Terroir. It’s a word bandied about a lot in the wine world. Once relegated to the geekiest corners of Burgundy, terroir and the never-ending quest to capture a unique sense of place in a wine have become a global phenomenon, with conversations on the concept now rather commonplace.
While the subject is more poetic and esoteric than scientific, many wine lovers agree that they know it when they taste it. It’s the sense that a wine is alive, mutable and singular, like a transmission of radio waves that communicates the place where it was grown.
The minimalist philosophies of natural winemaking reflect this focus, as does the popularity of single-vineyard bottlings. Any winery worth its salt produces at least a couple of single-site wines in the hopes to express its terroirs even more clearly.
So, in this age of authenticity, is there still a place for big, multiregional blends?
It’s a question I pondered during a recent tasting of several vintages of Penfolds Grange, a vocational luxury that I realize I’m privileged to experience. Unlike the single-plot selections of many of the world’s iconic wines, Australia’s most famous bottling is made from grapes sourced from around South Australia. The precise blend of predominately Shiraz with some Cabernet Sauvignon changes from year to year. Collectors do not seek out Grange for terroir, but rather for its quality and sense of history.
And, historically, when it comes to Australian wine, blends have played a starring role. Max Schubert, Grange’s creator, helped to “transform Australia’s international wine image from that of a producer of cheap bulk wine to that of a producer of quality wine,” writes Campbell Mattinson in his book, The Wine Hunter. “This critical, and incredibly difficult, transformation of Australia’s wine image may never have happened without the profound impact of Penfolds Grange.”
Preceding Schubert, Maurice O’Shea is widely considered Australia’s first maker of fine wine. He produced some of his most lauded and long-lived wines in conjunction with the McWilliams family from grapes sourced from around South Australia and his home in the Hunter Valley, a region in New South Wales.
The notion of terroir is a romantic one, and admittedly, I’m attracted to those more stripped back, site-expressive wines. But I also have great respect for skilled winemakers, and am intrigued and drawn to history and tradition.
Penfolds Grange, in all its powerful, blended, old-school glory, may not be what most would call reflective of terroir. But Grange does reflect history and tradition, and to honor the past is surely a thing worth treasuring, too.
Here are four wines to try now, two single-site selections and two blends, to conduct your own terroir-tasting experiment.
Frankland Estate 2016 Isolation Ridge Single Vineyard Riesling (Frankland River); $40. Lemon curd, apple and delicate florals are wreathed by a prickly palate in this mineral expression.
Henschke 2012 Hill of Grace Shiraz (Eden Valley); $817. A silky, savory, earthy expression of the winery’s famous single-vineyard site.
John Duval Wines 2014 Eligo Shiraz (Barossa Valley); $100.Sourced from vineyards in both Eden and Barossa Valleys, this complex, muscular and tightly wound Shiraz is begging to be cellared.
Ochota Barrels 2017 Texture Like Sun (Adelaide Hills); $35.This gluggable red is a multisite co-ferment of nine (yes, nine) grape varieties that’s perfectly on-trend with Australia’s younger generation of winemakers.