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Honouring the Land – Defining our Subregions

Regions
19 November 2021. Words by Marcus Ellis.

Australia has plenty of wine history, and we arguably have the most precious resource of old and ancient vines in the world, but we’re still a young wine country by European standards. Many of our revered wine regions took shape relatively recently, like Margaret River and the Adelaide Hills, or their history has had significant gaps where no grapes were grown, such as the Yarra Valley and Geelong. Describing those regions in broad brushstrokes is a starting point, but one of the most critical ongoing projects is defining and mapping the finer detail, uncovering subregional nuances and drilling down on the detail that makes our wine country special.

“If you’re a mature wine region, you know your subregions,” says Vanya Cullen of Margaret River’s Cullen Wines. “And we are a mature region, and we do know our subregions. You don’t talk about a huge winegrowing region, 100 kilometres long by 27 kilometres wide,” she says, referencing the scale of Margaret River. “You talk about your little region, of Wilyabrup or Yallingup or… so you can talk through that point of difference in the land and what the land does to the wine.”

Cullen is reflecting on a recent decision that has stalled a submission to have Wilyabrup, the oldest section of the Margaret River wine region, declared an official subregion. The Geographical Indications Committee had granted interim approval after accepting a 2017 submission authored by Cullen in collaboration with Fraser Gallop, Lenton Brae, Moss Wood and Woodlands, but that had stalled due to some local opposition. The counter claim is that Margaret River does not have major differences of expression across its territory.

“It’s not true,” declares Cullen. “Everybody in the region knows the difference between the subregions. There’s a tasting every year that’s divided into John Gladstones subregions… to say it is just one land… we all know what the differences are. It’s just very sad. I believe it sets Margaret River back 30 years.”

Above: Vanya Cullen. Opposite: Cullen's vines in Wilyabrup.
“Everybody in the region knows the difference between the subregions. There’s a tasting every year that’s divided into John Gladstones subregions… to say it is just one land… we all know what the differences are. It’s just very sad. I believe it sets Margaret River back 30 years.”

The task of accurately defining subregions is one of this country’s most important projects, a necessary step to align us with the great wine regions of the world.

In France, for example, winegrowing territory is well mapped, with a deep understanding of which sites produce better and lesser wines, as well as wines that are just stylistically quite different even with the same varieties employed. Marquee regions, such as Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, have their sites segmented into tiny fractions on historic maps, with the implications of a border likely to significantly raise or lower the value of a bottling either side of that line.

Over time, different regions – and indeed subregions and even smaller areas withing those subregions – have naturally found the most suitable grape varieties for their geology and climate, and those vines have adapted and mutated to even better suit their environment. Natural selection, if you will.

In Burgundy, grape variety is a mere footnote. Red Burgundy is made from pinot noir, yes, but it is Burgundy that is important, the specific territory, the adaption of vines in situ, the influence of the local culture. It is a complex whole. Looking at components misses the point somewhat.

In the Burgundy region of France [photo above], there are 32 communes in the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune, across a stretch of land approximately 50kms long, which is then further broken down into classifications within these communes. Conversely, in Australia [photo opposite], the entire state of Tasmania – an area of land over 68,000 square kms in size – is officially defined as one viticulture region.

In Australia, that quest to find the ideal places for growing certain grapes is an ongoing one, but there is little doubt that we have already found areas of great suitability. And those places weren’t always what we thought they would be. Tasmania and the Mornington Peninsula, for example, steered away from Bordeaux varieties – cabernet sauvignon, merlot et al – to Burgundian ones – pinot noir and chardonnay – after the first best guesses for climatic suitability mostly didn’t pan out in practice.

As with Europe, we have legal structures to protect place names. Just as we can no longer call sparkling wine Champagne, dry whites Chablis or shiraz Hermitage (we did a lot of that in the 20th century), the French can’t label a local cabernet Margaret River or a pinot noir Yarra Valley (not that they’ve really tried to…). It’s an assurance that what you buy is what you get, and when all in the region work towards elevating quality, that name can have significant value.

The problem with our registered GIs (geographic indications) is that many are very large, some laughably so. Starting big in a fledgling region makes sense, but refining down into subregions, when meaningful differences become apparent both in the glass and through geographic, geological and climatic analysis, is vital.

