Australian winemakers aren’t exactly renowned for their lack of innovation or bravery in the face of viticultural risk. From the early pioneers of the 19th century who turned wild, previously uncultivated land into the world-class vineyards to the modern day pioneers of ‘natural’ and cool climate wines who are turning often-rejected sites of yesteryear into the stars of tomorrow. Even given this knowledge, however, I was more than a little surprised when at a tasting dinner of cool climate Shiraz and Pinot Noir in Mount Barker, we were presented with an opening flight of three different Adelaide Hills Gruner Veltliner. Gruner Veltliner is a grape I have enjoyed in the past; it’s bright acidity, plentiful green apple fruit, tightly textured minerality and capacity for both food-matching and cellaring, it’s a grape that has much to commend it. My surprise in seeing it wasn’t then from a quality perspective, rather than from a commercial one. Gruner Veltliner - in the UK at least - has never been an easy sell, in part owing to a lack of consumer awareness/understanding and in part owing to its austere character when young. This latter characteristic struck me as I tasted the three wines we were offered:
Adelaide Hills Gruner Veltliner - the wines
The Pawn: Typically, pale, almost colourless with shades of white gold and green. Nose high-toned, zingy, citrus and minerals which converted to the palate with the addition of lemon rind. Long, tangy finish. Hahndorf Hill Winery: Floral notes to the nose backing up the citrus, palate medium weight, touch less lean, ultra-fresh, spices, melon, distinct mineral character and wonderful, almost abrasive texture to the finish. Guthrie Wild: Powerful nose of citrus, lemons and a touch of lime-tinted spices. Some softer notes on palate, richer, slightly oilier, green apples, stone fruit and lemons. Powerful finish, citrus-drenched minerals. Very long.
Why Adelaide Hills Gruner Veltliner?
Technically there are a number of good reasons why Gruner Veltliner can be planted in the Adelaide Hills. The region’s soils - predominantly grey-brown or brown loamy sands with patches of sand, all of which are wonderfully free draining – are undoubtedly well-suited to Gruner Veltliner. Equally the climate is right for it. Being so elevated (around 450m-500m) the climate is not only cool but the diurnal temperature range can be extreme dropping from a summertime daytime high of around 28 right down toward zero on frosty nights which adds to the complexity of the aromas as well as giving a lift to the acidity. Technically a range of grapes could be planted in such conditions, so why chose the seemingly hard option of Gruner Veltliner? The answer came from The Pawn’s winemaker Tom Keelan, ‘Because it’s the right grape for this region.’ His statement was as frank and refreshing as the wines we had just enjoyed.
Adelaide Hills Gruner Veltliner - right grape. Right region.
It seems such a blindingly obvious thing to do to plant the right vine in the right region, but commercial necessities, winemaker obsessions and even traditions can often get in the way of this simple premise. Wherever you look in the world there are vineyards planted with grapes which are simply unsuited to the terroir in which they are grown. Burgundy has swathes of Pinot Noir that would be much better suited to Chardonnay, Veneto has huge plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that would produce far more characterful wines from Corvina or Molinara, and despite some vineyard owners’ enthusiastic efforts, Merlot has yet to find a real home in Australia. The prices and prestige that noble and fashionable varietals fetch cast an allure that is hard for property owners and winemakers to resist and is, to a certain extent at least, quite understandable. Wineries are businesses: Businesses that are driven by creative passions, but businesses nonetheless and in today’s fiercely competitive market who can blame wineries for seeking financial security?
Adelaide Hills Gruner Veltliner - no place like home
Such an approach to vine selection obviously has its costs though, not least in terms of the quality of the wines on offer. The world’s greatest wines are invariably found where the vines feel at home; one just needs to look at Nebbiolo in Piedmonte, Riesling in the Rheingau or Shiraz in the Barossa to see the evidence of that, and if insufficient sensitivity isn’t given to matching site and vine what extraordinary wines to we run the risk of missing out on? The rise of the so-called ‘international’ varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc et al – has already reduced vine diversity and subsequently wine diversity. In extremis it can lead to the marginalisation or even eradication of indigenous vines, something which threatened some of France’s Midi’s vines in the 1980s and ‘90s in the great grub-up. In Languedoc-Roussillon during this time a plethora of, then fashionable, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay wines were produced and these questionable siting decisions were reflected in wines of indifferent character. This ‘follow the money’ approach to vine selection runs the inherent risk that today’s sought-after Pinot Grigio could quickly turn into tomorrow’s derided Viognier. Given the lead times involved in changing a vineyard’s variety profile, and the even longer process of building a reputation and a market, it’s all too easy to get caught-out by the vagaries of fashion. Finally, climate change is also something that needs to be carefully considered when choosing what to plant where. Whether you believe in it or not, extreme weather events such as Australia’s havoc-wreaking drought of 2007 or unusually wet winter of 2016 in South Australia are real and their propensity to occur is increasing. As leading wine writer Max Allan put it in, ‘The Future Makers’, ‘The ‘extreme’ conditions of the past few years should perhaps be considered the new ‘normal’. Selecting vines that are ideally suited to Australian sites now and for the future then makes sense from the perspective of biodiversity and business.
Bravo, Adelaide Hills’ ‘Gruner growers group’
The decision by these winemakers to go with what they believe is best for their sites is to be applauded. Despite the challenges they know they will face in the market, their belief in the grape’s potential to create amazing wines on their vineyards is just the sort of pioneering spirit that has made Australian wine what it is today. Time will tell on their Gruner Veltliner, though given their enthusiasm and the wine’s quality I’m sure it will sell at cellar door, but from the perspective of doing the right thing alone, they deserve success.
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