“The 44th annual report of the Heathcote Agricultural, Pastoral and Horticultural Society disclosed an excess of assets…” said The Argus, the main Melbourne newspaper on Tuesday, April 20, 1926. The newspaper goes onto explain that how the “excess of assets,” came about was a mystery. The unnamed journalist speculated that the overage may have occurred when, “...coins were found dated 1812 and 1850 respectively... During excavation works at the site of the new Bank of Victoria.” Evidently the pricy antique coins had been added to the petty cash and caused the overage.
Another treasure found in the ground of Heathcote is much older than 1812 but may be of much greater worth. It is the vein of 500 million year old Cambrian age basaltic rock— known to be some of the oldest soil on earth. These types of red, gravelly loams are extremely rare and the vein that runs intermittently along the edge of the town of Heathcote is especially unique since it is about 13 feet (4 meters) deep. This patch of Heathcote soil is what Master Sommelier/Master of Wine Doug Frost calls the “sweet spot” for Aussie Shiraz.
A man who farms a portion of this unique earth is Ron Laughton, owner and winemaker of Jasper Hill. As the son of a Heathcote farmer Laughton was well-acquainted with the geological differences in the soils even after his years away when, like many young Australians, he went to London. By his own admission he sampled some of the local product, mainly French wines, and he, “...came back a bit of a smart ass.” After a few different jobs in various professions, among them, a food scientist at Kraft Foods where he worked on formulations of that quintessential Aussie treat, Vegamite, Laughton returned to Heathcote to begin the search for that patch of perfect vineyard land. All that he modestly required was deep Cambrian soil that would not require any irrigation. He was sure that, “..after being in Europe and trying European wines I knew that I wanted to make wines of great elegance in Australia.”
The ideal property was purchased from a bulldozer driver named Bruno Pangrazio who had planted some vines for personal winemaking reasons prior to Laughton’s arrival. Not long after planting Pangrazio decided to sell and in 1975 one man’s hobby-turned-chore became another man’s golden opportunity. Laughton bought the 90 acres and immediately went to work repairing the planted block now known as Emily’s Paddock, (named after his winemaker daughter and successor) and planting the entire Georgia’s (his other daughter) Paddock vineyard block with a single clone Shiraz that came from Penfolds. “I’ve always been enamored with Shiraz,” Laughton explained, “and it grows so well here. From the beginning I wanted to make wine that allowed the Shiraz grape to express itself and express the place from which it came.”
To do this Laughton says he does, “Nothing. Or as close to nothing as possible. Essentially I’m lazy.”
This hands off wine making method is not new but it is unique. What is now being stylishly referred to as low- or even non-interventionist winemaking was the way wine had been made for all the centuries leading up to the industrial revolution; an event that loosely coincides with the time of the Phylloxera Plague (1875-1889) that killed off 90% of Europe’s vines. Protecting an industry and maximizing yields became the rule of the day and as these strides toward greater protection and profitability have grown wider so has the relationship between the wine, the winemaker, the grapes, the land. The radical extreme of all this has lead to large parts of the wine industry being owned by conglomerates. I’m not wishing to overstate this but, it is undeniable that a large part of the mystique concerning wine and winemaking has been lost as board members increasingly become the decision-makers in a business that is best run by local farmers and small-scale winemakers.
Which is why guys like Laughton and others like him are so intriguing. Whether one labels Laughton and those who share his point of view visionaries or traditionalists matters little, what does is that he and other low-interventionists such as his friend Michel Chapoutier,* or Gérard Gauby of Domaine Gauby in Rousillion, France or Dr. Joachim Heger of Wienhaus Joachim Heger in Baden, Germany, have taken the “linear” or “holistic” path toward wine. “I make wine to maximize place and to do this I minimize my touch,” Laughton explains. “It’s really very simple science. Whenever you put ‘energy’ into something, or every time you touch it, or move it, manipulate it, etcetera, you change its composition. Something gets altered or lost. I do as little as possible so as to get out as much as nature has put into it.”
Making wine without doing anything is hard work. It can be technically difficult and if not properly executed, risky. Starting with plant basics, Laughton has always dry farmed. In hot, dry Australia this is rare, some might say foolish. He points out that, “Every member of the plant kingdom evolved without a man dumping a bucket of water on it and from the beginning I have not irrigated and my vines are now drought tolerant.” His vines are also on French rootstock, or have not been grafted onto phylloxera resistant American rootstock. A bit of a gamble in light of the revelation that the phylloxera louse ravaged the vineyards of Victoria in the 1870’s and that Victoria remains the Australian capital of the PIZ (Phylloxera Infested Zone). Here the sandiness of the Cambrian soil prevents the louse from thriving. In all other aspects of vineyard management Laughton relies entirely on his senses, right down to determining grape ripeness by taste. When to prune and harvest is done by consulting the same lunar calendar used in Biodynamic farming; a method of operating Laughton chooses to implement for scientific reasons rather than the somewhat spiritual ones sometimes associated with the movement. “Biodynamic is a way that I can recreate and replace in the soil what has been removed without adding chemical fertilizers. I use the organisms that make the soil and keep the soil alive and healthy. These organisms are part of the terroir.”
In the winery he uses sulphur sparingly and relies on the wild yeasts to get the juice through the ferment. “The yeasts on the grapes are part of the vineyard, to kill them just before crush makes no sense. Nature put them there for a reason.” Laughton allows for lengthy macerations and fermentations— in some vintages so lengthy that other winemakers would flinch. He uses gravity to move the fluid during racking and barreling and he may be one of the last people in Australia to use real cork stoppers. “Screwtops are bloody cheap and I will not have my wine in contact with plastic. I don’t like that.”
The results of this seemingly wild, wooly and laissez-faire approach have been magnificent making Jasper Hill one of the most sought after wines in Australia and coveted by collector’s worldwide. Each vintage, even the 1987 when bush fires threatened the vineyards and the hard drought years of ‘83 and ‘95, have been judged “Outstanding” by Langton’s, the arbiters of quality in Australian wine and first specialist auction house in the country.
The wines are full of character and are notably different from vintage to vintage and from paddock to paddock. In a side-by-side barrel tasting of the 2008 Emily’s Paddock and the 2008 Georgia’s Paddock (the vineyards are less then a kilometer apart and both wines were harvested at the same time and handled more or less identically) the wines were markedly different. The Emily’s Paddock was austere, firmer, more “Old World” while the Georgia’s Paddock was heavier, with lush, rich fruit. After the tasting analysis Laughton said, “See. Terroir exists.”
Laughton is a firm believer in the notion of terroir and his reliance on Biodynamic vineyard management and winemaking style reflects just how committed he is to the concept. In all aspects of the process his point of view remains unchanged. “Don’t fiddle with it,” says Laughton. “If you have to fiddle with it, you’re in the wrong place.”
In this video Ron talks about the yeast and terroir.
*Ron Laughton & Michel Chapoutier have teamed up to make Agly Brothers wines in the Corbieres region of southern France. Visit www.vinopedia.com to purchase Agly Brothers wines.
PO Box 110
Heathcote, Victoria 3523
88 Drummonds Lane
Heathcote, Victoria 3523
Visits are by appointment only— no cellar door
Jasper Hill wines are available in the US from
Old Bridge Cellars in Napa, California