Monday, September 15, 2014

Terroir – A new take

A great deal of time and money has been invested by the vignerons of McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley respectively in trying to understand, and then explain to consumers of their wines, the different characteristics of wines made across their regions.
The Barossa Valley began gnawing away at the issue first, but over the past three or four years McLaren Vale has immersed itself – and its customers – in its Scarce Earth programme.  At the most basic level it has succeeded in attracting attention to the idea, and produced a region-wide map showing the bewildering spread of geological formations underlying its vineyards.
There are three problems with the idea.  First, do you map the surface soils created by the weathering of the basic rock types, or the base geological formations?  The latter are stable, and tend to have clearly defined boundaries, the former can be and are dispersed by wind, rain and human activity.  Soil scientists and geologists tend to dislike each other, it seems.
Second, two winemakers buying grapes from a single vineyard (let’s assume it’s homogenous) can, and most likely will, make very different wines.  Picking dates are one major variable, choice of oak (new or old, French or American) another.  In its early years the Scarce Earth programme specified that the oak influence should be deliberately muted, but some of the most recent wines I have tasted have had plenty of new oak.
Third, attempts to link a wine to its soil/geological origin in blind tastings have been spectacularly unsuccessful.  Why?  Well, the three problems are only half the story: aspect, altitude, site climate and site rainfall will be every bit as important.

So the Barossa Valley has added a different, and much more convincing, approach. It is the four maps of the Barossa Zone, within which is the Barossa Valley, Eden Valley and High Eden subregion.  The first is elevation; the second is mean annual rainfall; the third is growing degree days; and the fourth is available water holding capacity, the last the closest to a soil or geology map.  The maps strike an impressive balance between excessive detail and useless generalisation.

Barossa Growing Region - Elevation
Barossa Growing Region - Annual rainfall
Barossa Growing Region - Degree days
Barossa Growing Region - Soil

They were featured with the release of four entirely new red wines in the Wolf Blass red wine range, part of the 80th birthday celebrations of Wolf on  August 27.  They are all shiraz, and are called Estates of the Barossa Sapphire Label, each designated with a postcode.  The wines come from the four sites: Lyndoch in the south, Dorrien in the centre, Moculta in the east, and St John’s Ebenezer Road in the north, and are all distinctly different from each other.  Wolf Blass is at pains to say these are commercial wines with around 1000 cases of each made, and an RRP of $80.

Lyndoch (5351) has red fruit aromas and flavours on entry to the mouth, with bitter chococlate/savoury nuances on the finish. It has the lowest altitude of the Barossa Valley and the highest rainfall.  The Dorrien (5352) is much fleshier, with plum and dark fruits to the fore.  St John’s Ebenezer Road (5355) has currant flavours, almost cabernet-like, with great power and length; ripens three weeks later than Lyndoch. Moculta (5353) ripens another week later than St John’s Ebenezer Road, its border only one kilometre before the Eden Valley.  It has an earthy/leathery/savoury bouquet and palate.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Climate Change: Unsettled science or pointing the bone?

Wikipedia says that ‘moral panic’ occurs when an issue or situation becomes defined as a threat to social values and interests. There is no doubt that climate change falls in the dead centre of moral panic, whether you are a believer or a non-believer.

There is no better illustration than the August 2014 Australian Grapegrower and Winemaker magazine. Blaring from its front cover are the words ‘Climate crisis: special news feature.’ There are 13 pages on the subject in the magazine, most of which trot out the conventional arguments of those screaming from the rooftops about the immediate crisis.

By far the most interesting was a report on the Australian Wine Research Institute’s Dr Mardi Longbottom, who currently manages research and extension projects focused on greenhouse gases (CHG) and sustainability in the grape and wine sector.  She points out the global warming potential of nitrous oxide is around 300 times that of carbon dioxide, and that its contribution to global warming is significant even though its volume is small.  The AWRI has been working on a project investigating N2O emissions from vineyards, and preliminary results of the experiments show the N2O emissions from Australian vineyards are similar to those measured in Californian vineyards, and are very low compared to other horticultural crops.  Moreover, reducing N2O emissions of anthropogenic origin (soils release low levels of N2O regardless of any agricultural activity or soil enrichment) is relatively easy.

