Tuesday, August 12, 2008

He knows his claret from his Beaujouis...


Dateline June 2008.

One hundred and twenty grape growers and wine makers pack into the McLaren Vale Bocce Club. They eat some pasta, drink some glasses of wine and argue over a controversial map that defines sub regions of McLaren Vale based on terrior.
Terrior is common sense really. Soil + climate = grapes which gets turned into wine

Why is the move so controversial? Why would one hundred and twenty hardened wine industry types get hot under the collar over whether there should be any definition of districts grape growing areas? It is not just opposition to using the quintessentially french term terrior. The argument runs deeper.

While the French believe terrior is the semi-mystical group of forces that makes their wine so special – science can go along way to defining it. Terrior is common sense really. Soil + climate = grapes which gets turned into wine (plus whether the winemaker uses natural or store supplied yeast, smokes and washes their hands five times a day.)

The new McLaren Vale map was drafted up based on soil type, climate information and wine style. Its existence is based on factors that can be measured. In the Australian wine industry where science rules a map that defines sub regions, shows terrior based on fact should be a home run.

European vignerons classify their wines based on local topography and the semi-mystical forces. Over the course of many generations, trial and error and scientific advancement a system of appellation, or a regulated naming and procedures for a given group of vineyards, has been adopted. This operates as a government controlled scheme for example Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée in France, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata in Italy. These systems both break wine growing districts into small areas which can be as small as 100 hectares. In these countries majority of premium wines are sold and labeled under these systems.

Australia uses a modern tier system to define its regions. State; Zone; Region and in some cases Sub Regions are defined by a Wine and Brandy Corporations Geographical Indications Committee (GIC). A good example is the Adelaide Hills wine region. Located in South Australia’s Mt Lofty Zone, the Adelaide Hills has two officially defined sub regions, Piccadilly Valley and Lenswood. The High Eden is a sub region of the Barossa Valley.

The McLaren Vale Wine Region was declared only as recently as 1997. It is roughly 15 kilometres by 30 kilometres has 6,800 hectares of vineyard. No official sub regions have been declared by the GI committee for McLaren Vale, however unofficial use of the sub regions is common.

Blewitt Springs, McLaren Vale.
Seaview, Willunga Plains, Sellicks Foothills, McLaren Flat, McLaren Vale/Tatachilla and Blewitt Springs all find themselves used by winemakers to describe vineyard locations.

McLaren Vale Grape, Wine and Tourism Association (MVGWTA) uses six sub-regions in viticultural and marketing materials. Furthermore, wineries have been adept at using the sub regions in their marketing building up strong reputations for specific vineyards or areas. Defining and explaining this variation gives winemakers another string in their marketing bow – especially in the American market.

Dudley Brown an American expatriate who moved to McLaren Vale thinks defining sub regions is a positive move. “The consumer of higher end wines such as McLaren Vale aims does, care a great deal about these sorts of things,” Dudley thinks. “Wine drinking and collecting is a journey around the world without leaving home – the consumer loves to discover new and different areas and labels. Sub regionality gives them the opportunity to explore six new things about McLaren Vale without exploring the next region up the road.”

Dudley’s point is valid in the US wine market, particularly California, the use of sub regions – whether officially named or not, provides the consumer with more information about the pedigree of the wine. A bottle that specifies a sub region like Spring Mountain, Rutherford or Calistoga, it almost without exception still says Napa Valley. Knowing a bottle comes from Spring Mountain gives the consumer a heightened sense of confidence in paying for an unfamiliar label.

As the Australian wine industry matures, particularly a high priced wine district like McLaren Vale, points of difference that enable lesser known producers to get noticed and to charge higher prices is critical to our marketing success. The higher prices translate back into the local market as more money to spend on improving vineyards, higher incomes and higher asset values for growers and wine businesses alike.

If Lazy Ballerina was from Nurgo’s Gorge, would you pay $25 a bottle for it? The fact that is it is from McLaren Vale means a price expectation already. The fact that it comes from the sub region of Tatachilla could add some more value to the wine.

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