Phillip White wrote an interesting article the other day on proposed changes to relax rules in South Australia regarding the transport of grape harvesters and other machinery and equipment from Victoria to South Australia, provided that they have come from a “phylloxera exclusion zone”.
For those unacquainted with phylloxera, it is the insect that laid waste to most of the Victorian wine industry in the nineteenth century principally by feeding on the roots of the vitis vinifera vine (the introduced European vine responsible for quality wine). It also laid waste to most of Europe’s wine industry around the same time, including practically all of France’s vineyards. The principal cure has been to graft the vitis vinifera to American vine rootstocks which confer phylloxera resistance. Such is the phylloxera’s longevity and tenacity, and resistance to chemical control, that it remains with us today. The primary form of management for non-phylloxera infested areas has been to quarantine infested regions from non-infested regions.
The Victorian Department of Primary Industries controls phylloxera by three types of management zones:
1. Phylloxera Exclusion Zones (“PEZ“): areas which are declared free of the insect.
2. Phylloxera Infested Zones (“PIZ“): areas where phylloxera has been detected.
3. Phylloxera Risk Zones (“PRZ“): areas that have an undetermined phylloxera status.
The following map (obtained from the Department of Primary Industries) is illustrative:
It is not entirely clear to me the distinction between a phylloxera “control zone”, and a phylloxera “risk zone” per the map. But it is interesting to note, as highlighted in Phillip White’s article, the proximity between the Western Phylloxera Exclusion Zone and nearby Phylloxera Infested Zones. Relaxing transport controls in this circumstance – even just looking at the map alone – seems somewhat eyebrow raising. Phylloxera entered Victoria in the nineteenth century through the port of Geelong, so that area is I expect not unsuitable for the phylloxera either. Victoria also received a reminder of the tenacity of the insect when the previously phylloxera free Yarra Valley was discovered to have phylloxera in 2006. A fresh outbreak was confirmed by the Yarra Valley Wine Growers Assocation in 2010.
Hopefully, the science and methodology in support of any relaxation is right. The stakes are however high. Even today, one occasionally reads of tastings of pre and post phylloxera Bordeaux wines, with the question hanging: were the pre phylloxera wines, from vines planted on their own roots, better? I hope that this question remains unasked for South Australia’s wines. The phylloxera appears both patient and hardy. It seems it can only be countered through similar means.
I attended earlier this week a natural wines dinner hosted by well known Australian wine writer Max Allen at the genial Montague Hotel in South Melbourne. The food and wines were good, and so worth mentioning, as well as the underlying premise of the evening – a practical debate on the merits of natural wines led by probably Australia’s leading advocate of sustainable wine.
While various more formal definitions might be bandied around (of natural wine, not Max), the general idea seems to be that it is wine made with minimal intervention during all steps of the production process. Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop MW cover the issues in detail in their newly released book, Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking (University of California Wine Press, 2011). In their words:
“What is a natural wine in this context? There is no strict definition, but there are common approaches that most growers who align themselves with the [natural wine movement] take. The chief desire shared by all is to make wines with the fewest possible manipulations or additions. Interestingly, the main emphasis among natural wine producers is on what happens in the winery; while many practice organic or biodynamic viticulture, some do work conventionally. Most commonly, though, a natural approach in the winery is coupled with vineyard mangement that seeks to preserve the life and fertility of the soil, eschewing herbicides and widespread use of agrochemicals. Natural wine production relies almost exclusively on yeasts present on the grape skins and in the winery environment to carry out fermentations. Sulfur dioxide additions are kept to a bare minimum or done away with entirely.”
I think the concept of natural wine does not seem objectionable. In fact it seems rather friendly and furry. I suspect that many people, given the choice, would probably prefer their wine without wood chips, excessive sulfur dioxide, non grape tannins, gobs of tartaric acid, bags of sugar and some of the other more obvious non “natural” additives. This is probably because they wouldn’t customarily, at least without phoning ahead, order these items separately on a restaurant menu. But there is a catch. At least in its drinkable format, wine seldomnly will appear (or survive) without human intervention, and chemically and hedonistically, many of these additions may help rather than hinder a wine. Thus, questions of the naturalness of wine, or otherwise, are somewhat fraught, for wine is not particularly natural – assuming, of course, as these debates often do, that humans are unnatural. Fortunately, this catch seems mostly well understood.
