Terroir or Dirt, Saints and Stylists / How Australia’s First Saint,

Two weeks old and already the gloves are off in the world of wine in
2010. In Australia a very interesting series of battles over vineyard
lands are just cranking up, partly caused by the prospect later this
year of the canonisation of Australia’s first ever saint.

On 19th of March 1866, Mary Helen MacKillop founded the Sisters of St
Joseph of the Sacred Heart along with the local Priest Father Julian
Tenison Woods. The Order was dedicated to providing free education for
boys and girls and over the years grew to establish refuges for women,
then all needy children and former female prisoners. Though it became
a global organisation, it began in the tiny Australian village of
Penola, in what is now MacKillop State District in South Australia.

At that time Penola stood in the middle of an almost undeveloped
region located some 350 miles from Adelaide and just under 400 from

Happily it was about to become not just the base for a saint, but also
one of the most famous wine regions in the world, under its Aboriginal
name, Coonawarra, and its famous red soil and legendary wines.

Moving the wine story is one John Riddock, a Scot and a winemaker and
fruit grower spotted the lurid red soils and knew that this could be
perfect fruit and vine growing soil. He established Penola in 1861 as
a fruit growing colony and latter he gave it the Coonawarra name, from
the local name for Honeysuckle. Today Wynns Coonawarra Winery is his
legacy along with some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon on the planet.

What was interesting is that unlike many wine pioneers he did not risk
all and plant the vineyards himself. He spread the risk by buying up
most of the terra rossa soiled lands and selling it in small plots to
colonists who could then each sell their fruit or vine to him at the
Penola Fruit Colony Estate, later Wynns. It worked and by 1900 the
entire Coonawarra area had been planted.

During that same period Sister MacKillop spent many decades providing
free education and fighting against poverty and abuse of women in
Penola and across Australia, and equally it seems bureaucracy and
resistance amongst the Australian Catholic Hierarchy.

She appears to have been a very strong willed woman and essentially
by-passed any resistance, of which there was plenty from the local
Bishops to centrally control and run the Order, its schools and
shelters herself.

Finally in 1871 the Australian hierarchy excommunicated her from the church.

Undeterred by the excommunication 5 decades before women were to begin
to achieve a modicum of equality or the right to vote, she set sail
for Rome. There she managed to get to the Pope, and in 1873 found
herself, back in the church and backed by Rome in her mission.

Papal recognition of the Order allowed Sister Mary expand across
Australia.It all began however in the school where she was a local
teacher in Penola.

Penola, not incorrectly describes itself as the heart of Coonawarra,
and though small it is a major shopping hub for the wine region,
filled with restaurants, places to buy wine and the Mary MacKillop
Interpretive Centre and the preserved first Josephite School along
with the cell of Sister Mary herself.

And thereby hangs the tale.

Although already a significant wine tourism destination, the
canonisation of Blessed Mary MacKillop, is expected to push Penola and
Coonawarra to the top of Australia’s tourist destinations later this

Visitor numbers are expected to jump by 300% or 400%, from perhaps
20,000 up to 80,000 or 100,000 visitors annually, if as expected
Blessed Mary MacKillop becomes Saint Mary MacKillop later this year.
Rather foresightedly the local council wants to build better roads,
which are already at bursting point with trucks from the surrounding

The council have proposed a by-pass that will cut around the small
town, allowing visitors to the Interpretive Centre and heavy wine
traffic, to miss each other as well as to preserve the small towns

This seems like a fairly easy decision except that the by-pass will
slice through several vineyards, with strong opposition coming from
famous names like Jim Barry Wines Parker Coonawarra Estate and the
powerful drinks conglomerate Foster’s Group, whose Australian holdings
include Lindemans, Wolf Blass, Penfolds, Rosemount, and Wynns
Coonawarra Estate.

It’s a powerful lobby against the by-pass.

The only odd thing about it, is that it seems to reveal a little crack
in the Australian anti-terroir mantra that land is just dirt and it is
all about what you do with that dirt.

Its Just Dirt – Democracy in a Glass

“Of course any Australian worth their salt will tell you, its just
dirt” says Jonathan Malthus as he draws his hand across the horizon to
reveal the beautifully manicured vineyards of St.Emilion, like a green
shawl draped over the honey coloured cliff on which St. Emilion is
built. A UNESCO world heritage site and one of France’s most beautiful
villages it is hard to agree with the idea, its just dirt.

That September 2008 visit with Malthus and his superlative winery has
stuck with me. I do understand clearly what the issues are, that of
course if we can replicate the climate and geology and human input
then we should be dealing with a level playing field. That man makes
the wine, not nature.

Terroir driven winemakers believe that the unique location makes the
wines that man and women can only influence the process, not
ultimately determine it.

This is dangerous stuff, what it means is that some soils are
pre-destined to greatness and some are not, for scientific democrats
this smacks of aristocratic hierarchy, it seems to run with the idea
that your fate is set from the moment of birth.

