The Great Wine Divide
It’s often observed that the same wines, produced in geographically diverse regions, can produce disparate results in the glass and on the palate. And the truism is underscored when travelling to a different continent where not only is the terroir unique, but the winemaking heritage and practices have taken a different path to those that we in Australia are familiar with.
It’s perhaps an unfortunate reality that our individual palates become accustomed to expecting individual varietals to exhibit characters that our taste buds are au fait with. For example, why is it that if a sauvignon blanc doesn’t exhibit a passionfruit or citric nose, it isn’t likely to be commercially successful here in Australia? Why do our palates so often unfairly homogenise expectations of particular styles of wine? Perhaps it’s because we are quite parochial wine consumers here in Australia and tend to generally buy wines from Australia or across the ditch? According to data produced by Wine Australia, Australians on average each consume about 23.9 liters of wine per annum but only 16 % of that wine is imported. So I guess the Australasian conditioning of our expectations of wines during gustation, shouldn’t be surprising.
When a motley bunch of my Australian friends recently undertook some Chilean wine masterclasses while in the Land of Poets, the prejudices of our palates was highlighted during a class by one of the winemakers for one of Chile’s leading wine companies, Lapostolle. The entity is owned by the Marnier Lapostolle family – creators of the iconic French liqueur, Grand Marnier. Apart from its French-based operations, it also owns 370 hectares of vineyards in 3 different regions in central Chile. Blessed with the heritage of French cuttings planted in the 19th Century, the old vines produce fruit of pronounced colour, dense flavor and generous aroma. Given that phylloxera wiped out the European vines in the late 1800’s and were subsequently re-grafted to disease resistant root-stock, it’s thought that the Chilean vines are the last “truly French” vines in the world. The Lapostolle wines are said to be “French in essence, Chilean by birth” and have gained quite a global reputation for quality since establishing their Chilean operations in 1994.
During our recent masterclass, our host, Diego Durra graciously took the (largely international) group through a history of the company, the vineyards and their viticultural practices before showcasing a few of their wines. And while the wines we sampled were surprising to our palates, the reaction of individual senses of taste was, to say the least, astounding.
The Lapostolle sauvignon blanc hails from their Rapel Valley site and was unlike any sauvvie that members of our Aussie tasting team had seen before. To quote John “Turtle” Eastham it was “unrecognisable as Sauvignon Blanc” (not that John would really know, given that he drinks nothing other than Provencal rose these days!), while to self-anointed Master of Wines, Cameron Hall, it was like “gato mear” (cat urine). Whilst it was true that the Lapostolle sauvvie didn’t offer the characters of tropical fruit, gooseberry or citric tones that we tend to expect in Australian and Kiwi styles, it was blessed with a nose of cut grass and cucumber and there was a nice floral cascade of gnashi pear characters through the middle and a creaminess to the lively but tightly constrained conclusion. I thought that some of the pejorative descriptors used by my unsophisticated if not, benighted fellow students were a tad harsh and unjustified, but I guess, to quote Plato, “ opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance”.
While the Lapostolle Rose with its innocuous rose-petal aromas managed to escape much-uninformed criticism by my accomplices, the 2014 Cuvee Alexandre 2014 Syrah from their Apalta vineyard in the Colchagua district was not so fortunate. And to be fair to the wine, I thought it was the best of the night. But as contemptuous as it may have been, super-sniffer Dave Darrant found the nose a touch pungent declaring “having smelled that, who’d need a Fisherman’s Friend”; hopefully out of Diego’s earshot! While their unfortunate sweaty saddle aromas on the nose, I suspect that with decanting or time in the cellar they would have soon fallen away. But once on the palate the Syrah was superb. Lashings of red berries joined with notes of violet, liquorice and cassis and formed a veritable cavalcade as they marched through a spicy and lingering conclusion. Sure, it wasn’t the ripe and fruit forward style that we Aussies are familiar with, but with an undeniable richness and some well-rounded tannins, it was a class act, and worthy of the accolades it has received around the world.
The biodynamic and certified organic viticultural practices used by the Lapostolle team, together with the unique terroir of their vineyards and old French vines certainly result in distinctive and “un-Australian” wines; though it seems that some of our critical and unenlightened touring party, need to broaden their oenological purview!