When you come to CO2, the plants, grasses and trees exist on earth only because of the availability of their food source, CO2. Vineyards are very effective in making use of CO2, particularly in a warming climate (let’s not get caught up in the fact that the globe has not warmed since 1997), but there are undeniable shifts in climate.

Dr John Gladstones points out that long-term commercial greenhouse practice shows that yield can increase without any loss of quality if there are enhanced CO2 levels linked to higher temperatures.  Taking this knowledge to the vineyard, autumn cropping, and winter pruning means a low carbon status in spring, and a need for the vine to utilise CO2 to maximise root growth, canopy growth and fruitfulness.  Increasing levels of CO2 should allow vines to carry higher yields, while remaining in carbon balance.  There should also be sufficient surplus assimilate to ripen the current crop, and promote continuing root growth through the ripening phase.  In addition, enhancing the vine’s water use efficiency should improve its stress and growth balance in environments previously too dry and stressful, and thus extend viticulture into regions with lower rainfall at fruitset and subsequent ripening.  The question then is, how great an increase in CO2 will be relevant and beneficial?  Greenhouse horticultural crops grown in an environment between 700 and 900 ppm CO2 need temperatures 2˚C to 4˚C higher than normal atmosphere to fully achieve enhancement yield and quality potential.

This leads to Dr Gladstones’ conclusion in his book Wine, Terroir and Climate Change, at page 199:

‘I conclude that the widely held expectation of a viticultural flight to existing cold areas is misplaced. Optimum locations for particular wine styles will probably change little over the coming half century. Any minor shifts will be into areas with higher actual or effective night temperatures, eg closer to coasts, to warmer soils or to slopes with superior night air drainage. Favoured sites in warm to hot climates will have higher afternoon relative humidities, most desirably from afternoon sea or lake breezes.’

Looking at the broader picture, Bjorn Lomborg, adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, is one of those who does not dispute that in the longer term, the earth is warming, but most certainly says there is no cause for panic.  He and others have made the following points:
·      The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that in 2010 the world derived 0.7% of its energy from wind and 0.1% by solar. In 2035 (with an optimistic green scenario) the IEA forecasts 2.4% wind and 1% solar energy. On the other side of the coin, and with identical time parameters, fossil fuel energy will only fall from 81% to 79%.

·      Globally, cold is a far greater contributor to deaths than heat. By mid-century researchers estimate there will be 400,000 more heat deaths, but 1.8 million fewer cold deaths. (Based on median IPCC forecasts of global warming.)

·      Since 1900 warming has resulted in a net economic benefit of 1.5% of GDP per annum. The benefit will peak about 2025, and it won’t be until towards the end of the century that net gain will turn into net loss (accepting the IPCC projections on warming through the century).

·      The EU 20-20-20 policy, which aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2020, and ensure 20% renewable energy supply, costs about $250 billion a year. By the end of this century, its cumulative cost will be $20 trillion, yet on a standard climate model it will have reduced global temperature by a mere 0.05˚C.

·      If nothing is done to control warming, the cost over the next 200 years is estimated to be $33 trillion, but GDP will run to $2200 trillion. Thus warming will cost 1.5% of GDP.

·      The percentage of emissions from all developed nations has, in fact, continued to fall since 1990, but those from Asia, and from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East have risen dramatically. It is expected these will peak about 2050 before falling somewhat by 2100, when they will account for around 60% of total emissions.

·      Kyoto set a target of 36.6% rise in global emissions from 1990 to 2010. In fact they have increased by 45.4%. With no Kyoto, the increase would have been 45.9%. Thus 20 years of discussions have had next to no impact, and the cost of implementing more stringent controls will far exceed the economic benefit of present green/renewable technologies.

