as shoot thinning and leaf plucking to let individual vines express themselves with intensity of flavour.
This move back into the vineyard has helped to increase the focus on specific regions, or as the French call it, ‘terroir’.
The term terroir, regionality or site expression has only really just begun to be fully explored within vineyards around Australia. In the mid 1990s a committee was formed to develop the concept of geographical indicators (GIs) that protect the integrity of regional names.
It is the Australian equivalent to the Appellation System in France that prevents the use of generic terms such as burgundy, champagne and chablis.
The Appellation System was first mooted in the post-Phylloxera times in France in the 1920s.
Most producers had to replant vines following the widespread destruction of vineyards, and a few rouge producers were tempted to bring wine from outside the traditional areas and pass it off as Burgundy or Rhone wine, for example.
In response, producers in Chateauneuf du Pape created a set of rules governing all wines labelled as Chateauneuf du Pape.
This led to the broader Appellation System, a set of rules covering geographical limits, density of plantings, pruning standards, yields, varieties, laboratory standards, vineyard practices and a mandatory tasting of product by a certified panel.
Meeting these credentials allowed producers to include AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlle) on their labels.
In Australia the system is more flexible. GIs define an Australian wine zone, region or sub region, however, unlike producers in France, local producers are still able to blend across regions.
However, to specify regionality, such as Margaret River or Wilyabrup, the wine must contain at least 85 per cent of fruit from within that region.
The concentration on regionality is gaining momentum.
It is a way of ensuring the qualities of regions are recognised and not corrupted.
Many wineries are looking to protect their region-specific wines and this has resulted in several site-specific and even vineyard-specific wines.
Increased attention to viticulture has identified that a number of grape varieties are performing better in region-specific or even site-specific situations.
This increased awareness has led producers to rethink the viability of some varieties. A kind of natural selection process has seen the demise of marginal performers, such as pinot noir in Margaret River.
Winemakers have been active in sourcing fruit from specific sites to enhance the quality of their wines.
Many of these wines take on individual personalities from their specific sites. They display characteristics that are typical of regions, yet stylistically are quite often very different.
In the Great Southern, where the climate is cool, the summers provide vines with a long ripening period and the wines tend to be tighter in structure.
The region has enjoyed tremendous success with the seductive charms of shiraz – it is arguably the variety that has single-handedly lifted the region’s profile over the past few years.
There are a diverse range of shiraz styles across the region yet they display similarities in acid structure, spice and spectrum of fruit. Rainfall, temperature and soil types affect the overall balance of the shiraz style.
Cabernet sauvignon from the Great Southern is underrated and holds a bright potential. Again there is a long ripening season that allows the grapes to ripen at lower baume levels and retain a slightly higher acid level.
A long succession of very good vintages in Margaret River has further enhanced its reputation as a region with an ideal grape-growing climate. Warmer summers with a coastal influence allow a long, even ripening period.
Margaret River is traditionally a strong cabernet performing region. The cabernet-based wines are refined yet powerful, with layered tannins, balanced acid structures and ripe fruits.
Shiraz has never been a variety widely associated with Margaret River, however, the past few vintages have suggested that it has a bright future there.
Displaying concentrated plummy fruits with touches of spice and anise, the wines tend to be texturally ripe and fleshy with a layered tannin structure that complements the natural acidity in the wine.
The site expressions of shiraz will be further re-vealed in coming years.
Wineries such as Howard Park, Frankland Estate and Houghton are among those that are portraying the essence of terrior in regional or site-specific labled wines.
It is a trend that is gaining momentum with individual regional producers and, in part, will serve to increase the awareness of a region if several producers could get together and be portrayed for a single variety that is excelling in their region.
Clare Valley rielsing is one such example, but there is no reason why the Great Southern could not approach shiraz in the same way.
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