In praise of the work of the viticulturalist

A focus on the work of one of Australia’s best grape growers, Allen Jenkins, in the terra rossa region of South Australia

People in the wine world sing the praises of noted winemakers, treating some of them as demi-gods. This tends to inflate the price of their wines. It’s nice to have wine heroes. But we should not forget the work of the people who grow the grapes.

Indeed, it has often been said that great wines are made in the vineyard. Great winemakers acknowledge the skill of the viticulturalist. Some great winemakers are also great viticulturalists.

This brings us to the work of Allen Jenkins, chief viticulturalist with Wynns Coonawarra Estate in South Australia. For the past decade Jenkins has been working with the company’s winemakers to identify outstanding blocks of vines with which to make unique wines. Wynns’ holdings comprise the biggest area of the best vines in the region, mostly on the famous terra rossa (red earth) soil.

Jeremy Oliver, generally recognized as Australia’s best wine writer, believes Wynns is the only Australian winery able to be compared to the great chateaux of Bordeaux in terms of quality, scale and perhaps style.

In 2002 Wynns instigated a vineyard renovation plan. Many old vines were cut off at about 60cm from ground level with a single shoot trained to create a new canopy. During this renovation the team also started to pay more attention to the soils on which the vines are grown. An idea emerged: To introduce a new range of wines that represented “faithful expression” of the unique terroir and bottled under a series of one-off labels, Oliver said.

Some are named after V&A Lane, the road that dissects the Coonawarra region east-west and divides it roughly in half. Some of the best vineyards in Coonawarra are around there. The lane was named after Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert. Winemaker Sarah Pidgeon sees V&A as a vehicle for innovation and experimentation, and a chance to showcase Wynns’ “wonderful old cabernet and shiraz vines”.

Half of all the red that Wynns grows is cabernet sauvignon. Their oldest cabernet was planted on the Johnson block in 1953 and their oldest shiraz dates from 1892, Jenkins said.

Most visitors perceive Coonawarra as flat. But Jenkins noted that the general elevation rises from 51.4 to 63 metres above sea level, and temperatures increases have been noted depending on elevation. “I have the difficult task of convincing people that the Coonawarra is not flat,” Jenkins said with a smile. “These local minor elevation differences have significant impacts and support a closer look at changes in soils, vine vigour and fruit flavour profiles.”

Summer heat can be intense, so Jenkins ensures that vine canopies are designed to protect the grapes. “Each bunch gets a hat,” he jokes. Viticulturalist Ben Harris confirmed Jenkins’ protective attitude towards the grapes.

Jenkins said that once winemakers identified a particular block’s potential, his team “applied the blowtorch” – meaning they tried a range of approaches such as varying the style of pruning, ripening specific blocks at different times, and giving some blocks extra compost or reducing water supply.

“The wines produced under the V&A single vineyard label have been outstanding,” Jeremy Oliver said, “though they are made in small quantities and need time before they can be drunk, and we’ve not noticed them offered in wine competitions. The company probably figures it does not need the publicity, given its outstanding reputation. Wynns cabernets remain the most collected reds in Australia.”

Winemaker Sarah Pidgeon noted that the Coonawarra region changes profoundly season by season. Thus the 2009 V&A shiraz – with its inky black cherry colour with intense black fruits that match the deep colour and a sense of purity – is very different from the 2010 V&A shiraz. The 2009 is still evolving with its soft tannins and spicy character from a cool vintage. The 2010 feels hotter in the mouth, the result of a warmer vintage, yet with soft tannins that linger like a sweet first kiss.

Noted Pidgeon: “Coonawarra shiraz can be floral and fun to play with.” She prefers whole bunch fermentation meaning that stems are included. Those stems add structure and tannins. “Even if I’m looking at an early pick the grapes must be ripe.”

No wine was made from the 2011 vintage because the grapes were not good enough. The 2012 V&A shiraz lingers in the mouth with a sense of opulence yet feels lean, with echoes of spice and pepper and soft tannins.

The V&A Lane range includes a blend of cabernet and shiraz, potentially an Australian classic. These kinds of blends were less well known globally, Pidgeon said, so it will take time for people to get to know them. The 2009 blend is inky black with pronounced tannic thrust and sharper acidity but has a silky mouthfeel. “That’s the beauty of blending,” Pidgeon said. “The co-ferment of cabernet and shiraz, especially in 2009, gave the wine beautiful backbone.”

The 2010 V&A Lane blend has a profound sense of proportion and power with much textural finesse. The wine feels soft and approachable even with the use of new oak, yet it could be cellared for up to a decade. Again, no wine was made in 2011. The 2012 V&A Lane has a delightful sense of aliveness with aromas of liquorice plus the black fruit typical of the region. This is a quietly powerful wine with a mineral hint of gravel and lean freshness, and an appealing follow through.

Do yourself a favour and find some V&A wines. They have the potential for greatness.

Words: 910

Categories: Not home, wine

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