I wanted to write a little bit about my PhD thesis. As you may or may not know, my days are spent as a research scientist at the Australian Wine Research Institute. It’s a pretty cool gig. Over the past 10 years I’ve mostly worked in the sensory group, managing some of the sensory panels, analyzing and interpreting sensory data and writing reports. That may sound boring, but I can assure you for a wine geek like me it’s not. There are always different research projects coming through the door and we would look after the sensory analysis part of the project, so there is forever an abundance of clever, novel and interesting wines coming through the door to our lab. They are not always good wines, but interesting no doubt. Over the years I have slowly moved from running and managing the sensory panels to managing research projects, and always with a sensory focus (as is my field of expertise). In 2016 I began to put together a project that was to explore the idea of regional sensory characters in Australian Shiraz, or the terroir of Shiraz in Australia. Terroir is a concept most wine geeks are plenty familiar with, but for the uninitiated it is this – it is quite simply the idea that a thing (in this case wine, but also applies to lots of other things: cheese, meat, etc.) will taste a particular and unique way because of the place it comes from, and that it will be different from another similar thing that comes from somewhere else. So in this context, Barossa Shiraz tastes different to McLaren Vale Shiraz because they come from different places. Now that’s not really a stretch to imagine the plausibility of this. It’s a pretty logical assumption. There are many things that come together to make a wine taste the way it does: climate, soil, rainfall, geology, viticulture practices, winemaking practices, and more. All these things have an influence on the final product, and that final product is different to another final product from somewhere else. And for many of you, right now you are saying “Of course they are!”, as we’ve never had a wine that tasted the same as another wine from a different producer. But this isn’t about same, this is about similar. So this idea is about how Barossa Valley wines will all have some sort of sensory character or characters that define it as Barossan, and similarly from McLaren Vale, and the Yarra Valley, and Hunter Valley, etc. This is the concept of regionality, or regional characters. The goal of my project was to evaluate, examine and establish the sensory and chemical fingerprints of wines from McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley, Yarra Valley, Hunter Valley, Heathcote and Canberra District.
Now there have been many attempts to test terroir over the years…
and none have been very successful. But our idea centered around sensory evaluation, and by establishing the sensory characters of the regions, we could then look at the chemistry and after that the climate, geography, etc, and to a certain extent reverse engineer the terroir of the regions. If you understand the sensory, you can then evaluate the chemistry and as we know what chemical compounds are responsible for certain aromas and flavours, you can begin to connect some dots on what is driving the sensory attributes. You can then step back further and evaluate the climate, and see how it affects the chemistry, and so on. This approach had never been taken before anywhere on the planet, so it was pretty cool to be leading this project. So now fast forward to 2020, and the project was wrapped up, after having presented results in New York, California, Hong Kong, and Melbourne among others, and the project was accepted as a PhD thesis by publication at Charles Sturt University. Here’s a few of the papers/articles that were published based on this work:
An investigation of the Pivot© Profile sensory analysis method using wine experts: Comparison with descriptive analysis and results from two expert panels. Wes Pearson, Leigh Schmidtke, Leigh Francis, John W. Blackman
Characterising inter- and intra-regional variation in sensory profiles of Australian Shiraz wines from six regions. W. Pearson, L.M. Schmidtke, I.L. Francis, B.T. Carr, J.W. Blackman
Regionality in Australian Shiraz: compositional and climate measures that relate to key sensory attributes. W. Pearson, L.M. Schmidtke, I.L. Francis, S. Li, A. Hall, J.W. Blackman
Sensory analysis: Provenance, preference and pivot: Exploring premium Shiraz with international sommeliers and Australian winemakers using a new rapid sensory method. Wes Pearson; Leigh Schmidtke; Leigh Francis; John Blackman
Benchmarking regional and subregional influences on Shiraz fine wines. Leigh Schmidtke, John Blackman, Leigh Francis, Wes Pearson, Sijing Li, Thomas B. Carr, Andrew Hall
Now I haven’t written all this about my research work just to toot my own horn.
I told you that story so I could tell you this one…
In 2015 we really started our terroir journey with our Juxtaposed wines. That vintage we received a small parcel of Grenache grapes from Bernard and Wayne Smart. The Smarts have been farming grapes in the area for decades, and one of their blocks in particular, a Grenache vineyard in Clarendon (planted in 1921), was where we obtained these grapes from. Now at the time, these grapes were not the hot commodity they are today. Grenache was still not quite ready for its day in the sun, however we still felt that the age of the vineyard, along with it being Grenache (the variety we loved), was worthy of us giving this vineyard and the fruit that came off of it the respect it deserved. So in 2015 we made the Juxtaposed Old Vine Grenache for the first time, solely with fruit from the Smart vineyard in Clarendon, as sort of a love letter to the vineyard. The fruit was crushed and destemmed, fermented and pressed to old oak, topped regularly to maintain freshness, and then bottled 14 months later. I didn’t do a thing to it. The reason I wanted to keep my hands off was to let the vineyard do the talking. I wanted the wine to be an expression of the Smart vineyard in the 2015 vintage, and nothing more. I wanted the terroir of the vineyard to shine through. Since then, with our Grenache and with our Shiraz wines, this has been our modus operandi, so to speak. We’ve decided that we’d let the grapes do the talking, and for the most part we keep out of it. As a winemaker, I intervene when needed to protect the wine from spoilage, but that’s it. We haven’t bought a new oak barrel in almost 8 years! How this ties in with my research has been an evolution through the last few vintages and years of my PhD, and I’d like to think that in 2019/2020 they both came together to help the 2019 Old Vine Shiraz wines we made get over the line. The Sherry vineyard and Wait vineyard wines that we made in those two years have been unmitigated successes in both media and consumer responses. It’s such a satisfying exercise when people come to visit the winery and I can open both bottles for them and give them the experience of tasting two wines that come from vineyards about 3 km apart from each other, and yet taste as different as different could be, all the while being delicious.
Slowly this has become one of the calling cards for how we are making these Juxtaposed wines, and as things move forward, I continue to see this evolving to better deliver to the people that buy and drink our wines, the sense of place that exists in the sensory profiles of these wines. I think that’s what makes these wines interesting. It’s more than just a wine that tastes good. It came from a place. And it tastes different to a wine that came from a different place. And this is some of what makes the world of wine so fascinating.
Thanks for reading,