What, then, to make of all this?  West Australia, led  by Margaret River, has had a succession of outstanding vintages from 2007 through to 2014.  For most in South Australia, 2012 was one of the greatest red years for many decades; indeed, Grant Burge poses the question: Best ever?  2010 was another truly great vintage, ‘09 very good.  The missing vintage?  Well, it certainly wasn’t affected by heat, just lots and lots of rain.  Southern and central Victoria followed in the same pattern, adding 2013 to the marvellous 2012 vintage.  And 2011 was absolutely outstanding for chardonnay.  What about the Hunter Valley?  It had a marvellous 2011 as the rain clouds parted and swept around it as they came down from the north; 2012 was typical with vintage rain (nothing new there) but 2013 was primed to be called the vintage of the decade until 2014 came along, said by those with long memories (or good cellars) to be the best red wine vintage since 1965.

Crisis?  I don’t think so.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


I was intrigued to read an article in Grapegrower & Winemaker online from CorkGuard Closures Ltd introducing SmartCork to the Australian wine industry. Owner David Taylor tested a number of technologies, and  - very correctly – determined there was no mileage in developing a synthetic closure due to elasticity issues and the scalping impact on the bouquet of the wine by polymers used in the manufacture of synthetic corks. He went on to patent a technology for coating natural cork with a high performance oxygen barrier membrane, using machinery required to coat corks automatically and in volume. I am intrigued, because ProCork, which has been on the market in Australia for a number of years, apparently uses a very similar technology, and certainly produces a closure combing natural cork with the synthetic membrane. So who has exactly what patents?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Penfolds icon and luxury releases: 2010 and 2012

Gilbert & Sullivan could no doubt write a ditty about the lot of wine journalists in contradistinction to that of police. Not only will we have the long awaited and much anticipated 2010 Grange, but a string of the best of the Penfolds red range from 2012.  I am salivating at the thought of it, the tasting – with an embargo of October 1, is to take place on September 23.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Penfolds St Henri

Spring lamb chops, barbecued asparagus and mashed potato seemed to call for a bottle of 1990 Penfolds St Henri, especially given it is ages since I have tasted/drunk that wine at home.  The battle with the cork was a case of resuming hostilities with the appalling corks that Penfolds has managed to put into its wines over the decades.  I really thought that by 1990 they had got their act into gear, but this proved otherwise: despite using a screwpull (without the frame, thus penetrating the cork well below its base) it simply broke in half and then cored out, the bottom half clinging ferociously to the sides of the bottle neck.  I now understand why Peter Gago uses two screwpulls (partially dismantled such as mine) when removing corks from older vintages of Grange. A super-fine stainless steel sieve dealt with the many tiny fragments (and larger pieces) left floating on the top of the wine.

Enough of that, I suppose.  Next to Magill Estate, St Henri has always been the most elegant of the Penfolds red wines, a legacy of Jack Davoren who despised the use of new oak.  In bygone decades, this wine would have been accurately described as ‘a Claret’, seemingly meaningless unless you contrast it with Burgundy.  Since the St Henri is predominantly shiraz when the term Burgundy was widely used in Australia, there was no pinot noir to speak of, the terms are obviously either obsolete or misleading.  Not only is the wine elegant, but remarkably fresh, fine and supple.  No pyrotechnics here, simply delicious old vine shiraz that escaped the Vine Pull Scheme in the Barossa Valley.  It was good before I began to eat, but really came into its own with the food, the flavours becoming richer.


Lunch at Oakridge yesterday was as good as the imaginative menu suggested it might be.  Ultra high quality at yesterday’s prices.  The Crispy pork pastry (technically extremely difficult as well as totally innovative) caught my eye, the Gippsland goat ragu with Yarra Valley Pasta pappardelle quite outstanding.