These debates, a bit like organics more generally, have a tendency to morph into a quasi political narrative, with good v evil cartoon like caricatures available for the key players (mass market homogenisation v artisinal anyone?) Me? I admit while I’m attracted to some of the fluffy sentiments that go with the territory of keeping products natural for the reasons just mentioned, ultimately, I am governed by the hegemony of taste. My local organic retailer who seems to prefer to prominently display rotten bananas is perhaps a case in point. Rotten bananas are rotten bananas, organic or not, expensive or not. Yet my guess is that few, including me, are close minded to the idea of embracing, or at least letting exist, wines that are a bit different or out there (perhaps nee faulty). So, I remain open minded, and yes, the splinters on the fence do hurt from time to time.
Being somewhat late, I quaffed an unnoted prosecco on arrival that was really quite good, and somehow managed to miss Adam Foster’s (winemaker of Syrahmi) renowned salami, which was hidden in plain sight. So, that is a highly useful start for the reader. Dinner instead commenced for me with an unexpected entree of chicken wings, Thai fish cakes and, I think, a kind of meat dumpling, offset by three really rather interesting white wines. The first wine was close to wine of the night, being a Domaine Meyer-Fonné Alsace Riesling 2009. I wasn’t entirely clear as to what made this wine “natural”, though I see that it was vinified using natural yeasts. Anyway, that didn’t matter, because the wine was glorious. A pure aroma of talc, citrus and honey was accompanied by long length, high acidity and a touch of petillance. Simply an excellent riesling (12.5% abc, Very Good).
The second wine, the Thierry Puzelat Thésée Touraine2009 (a sauvignon blanc) was a bit cloudy, and had, if I am to be frank, a terrible aroma. In polite company, one might call it “flor yeast” like. Another description is a blend of toothpaste and freshly cut grass. I can still smell it now writing several days later. It was certainly distinctive. The palate was better with high acidity, medium length, menthol, but was too funky for me (13.5% abc, Acceptable). I understand from the importer’s website that this wine was made “totally naturally without any chemical additions”.
The third wine wasthe unusually named Dandy in the Clos, Birds … No Boundaries 2011 from the Hunter Valley, a blend I recall (Google reveals little on this occasion) as being of chardonnay and verdelho and macerated on the skins of gewurtztraminer. Somewhat tricky for a “natural wine”, then. It was also somewhat cloudy. This wine kind of worked, if a touch simple in result. An aroma of musk sticks (the candy ones), flowers and lychees. On the palate, nice length and acidity. A generally pleasant drink that doesn’t overly excite (14% abc, Acceptable to Good). I wonder if it is easy to sell wine with this name.
The reds were accompanied, in my case, by a classic steak frites. Though I have never yet been to a restaurant before where I have been asked whether I would like my steak cooked “medium”, “medium-well” or “well done”. Did the “rare” or “medium-rare” get off at the wrong stop? Oddly enough then, I was surprised to see the steak arrive medium-rare. Accompanied were two flights of three reds. The first was the Pierre Gonon Les Iles Feray Vin de Pays de l’Ardeche 2009 (a syrah). Now, one of the more unusual things I have done was to compete a few years ago in an annual bike ride/race call the “Ardechoise“, which introduced me to the possibility that a hill could be so long that you could get cold descending it. The Ardeche however despite its proximity to the Rhone, is not well known for its wine. Adam Foster suggested that this wine was not eligible for the well known St Joseph appellation due to a technicality. Anyway, the wine had an aroma of plums, spices and confectionary like red fruits, and didn’t taste unlike a St Joseph. The power of suggestion. Its natural attributes were not discussed, though I understand from the importer’s website that it is bottled without filtration. On the palate, short of medium length, good acidity, plums and spice were there. This was a lovely balanced wine but is not a vin de garde (12.5% abv, Good). The second wine was the wine of the night, in my opinion. The Syrahmi Heathcote Shiraz 2009. A lovely aroma of plums intermingled with good French oak. The palate was classy and understated, with plums and very good length (15 to 20 seconds) evident. An excellent balanced wine (13.2%, Very Good). Winemaker Adam Foster described his approach as non-interventionalist, if only on the grounds of (an unlikely story) laziness. The third was the Foster e Rocco Heathcote Sangiovese 2010. This wine had a typical aroma of sour cherries, with good length and firm tannins on the palate. There was however some hardness to the tannins (13.5% abv, Good).