This is key to understanding why Australians have been so vociferous
in denying Terroir, as Just Dirt, every bit of soil is open and is
imbued with possible greatness, it is all about what effort and
ingenuity you put into your work creating the wine, in the vineyard
and in the cellar.

All those glib remarks about whether wine is made in the vineyard or
in the cellar is also a snipe at European aristocratic tendencies.

In organic and biodynamic growing there is a similar vein of argument.
Keeping natural and rejecting whole-scale chemical intervention is
also philosophically about accepting one’s position in life, of
accepting the size of a crop, the natural limits of the sols fertility
or the vagaries of climate and rot. It is not insignificant that
wine’s aristocrats are often at the forefront of the biodynamic
movement in the Rhone, Rhine and Napa rather than in the vast wine
producing areas of California’s Central Valley or Australia’s big
brand players.

Mosel and The Motorway

So really you might have expected to see modern Australian wineries
roll in with the by-pass plans, have a few acres trimmed off the
various vineyards and plant out the side of the road, after suitable
and rewarding compensation.

That’s the ‘its just dirt’ way.

The Terroir way is to talk about the absolutely god or evolutionary
given soil and its uniqueness which needs to preserved at all costs,
this has been seen in Margaux in Bordeaux, where there was an ongoing
and serious plan, to drive a six lane autoroute directly across the
Gironde Estuary, over a spectacular bridge and through a dozen of the
world most sought after vineyards in AC Marguax.

The plan was defeated after trenchant protest arguing the unique
terroir of the specific soils of Margaux. It was the earth and not the
men and women who worked it that was uniquely impacting on how the
wine tasted.

In Mosel, Germany’s unique and world renowned Riesling region there
are apparently unstoppable plans to drive a grotesque autobahn right
through Grand Cru vineyards and destroy the entire delicate
ecosystem of the Bernkastel Appellation famous for such producers as
Ernst Loosen of Weingut Dr. Loosen has fallen on deaf and brutalist
German political ears, Chancellor Merkel presiding over the kind of
cultural desecration that Hugh Johnson, in his now famous September
11th speech at the bridge site widely available on You Tube said he
hoped Germany and the world had left behind in the 20th century.

The Mosel Bridge fight is like watching a car crash in slow motion
from a 10th storey window, the building of the bridge seems inevitable
now after Chancellor Merkel’s re-election. If you are not a terroir
driven winemaker, you brush yourself down and find new land, but for
those that believe in heritage, continuity and unique sites, producing
unique wine it is a tragedy.

Terroiristes Go Global

Of course, being a terroir believer does not in any way make you
narrow minded, unless you wish to be, it is really about valuing the
diversity of the entire planet. Terroir stands opposed to homogeneous,
globalised standards, not just in wine, but vegetables, cheese,
politics and culture.

Late last year, Jean Charles Boisset, of the enormous French wine
empire Group Boisset, largest in Burgundy, third largest in France,
owner of wineries around the world from Bouchard Aine & Fils, Miason
J. Moreau & Fils, Maison Jaffelin Louis Bernard Mommessin in France to
Lyeth Estate, DeLoach Vineyards and Sonoma Cuvee in the US, married
Gina Gallo of the Gallo Group, not just the largest Family owned
winery in the US but on the planet.

It was a marriage made in merger heaven. A Gallo-Boisset wine business
would control a ridiculous amount of all the wine sold on earth.

Its not unlike the feeling that might occur if Coca Cola and McDonalds
were family owned and the offspring got married.

Despite this and with better things on their mind, the newlyweds
assured the world this was romance and not a merger and there were no
plans whatsoever for a joint venture.

So, to the joint venture then.

Both bride and groom come from giant business families that give the
appearance of being just dirt proponents by their promiscuous
acquisitions of wineries, but in fact, having over 100 wineries around the
world between them should mkae them more aware, not less, of the tiny,
terroir driven variations. And in the person of the Bride and Groom
this is certainly the case.

Bride and groom both totally accept that terroir gives,
unique wines, Gina Gallo in her Frie Ranch Winery in Sonoma Valley and
Jean Charles in Domaine de Vougeire at Clos De Vougeot.

Pinot Noir is in Jean-Charles’s blood, but it is also close to the
heart of his wife Gina Gallo. A blended wine from Jean Charles’s Cotes
De Nuits and Gallo’s Sonoma and Russian River Valley is being planned.

A marriage of Pinot Noirs from both locations, blending the two
Pinot’s to produce a unique wine. It will be terroir driven, but
totally the product of man, and woman. It could be a stunning riposte
to both Terroir and Just Dirt camps. Taking the best of both.

Back in Coonawarra, the wineries opposing the Saints’ By-pass may have
to think what their actions are really saying about their beliefs in
the future of Australian wine. It may just be that years of regional
awareness campaigns by various Australian wine regions has at last
created an emerging sense of terroir, or perhaps it is simply, a
miracle in the outback.

Email the wine column at wine@sbpost.ie