Diversity in Wine II – Erl Happ’s Comments

In response to my 8 January 2014 post on diversity in wine (https://oleudsenwineblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/08/diversity-in-wine-or-a-craving-for-the-weird-and-wonderful/) Erl Happ sent me the below wonderful considerations. They were too long to post as a comment, but he has kindly allowed me to copy it and post it. Erl wrote the following:

“Hi Ole, great to see a commentator who is alive to the possibility that the wine world does not have to be defined by accidents of history. The comparative wealth of the British and the activity of the enthusiasms of the English wine trade in promoting what is available at a particular time….. due to war, whether for instance they happened to be fighting the Spanish or the French…..and of course the proximity and convenience in sourcing the wines of France, and on a smaller scale consider for instance their preference for the Medoc over the wines to the east of the city…. the wines of St Emilion finding favour in Holland rather than England.

This is not to suggest that the wines of France owe their prestige simply to the proximity to England, the wealth of the English and the activities of the public school, old boy network that speak with an appropriate accent, in promoting the wines that they could comfortably access to the class that could afford to purchase these wines at prices that would enable a wine merchant to live in a respectable style. Luxury prices of course.

I do consider all these historical factors very important in defining what we see as ‘good’ and desirable. But I also know that there are other factors at work. I know that the vineyards of Bordeaux are continually evolving in terms of the varieties that are in favour. The great frost of 1956 killed two thirds of the vines at Petrus and marks the transition to Merlot as the dominant variety across the entire region. The replanting that occurred tended to eliminate the phenomenon of mixed plantings, where two or more varieties could appear within the row and were harvested together. Cabernet Sauvignon lost favour to the east of the City because it would not ripen. Petit Verdot could ripen so infrequently that it was virtually eliminated.

From my studies in climate that were stimulated by the insight of John Gladstones published in his 1992 ‘Viticulture and Environment’ that the composition of the grape at harvest depends heavily on the temperature and humidity of the ripening period, defined conveniently as the month prior to picking date, and his pioneering work in predicting the harvest date from climatic parameters alone, I discovered that there is no region from the coolest to the warmest parts of France where the grape variety that has been chosen for cultivation ripened under damagingly warm conditions. Specifically, 500 degree hours in excess of 22°C was the limit whether one grew Pinot Noir in Dijon, Cabernet Sauvignon in the Medoc or Grenache in Chateunef Du Pape. So, logically, if you seek to grow flavoursome grapes you need to know when a variety will ripen and the conditions under which it will ripen. In my Three Hills vineyard in the coolest, cloudiest southern parts of Margaret River where Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot ripen in late April at an average monthly mean temperature 1°C cooler than the Medoc I can ripen both and to my taste the latter is a more exciting wine than the former.

So, the lesson is that the environmental influences are paramount in determining the expression of grape flavour and the aspiring quality focussed producer must begin by choosing a grape variety that will ripen late enough in autumn to enjoy appropriately cool conditions. Flavour and acid levels are conserved together. If you have to add acid in making the wine it might be that you prefer acid wines, or else the wine cannot survive in your cellar unless the pH is low. But very likely the lack of acid goes with a lack of flavour and the wine will be hot, rasiny and short, with a very firm finish. Call it ‘full bodied’, or ‘Claret’ if you will.

Margaret River is a special place. It is at the latitude of Morocco. It’s a full 10° closer to the Equator than Bordeaux. But the Southern hemisphere is two thirds water while the Northern Hemisphere is two thirds land. So the thermal range between summer and winter is a great deal less throughout the Southern Hemisphere, and particularly so on the western margins of the continents because the air moves from west to east. Antarctica is much colder than the Arctic. So the favourable latitudes for the cultivation of the vine are closer to the equator in the Southern than the Northern hemisphere. And the vine is in leaf for longer in the southern than in the northern hemisphere so it can do the work necessary to accumulate sufficient sugar to avoid chaptalization. In the southern part of Margaret River I can ripen the very early Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and the very late Petit Verdot and Grenache under appropriately cool conditions. So, you have the conundrum that the district has a great reputation for both the early ripening Chardonnay that is grown in Champagne, Chablis and Burgundy and the late ripening Cabernet Sauvignon that could never ripen in these very short growing season locations.

So, if thermal conditions are so favourable during the ripening period and the growing season is so long you have the whole gamut of varieties available. Then you can ask yourself which produce the flavours that you prefer. You don’t have to put up with the green-ness of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot if you don’t want to. If you must grow these varieties you can set out to minimise the green flavour…..and that means avoiding irrigation and fertilization, spreading the shoots into the row rather than confining them within ‘catch wires’, allowing the sun in and looking for the berry pulp to finish up yellow rather than chlorophyll green where it is attached to the seeds, a circumstance that is visually signalled by the yellowing of the leaves.

It’s more about science than personal predilections, even though it might appear to be otherwise.

At the end of the day there has to be a supportive customer base to be curious, to pay a little more for something that might seem to be outside the mainstream and to actually ask themselves …… what do I prefer? The alternative is to do what they are told to do. I am heartily sick of wine shows and the wine press that trumpet a conventional viewpoint. There is too much fashion and sycophantic nonsense in this industry. And you Ole, are a breath of fresh air.

I am putting together a new website and my customers will be offered a $10 rebate on their next dozen if they review a wine. If they simply want to tell a story, that will be allowed. Because, what one enjoys is often a personal thing that depends upon mood, company, time and place.

Even if there was only one universal grape variety and a favourable homogeneous climate one must remember that the vine leaf breathes. And in doing so it incorporates aromatics floating in the air……the scent of herbs in the hills of southern France, the aroma of eucalypts in Australia and of course most notably, bush fire smoke, great when you are barbecuing red meat but ruinous in wine. So, diversity will be with us until the gardeners of this world have taken every species of plant from around the globe and mixed them all up.

Thanks for another great article and the opportunity to reply. I had work in front of me when I rose at 4.00 and now it’s 7.00. You engaged me. It was a pleasure.

Erl Happ”

Exchanges with Erl are never trivial, and range broadly. What a pleasure to receive the above!

The southern part of Margaret River is clearly a very special place to grow grapes. The potential length of the growing season really enables so many different expressions. Erl makes a bit of rather good nebbiolo there, and he and I have been discussing the merits of the extremely late-ripening aglianico variety for that area. It seems to me that aglianico could produce some really interesting results in that area. Now, however, is a difficult, survival time for Australian winemakers, so hardly the time to embark on too much adventure. I have no doubts, though, that Erl, with his eclectic, never-dull range and very high quality, will come through this period just fine, and will be embarking on more adventuresome plantings in future. Until then, drink his wine: You will never be bored, and you will help him through so he can continue surprising us and making us happy.

Yours truly

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