Undaunted, the third and final set of three wines arrived. Clos du Tue Boeuf Cheverny 2010 led the charge. For someone who follows French wine fairly closely, Cheverny was a new appellation for me. It is in the Loire Valley, with the reds predominantly a gamay-pinot noir blend. The light strawberry colour was perhaps the giveaway. The aroma was of stalks, cut grass and a touch of that “flor yeast” character again. Interestingly, Clos du Tue Boeuf is made by Jean-Marie and Thierry Puzelat (see above), so this appears a signature of sorts based on these two wines, be it terroir or the winemaking. I thought it handled better though in this wine. The palate had medium plus acidity, length, and cherry flavours (11.5% abv, Good). The wine was made from grapes that are grown biologically and made naturally without any chemical additions.
Next, quite an interesting Cotes du Rhone, namely the Renaud Le Clos de Grillons La Pointue Cotes du Rhone 2010. A typical juby, rasberry fruit aroma with a touch of deli meats. On the palate, medium plus acidity was accompanied by spices, length, medium tannins and a touch of heat (15% abv, Good). Despite its alcohol level, the wine proved quite popular. And finally, and perhaps poetically, we ended with a disaster.
The Bobar Yarra Valley Syrah 2010 (not shiraz …) It had an aroma of Sicilian olives in brine. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Sicilian olives. I just don’t like my wine to smell (and taste) like it. The palate was the same, except that there was also evidence of re-fermentation in the bottle. I understand that the wine is bottled without filtering or fining, made with natural yeasts, and sees minimal sulfur dioxide additions. This bottle, in my opinion, was faulty, naturally made or not (12.5% abv, Faulty).
Overall, what an interesting set of wines! I feel fortunate to have attended a dinner like this, where clearly quite some thought has gone into the wines. Natural wine or not, the vast majority of these wines tasted extremely good.
I think I believe in terroir, I do. Wines that taste of a place. An identification with stones, earth, soil, salty or foreign winds, fog and weather that all play their role in maintaining and augmenting this belief. Or care free holidays. But, for my sins, I am also somewhat rational, and wonder, and perhaps sometimes fear, that what I think is terroir might be explained by something more banal. A consistently good winemaker perhaps. Or some particularly smart viticulture. Or maybe the grapes themselves are behind it all. And this latter point gave me the idea for this article. And since I happen to like cabernet sauvignon, the somewhat less travelled path of which clones are used by some of my favourite Australian cabernet producers beckoned. Here I should note that I am indebted to the wineries mentioned for taking the time to answer my silly questions.
First, let’s start with something really obvious, namely what’s a clone? According to The Oxford Companion to Wine (3rdEd, 2006) (“Oxford Companion”), a clone “in a viticultural context is a single vine or a population of vines all derived by vegetative propagation from cuttings or buds from a single ‘mother vine’ by deliberate clonal selection”. So think plant cuttings, rather than seeds.
What then cabernet sauvignon clones are out there? Romance and clonal identification of grape varieties appear not to be correlated. Though more than a couple of pinot noir drinkers will know off-hand whether the MV6 or other clone is in use, a similar appetite for alphanumerics is not something that I have yet detected in those who enjoy cabernet. The main protagonists in the cabernet world appear to be the unhappily named C125, CW44, FPS12, G9V3, LC84, LC10, LC14, PDFS, Q390-05, R2V11, SA124, SA125, SA126, Reynella Selection and WA Cape Selection. And please don’t take this as an implied advocacy for one grape variety over another. My taste buds prefer the democracy of not being required to choose.
