Remember the terroir tempest in a wine glass that bubbled over the rim in the early 1990s between California's Bill Jekel and Bordeaux's Bruno Prats? The Gallic Terroirist, of course, was Prats, while Jekel contended that grapes and winemaking were more important.
The terroir question came and went for a while, but now, depending on your point of view, terroir is one of the most over-heated wine controversies of recent years, or not.
At the heart of the terroir tussle are a number of concepts that define a total growing environment for wine grapes: climate, exposure, sun days and soil composition, to name a few. Among those terroir components that are the most tangible and tactile are soils. In the Napa Valley there are 33 different soil series, each contributing to the terroir of that site.
Along the steep slopes of Germany's Mosel River, slate is important to the development of Riesling. In Burgundy, limestone soils are considered the ideal for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, a maxim that Richard Graf applied in Monterey's Pinnacles to produce Chalone's Burgundian-style wines. The winemakers of New Zealand's Canterbury-Waipara claim that limestone soils elevate their Pinot Noirs above the better known Pinots of Marlborough and Central Otago.
West across the Tasman Sea, terra rossa, found mainly along South Australia's Limestone Coast, is Australia's most elite soil type, especially for red wines.
South of Adelaide, the cool-climate Limestone Coast stretches from Padthaway to the Southern Ocean, through Mount Benson, Robe, Naracoorte Ranges (Wrattonbully) and Coonawarra, a string of the most intriguing regional wine names anywhere. (A small worry over the Naracoorte name has some locals preferring Koppamurra over Naracoorte, but so far Wrattonbully is the name most often used.)
Stonehaven Vineyards, an up-and-coming South Australian winery that had its origins in Wrattonbully, focuses on grapes from Coonawarra, Padthaway and Wrattonbully for wines that define regional character. Suzanne Bell, senior winemaker for Stonehaven, likes the diversity of the Limestone Coast growing areas for the range of wines she produces.
'Padthaway, the gateway to the Limestone Coast, is the mildest, with Wrattonbully in the middle at higher altitudes and a more continental climate, while Coonawarra, the coolest of the three, is actually in the middle of the Limestone Coast,' said Bell. She notes that the famed terra rossa soils are most common in Coonawarra and Padthaway, but also run in ridges throughout Wrattonbully.
Throughout the region, wherever terra rossa soils are found, they rest directly over limestone ridges and are often very shallow. The red-brown clay and loam are especially important to the quality of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, imparting a purity of fruit with intense berry tones and an impressive balance of concentration and finesse.
But the wines that rise from terra rossa are only part of the Limestone Coast story. Impressive efforts, especially in red wines, are made from grapes rooted in black sandy loam soils. Padthaway, at the top-end of the Limestone Coast, closest to Adelaide, is gaining a reputation for complex Chardonnay and Shiraz, with Viognier setting new standards.
Bell notes that vine age in Coonawarra averages 40-60 years, with some vines older than 100 years. Wratttonbully's vines are on average 10-15 years old.
'But Wrattonbully is higher, about 180 meters (594 feet) above sea level, while Coonawarra is about 60 meters (198 feet)," said Bell. "Hardly the Rocky Mountains, but the rise does act as a natural barrier to the fog, giving Wrattonbully a more 'continental' climate. The tannin structure in the wines is different, with Wrattonbully more grainy but big and rich, while Coonawarra is very long fine-grained tannins, a bit like comparing St. Estephe to Margaux.'
So, what's so important about terra rossa soils?
'The great thing about terra rossa soils is that they are very free draining, they have wonderful texture that is a mixture of gravel, composed of red ironstone, sand and clay," said Bell. "So they can hold moisture for enough time for the vines to utilize what they need. The next most important thing is the underlying limestone base.
"I firmly believe we are sitting on a gold mine of terroir, of incredibly ancient limestone soils that act as a sponge, absorbing and delivering moisture as needed. And the color of the soils helps with light reflection and subsequent ripening.'
Bell is an unabashed cheerleader for the terroir advantages of the Limestone Coast growing sub-regions, and she is just as excited about the importance of limestone to the history of the region and all of Australia.
'The ancient limestone caves in the area, that happen to be World Heritage listed, are incredible," she said. "They are finding fossils in these caves and soil profiles that are helping to rewrite some of the history of evolution of some Australian fauna and marine life. Whale bones were found 100 kilometers (63 miles) from the current coast; it is quite wonderful! So it truly is a Limestone Coast, in fact one of the largest deposits in the world.'
