Return to terroir in Australia: Jasper Hill

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What could make a better first impression of Australian wines than to visit Jasper Hill in Heathcote?  After landing in Melbourne, we hit the ground running, driving due north for a couple of hours on the wrong side of the road until we reached Jasper Hill.

I could tell upon meeting Ron Laughton that his wines would be unique.  A tall, lanky guy, eternally curious, eternally youthful, it’s difficult to absorb the fact that he’s been farming for over 35 years at Heathcote.  He’s someone who fits as naturally at his biodynamically-farmed estate as he does lounging at a hip Fitzroy restaurant just outside of central Melbourne.

Perhaps it’s his science background that allows him to think independently.  He studied food science, he says, to stay out of the army, then worked at places like Kraft Foods in the UK and Chicago.   He was one of the first to explore the potential of winegrowing in Victoria and decided that Heathcote was the perfect location to produce the wines he liked, which was shiraz.

And what a location.  In a narrow ribbon between two faults, tectonic action lifted ancient Cambrian schist the likes of which one will only find in the best wine regions such as the Douro and Banyuls.  In these poor acid soils, he dry-farms shiraz vines on their own roots at relatively cool 1,000 foot elevations.  Beyond the soils and micro-climate though, Laughton sees the dynamism of the terroir saying, “whole civilizations started around faults due to the availability of water and metals like copper.”

Laughton has never used chemicals at Jasper Hill.  While he farms biodynamically and is a long-standing member of the global biodynamic group Renaissance des Appellations, Jasper Hill is not Demeter-certified.  Laughton views biodynamics “not as a religion, but as a tool.”  For example, in a given year, he may choose not to use the prep 501.  When asked why there are not more organic and biodynamic producers in Australia given the mostly dry, Mediterranean climate?  Laughton said that the industry is “technology-driven” using tenets such as “thou shalt irrigate” as an example.

Yields are low, between 14 and 20 hl/hectares, resulting in open canopies and naturally balanced fruit.  This allows Laughton to harvest at optimal flavor ripeness regardless of brix level.  Unlike many New World producers, Laughton does not acidify his wines, nor does he use cultured yeasts, malolactic bacteria or yeast supplements.   Wines are aged in discrete amount of new oak and finished with partial filtration.  Through minimal intervention winegrowing and winemaking, Laughton achieves taste of terroir.

The best-known wines of Jasper Hill are Georgia’s Paddock and Emily’s Paddock, both of which are classified as “outstanding” wines by Langton’s auction house.  Unbeknownst to me before this trip, Australia has its own private classification of wines like Bordeaux.   It’s a four-tier system that began in 1990 and is updated every five years based on market data such as trading volume and frequency, prices, etc.  Track record is also important and any candidate must have at least 10 vintages behind it.  As of 2010, there are only 123 specific wines (not producers, which list is even shorter) that are classified.

Georgia’s Paddock is made from shiraz grown on the deepest soils.  These wines are earthier and more structured wines with dark fruit character.  Emily’s, which is made of shiraz with a little cabernet franc, is finer with more berry fruit.  The combination of shiraz with cabernet franc is not that common – the most recent I had was a Jonathan Maltus Napa Valley wine “Wavelength” – but it gives the wine a wonderful lift of fragrance.  Laughton said that the reason he chose cabernet franc vs. the historic shiraz-cabernet sauvignon blend, is that he didn’t like the capsicum character of cabernet sauvignon.

Laughton’s dedication to terroir-driven shiraz wines led to a joint venture with another biodynamic producer of signature syrah wines, Michel Chapoutier of Hermitage.  The vineyard in Heathcote is planted to clones from both Heathcote and Hermitage, and the wine, Cambrien Shiraz, is evocative of both terroirs – cool climate syrah without the pepper.

Laughton says that there is still some “wine cynicism” in Australia, but one will not find it at Jasper Hill.

Jasper Hill wines are imported by Old Bridge Cellars in Napa, CA.