So, what can we expect from these particular clones? An article authored by Nick Dry, viticulturalist at the Yalumba Nursery entitled “Yalumba Nursery: The Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon Clonal Trial” published in the May/June 2011 issue of the Wine and Viticulture Journal (and kindly brought to my attention by Nick) provides guidance on more than of a few of these:
·CW44 is the first “Coonawarra clone” and was selected from the Richardson’s block by the Department of Agriculture and released in 1980. It is said to be a moderate yielding clone that produces good fruit flavours;
·the FPS12 was imported in 1991 from Foundation Plant Services in California, via Chile in 1971 and prior to that a selection from Bordeaux in the 1880s.
·G9V3 is from the Foundation Plant Services in California;
·PDFS is the “Plants de France Selection” from Michel Colomb in 2011. This is said to produce moderate yields with medium sized berries. A trial in Coonawarra in 2007 suggested it to have vigour, capsicum like flavours and quite good tannin ripeness but also quite acidic;
·the Q390-05 was imported from the Centre for Plant Health in Sidney, British Columbia Canada and arrived in Canada from a private source in France. A trial in Coonawarra in 2007 suggested it to have low vigour, small bunches, good tannin and flavour ripeness, and good maturity of flavour and tannin for its baume;
·SA125 was selected from the Dorrien Vineyard in the Barossa Valley and is widely planted in South Australia. It is described as a low yielding, early ripening clone that produces wines with good intensity and ripe tannins. SA126 was also selected from the Dorrien Vineyard;
·the Reynella selection is a mass selection traceable to the Reynella vineyard in McLaren Vale planted in the 1840s. It is generally low yielding, but can produce inconsistent yields from season to season and performs better in warmer years. “Mass selection” according to the Oxford Companion means “when many vines are selected to provide budwood” and “the identity of the individual vines is not maintained”. Logically, it is therefore a cost effective means of propagation; and
·the WA Cape Selection is a selection of 21 vines at Houghtons in the late 1960s originally sourced from selections from South Africa more than 100 years ago. A trial in Coonawarra in 2007 suggested more acid than tannin, good growth habit and low vigour.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly from a wine consumer’s perspective, who says they use what? Here are some anecdotal insights:
·Tahbilk suggest that plantings in the 1980’s were all G9V3 but other earlier and later plantings and the source of all planting material are not known. The peppermint and eucalyptus characters of the G9V3 clone are considered attractive;
·Balnaves indicate that they have several different clones of cabernet sauvignon but the best results to date seem to be coming from the ‘Reynella Selection’ source of cabernet sauvignon. The selection seems to be less biannual in bearing, seems to cope better with stress and produce complex flavours;
·over at De Bortoli, all premium cabernet wine is made from SA125. Depending on the site SA125 tends to have less methoxypyrazine characters (herbaceous, bell pepper aromas) than other clones, but all clones are susceptible to bud mite damage and eutypa symptoms as they age;
·at Yeringberg, the first cuttings planted were said to be from Great Western, and from the same (unknown) source as that planted at Mount Mary. A number of years later Yeringberg obtained cuttings from Seville Estate, from clone SA126. The fruit from both plantings is fermented together;
·Vasse Felix’s cabernet clones are mainly the Houghton clone, but they do have some SA125 and SA126 planted. SA125 is said to be low yielding and to have deeper, more blackberry fruits and a tough tannin structure. SA126 is said to be higher yielding and tends to be a bit more herbaceous and lighter in weight and is not regarded as a preferred clone;
·at Majella, the first cabernet sauvignon vines were planted in 1970. There are small plantings of C125, LC84, R2V11 clones, but most of the plantings owe their heritage to the original Majella “selection”; and
·Yalumba indicate that over the last twenty years they have used most clones, but have had most consistent success with Reynella and SA125. Other clones such as CW44 and G9V3 perform better under some seasonal conditions or on different soil types.
This is of course but a snapshot of cabernet sauvignon and the various clones in use around Australia. And I must admit I found this fun to write. Clearly, however, many wineries take clonal selection very seriously indeed. If nothing else, I hope this article might add to a stimulation of thought on how important, or not, factors such as clonal selection might be to the ultimate flavours of wine. It may be more important than is perhaps sometimes given credit.
See also RM Cirami, MG McCarthy and PR Nicholas, “Clonal selection and evaluation to improve production of Cabernet Sauvignon grapevines in South Australia”, (1993) 33 Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 213-20.