The Terrior of Heathcote

 Victoria has seen one hundred and fifty years of wine. Vineyards here have produced world beating wines, helped form the international identity of Australian wine and changed the way wine is made in the world. Yet still growers in Victoria feel that they are learning the land. One new region learning and making big impression in Australian wine is the region of Heathcote.

The Heathcote wine region didn’t properly exist until 2002, when the Geographic Indication Committee declaration passed. It wasn’t so much a lack of producers that held it back from becoming a wine region, but rather some argument as to what set it apart from its parent region of Bendigo. Its unique terroir is one point that drove its ultimate geographical separation.

Terroir is a difficult thing to adequately explain.  In simple terms it could be said that it is the territory that a vine grows in, keenly identified but how that territory influences the grown fruit, such as the way that parts of your garden may grow better than other parts. The soil or shade might be better or worse from one area to the next, so knowing the good parts of your garden is like knowing the good territories to grow wine grapes, just on a larger scale.

However for wine lovers terroir refers to much more than just soil and shade. It is an all encapsulating word, a word used to describe things past the climate of the region, town, or paddock, past the soil composition and water table, past the local flora that emit scents into the air and onto fruit. It is a summation word, used to answer the grander question of what it is that gives a wine its unique quality, identifies its region, and gives wine it its sense of place, it’s… terroir.

Map of Heathcote wine soil
Map of Heathcote wine soil

“It’s the brown colour on the map,” Ron Laughton of Jasper Hill points to a geological map that hangs unobtrusively on the wall in his cellar door. “You can see it stands out, and so that was part of the ease of forming a region in some ways. We have that Cambrian soil back bone.”

Forming a wine region is not easy, even with a rich vein of Cambrian soil, nor is choosing a site to grow wine grapes. Ron Laughton had made a long search, with many requirements, before deciding on a piece of land with some patriotic yearning.

“I wanted to do it in Victoria because I’m a Victorian, but also every climate from deserts to alpine start in Victoria so if you can’t find a proper Mediterranean climate in Victoria you can’t find it anywhere.” This Mediterranean climate that Ron talks about, of cool nights and warm days, has brought many people to Heathcote and the towns around.

Greg Flynn did his own detailed search before opting for a plot of land where he planted vines for Flynn’s Wines, a few kilometres up from Ron Laughton’s. He chose the site because, as he puts it, “The climate was great for growing shiraz, in particular. Very little disease problems. You don’t tend to get rain in vintage, ripening is not a problem, it is warm but it is not hot, most of the time, and the red Cambrian soil on the property here.”

The effects of climate on fruit are well know, most people would spot the difference between a banana grown in Queensland and one grown in Tasmania, there are places were fruit grows better than others. However if you do a quick search on the internet, or heaven forbid look in a book, you will notice quite a lot written about Cambrian soils being 500 million years old and found in a thin stretch of the Heathcote wine region, but little to explain why that is a good thing for vines or the resulting wine.

Jasper Hill & Occam's Razor next to Cambrian rock
Jasper Hill & Occam's Razor next to Cambrian rock

“They are different.” Ron says of wines grown on other soils in the region. “I’m not saying they are inferior wines, but they are different. Even Emily’s (Ron’s daughter) own wine, the Occam’s Razor, stands out as different to the Jasper Hill wines because they are not on Cambrian Soil.”

This is important as the Occam’s Razor is made at Jasper Hill following Ron’s theories on winemaking. So how can a shift in vineyard by a couple of kilometres change the wine, or even how can a shift by a few meters?

At Flynn’s winery Greg points towards the vineyards in front of his winery, “Down here it (the Cambrian soil) is not that deep, it’s got clay, red clay, underneath. But as you go up that hill,” Greg points to the vineyard behind his winery, “The Cambrian gets deeper, and there is a difference to the vines, they are a year younger and yet they are bigger and more vigorous up there.”

“It’s more friable,” Greg states about the Cambrian, “Roots go down further, more access to nutrients and any ground water if it is there, but I think mainly the Cambrian soil was good because its not particularly organic, you’re not going to get vigorous vines, it’s going to make them struggle a little bit, but it’s not bad soil either so it is just in that middle ground.” Too much vigour and you dilute the fruit, too little and you don’t have any fruit.

The Cambrian soil runs along a fault line, the Mount Williams fault line, and starts at a point a few kilometres below the town of Heathcote. It runs for about thirty kilometres in varying patches and widths from there to the north.

As with Coonawarra’s Terra Rossa soil, the thin stretch of Cambrian is not central to the Heathcote region, as the boarders of a wine region are in part dictated by a sense of the local community boundaries, and pre-existing winery locations, rather than soil. But as stated there is no assertion that wines to the south, or in other Heathcote areas without the Cambrian, are inferior.

Wine style: shiraz is the order of the day in Heathcote. Other warm climate red and white varieties do grow well here but shiraz is what Heathcote is exceedingly focused on. As a whole, the terroir of the region imparts big dark fruit flavours and a dense colour to all the Heathcote shiraz wines. The wines made from fruit grown on Cambrian soil have an extra, rather briary, wild fruit quality to them, while those from non-Cambrian soil are plummier, with a more juicy berry fruit edge.

Food Match: For the red wines of Heathcote, a proud Mediterranean climate, I cannot go past pizza, a thick crust meatlovers pizza. For the whites, try meatlovers with chicken.

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