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Behind the vine: the making of icons

Publish Date: 10 Aug 2017

Authored by: Patrick Haddock

How do you determine greatness in wine? In the latest issue of Halliday Wine Companion magazine, we put this to three winemakers who produce some of the country's most covetable reds. 

At a recent tasting of Henschke Hill of Grace, we were confronted with greatness. The wine borne of the phenomenal 2012 vintage was profound. It was great not just because of its balance and length, but perhaps made even greater by vine age, the understanding of the vineyard and its pedigree and lineage offering up more than just a glass of wine.

So much so that when winemaker Stephen Henschke talked about the vineyard, the heritage, his ancestors and the sacrifices made, he was moved to tears. “It has a true sense of place,” Stephen said. “A living place that expresses the colour, aroma and flavour of environmental and human expression; a place of history, heritage and wonder; a place of the past present and future; a sacred place. And every year it comes alive and gives us a new and extraordinary experience.”

‘Greatness’ is defined as eminence or distinction, but it’s hard not to be subjective when referring to greatness in subjects that evoke such a personal response. We are told what makes great art or music, yet how are these conclusions reached? It primarily comes down to a number of experts unanimously agreeing on what constitutes this title. But when it comes to wine, how do we perceive greatness in such a subjective and nebulous subject?

For some it’s a price-driven thing. But while spending $300 or more on a bottle of wine might be a sure-fire way to define greatness, it’s hardly a romantic notion. For others it’s about terroir or specificity of site.

Terroir may be the single most relevant factor when determining greatness – think of the best wines in the world: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Chateau d’ Yquem… They’re the ultimate in site-specific wines. In Australia, Hill of Grace and Brokenwood’s Graveyard Shiraz are just two that rely on particular sites that we in the media often refer to in lofty terms such as “wines of place”.

Vintage and vine age also play a part. A great vintage will profoundly enhance Mother Nature’s dispensations as winemakers harness the elements from one auspicious year. After speaking with Stephen Henschke, Brokenwood’s Iain Riggs and Yalumba’s Robert Hill-Smith, the general consensus was that greatness has to have third-party endorsements or be critically appraised by opinion leaders who are regularly exposed to wines of extremely high quality.

Price does of course come into it; the wines referenced here command a high price tag and, with the exception of debut wine The Caley, they all have a track record for consistent excellence. Each year as demand rises, so too does the price tag. Sometimes a great wine is also simply the one that suits your mood at that moment in time – it’s fundamentally pleasing to drink.

Iain Riggs: Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz

What do you think constitutes greatness in wine? In Australia, we vary from Europe slightly in our definition of greatness because as a young wine country, we value drinkability up there with expression of terroir. Due to its long history, Europe will rate terroir and style ahead of ‘Is this a good drink?’ The Australian exception to the rule would be Penfolds Grange – no one in their right mind would drink it before 20-plus years’ bottle age. Greatness to me is about the multi-layers of varietal, style, drinkability, terroir – and that includes ‘hand of man’ – and complexity. You can have a great young wine as well a great old one.

What makes Graveyard so special? It’s a combination of all aspects of grape-growing and winemaking. Although given a good year, winemaking influence should be negligible. Decisions in the vineyard in the Hunter Valley take precedence. Part of the magic of the Hunter is the direct link to vines brought out between 1788 and 1832, then topped up with the Busby collection from 1832 onwards. Vines are on own roots on clay soil. Graveyard Vineyard is now 100 per cent shiraz and all but two hectares on own roots. It’s an east-facing slope, perfect for vines in the Hunter, a curved bowl shape and well drained. There are some sections impacted by the high saline subsoil moisture. Finally, low yield and vines that crank along year after year.

How do you think greatness is relevant to price? Price is a reflection of quality, rarity and marketing. To me, marketing includes not only our own promotion of Graveyard Shiraz as being a unique single-vineyard wine, but also third-party endorsements. It has been at the top of the Langton’s Classification for 25 years. The consumers buy into, and become part of, the story of the wine, so it isn’t a case of ‘can be better’ but ‘has to be better’.

Is greatness in wine purely subjective or do you think there is unanimous understanding of perceived greatness? Greatness can be based on objective-like measures such as peer review and wine show results. I say objective-like because scores are themselves subjective. Within the wine community, greatness is generally agreed on. We all accept there is ‘light and shade’ with any wine due to the vagaries of climate. No wine is exempt from this – Bordeaux, Barolo or Hunter Valley shiraz.

In some parts of the globe, is greatness dictated by price or quality? I’d suggest history, so it has to be dictated by quality. Always.

Stephen Henschke: Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz

What do you think constitutes greatness in wine? Purity of fruit, attractive aromas, layers of flavour and complexity, excellent structure and balance, and a long finish. Most importantly, a great wine shows a sense of place and food friendliness.

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