Terra rossa and limestone are vital to the wines of the Limestone Coast, but Bell is quick to add that there are other important factors.
'To me the cool climate is critical, this with the soils gives us wines that have a beautiful purity. Cool climate wines have more aromatics, fragrance and acid, while the limestone-based soils give the wines texture and mineral notes. And we cannot underestimate clonal differences, picking philosophy, fermentation management, oak handling and the all-elusive tannin structure. To me the Holy Grail of great wines is long defined but elegant, soft and mouth-filling tannins.'
In a modern high-tech, computer-controlled winery built in 1998 in the heart of the vineyards along the Riddoch Highway in Padthaway, Bell and her staff select grapes based on individual terroir for the Stonehaven wines in three distinct levels.
The Varietal Range carry a South Eastern Australia appellation and sell for $6. Winemaker's Selection wines, priced at $10 and sealed with screwcaps, represent more careful selections from vineyards in South Australia, notably Padthaway and Wrattonbully. Stonehaven's top-end wines, affordably priced at $13, are Limestone Coast Varietals. The following is a selection of Stonehaven wines tasted in California with Suzanne Bell.
Stonehaven Winemaker's Selection Chardonnay, South Australia, 2004 ($10, Excelsior Wine & Spirits): This mid-level Chardonnay has a pale green-gold color, buttery-spicy nose with citrus notes, crisp acidity and medium fruit. Aging in French oak for eight months adds a level of complexity, spice and vanilla. 85
Stonehaven Limestone Coast Chardonnay, Limestone Coast, 2003 ($13, Excelsior Wine & Spirits): The grapes for this wine, grown in terra rossa soil over limestone, give the wine a citrusy tang. Ripe peaches and roasted nuts are up-front in the aromatics, while the flavors are textured, buttery, with hints of vanilla and lemon peel. The finish is clean with moderate oak accents. 89
Stonehaven Shiraz, South Eastern Australia, 2004,($6, Excelsior Wine & Spirits): The color is a deep purple plum and the medium aromas are fresh with berry and vanilla notes. Ripe raspberry flavors, medium tannins and acidity follow through the short finish; basic entry-level Shiraz at a good price. 87
Stonehaven Winemaker's Selection Shiraz, South Australia, 2004 ($10, Excelsior Wine & Spirits): The grapes sourced from Padthaway and Wrattonbully give this juicy Shiraz a deep inky black-ruby color. Deeply set black fruits, vanilla and anise distinguish the nose, while the flavors are big and concentrated with full tannins, sweet fruit and spice. More bottle time is needed to soften the bold tannins. 89
Stonehaven Limestone Coast Shiraz, Limestone Coast, 2003 ($13, Excelsior Wine & Spirits): Characteristic Padthaway Shiraz accents of anise, dark berries and eucalyptus identify this value Shiraz. The color is deep and inky, the nose redolent with black raspberry and menthol (eucalypt), while the textured concentrated flavor has hints of ripe berries and chocolate. The acidity is brisk and the wine finishes with plenty of fruit. Serve with a roast of lamb and rosemary. 90
Stonehaven Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon, South Eastern Australia, 2003 ($6, Excelsior Wine & Spirits): This blend of 51% Shiraz and 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, is sourced from vineyards in Australia's vast South Eastern Australia appellation. The result is a medium-bodied red wine with noticeable blackberry and spice flavors, firm tannins, a curious hint of road tar and medium complexity through the finish. 89
Stonehaven Winemaker's Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, South Australia, 2003 ($10, Excelsior Wine & Spirits): French and American oak were used to age this earthy Cabernet Sauvignon. The color is very deep black-ruby, while the nose shows ripe berries and traces of tobacco leaf. A surprising soft entry is followed by good fruit, firm tannins, tobacco and berry notes and a medium finish. 90
Stonehaven Limestone Coast Cabernet Sauvignon, Limestone Coast, 2001 ($13, Excelsior Wine & Spirits): This 100% Cabernet Sauvignon is deeply colored and showing the flavor intensity drawn from the terra rossa soils. Ripe blackberries, sweet spices like cloves and a subtle earthy note define the aromatics, while the richly textured flavors are supported by more angular firm tannins with good fruit. This is a lovely cabernet with a fine blend of ripe berries and herbal notes. 92