Tasmania was granted its GI in 1994, covering the whole state. It is a hopelessly broad classification, not even excluding vast areas of protected wilderness that dominate the western side of the island. It simply protects the use of the state’s name for wine packaging claims. There are seven subregions that are widely, though unofficially, recognised. These so-called subregions should be regions in their own right, while their own subregions will become apparent over time as more vineyards are established.

Above: Kevin and Diana Cullen. Photo taken in 1993. Opposite: Dr Tom Cullity with the first Vasse Felix grapevines, planted in 1967.

In Margaret River, the problem is no less apparent.

The godfather of the region is agronomist John Gladstones, whose 1966 paper on the suitability of viticulture for the area prompted Tom Cullity to plant the first enduring modern vines in 1967 when he founded Vasse Felix. Kevin and Diana Cullen, along with a group of friends, had planted a year prior in a site that is now Juniper Estate, but those vines did not survive, with their eponymous estate beginning in 1971.

Today, Vanya Cullen continues her stewardship of that great estate, which she has steered for decades. Cullen’s commitment to the region, to farming in a regenerative way (certified biodynamic since 2003) and to honouring the land is arguably without parallel. And for her, it is important to focus on the great individuality that she sees across the large region, and most pertinently the clear reflection of her own subregion, Wilyabrup.

“And there are the soils that Wilyabrup cabernet are famous for. Cabernet is a difficult variety to get right, and it’s a good place to grow cabernet particularly.”

In 1999, Dr Gladstones published a follow-up paper to his landmark study after the evidence of 30 years of winegrowing was in. His report, which analysed climate and soil data proposed that there clearly were distinct subregions: Wilyabrup, Carbunup, Yallingup, Treeton, Wallcliffe and Karridale.

Revisiting that report after another 20 years, in 2019 Gladstones analysed further climate and rainfall data to again reaffirm that there was significant merit in legally declaring these subregions, with a note that Karridale would best be separated into north and south zones due to both soil and climate variations. “Now some 40 years of practical experience has very largely borne out the resulting predictions for grape varieties and wine styles,” he wrote.

It was Wilyabrup, though, that he noted has so far staked the clearest claim to being recognised.

“It is 20 years since the region’s potential sub-regions were mapped and named,” Gladstones wrote. “In that time they have been vindicated both in practical outcomes and through their acceptance for local colloquial use. …Now seems to be a suitable time to seek such registration, and it would be advantageous for all sub-regions to do so at the same time. …But failing early agreement … there should be no impediment to Wilyabrup leading the way, leaving others free to follow as they wish according to their own interests.”

Gladstones noted in his paper that cabernet sauvignon becomes thin and vegetal in too cold a climate and loses “balance and varietal typicity” in one too warm. “Ample experience has now shown that while the whole of the Margaret River region can produce very good cabernet, it is Wilyabrup that most nearly meets the above criteria,” he wrote. “More than that, its closest match is to what would be reckoned a great … season in Bordeaux… That was the major premise on which Wilyabrup was specifically selected for the first Margaret River plantings, based on the limited data then available.”

Cullen notes that the consistent weather pattern and the subregion’s protection from the ocean winds that influence the north and the south are major contributes to this suitability. “Wilyabrup is right in the middle of a high and low, and it has that evenness of not being too far in the warmth of the north, or too far south,” she says. “And there are the soils that Wilyabrup cabernet are famous for. Cabernet is a difficult variety to get right, and it’s a good place to grow cabernet particularly.”

Cullen notes that the consistent weather pattern and the subregion’s protection from the ocean winds that influence the north and the south are major contributes to this suitability. “Wilyabrup is right in the middle of a high and low, and it has that evenness of not being too far in the warmth of the north, or too far south,” she says.

Whether or not Wilyabrup is regarded as better wine country than any other of the regions is a moot point, though. The issue at hand is regional definition, and it’s something that Vanya Cullen believes in very strongly.

As it stands, Wilyabrup can be used on labels, and in the case of Cullen, where it is proudly displayed, that is a guarantee of origin. But that is a matter of principle, with no legal requirements in place. “It’s the same with organic and biodynamic, because there’s no legislation, people can greenwash with those terms,” says Cullen, who takes issue with those that use the terms like ‘organic practices’ while still using synthetic chemicals, stressing that certification, which is legally defined, is the only assurance. “It’s exactly the same with Wilyabrup. It’s not protected.”

That means that while producers can continue to raise the quality perception and value of Wilyabrup wines through the use of the subregional name, it also means that other makers are free to bring in fruit from anywhere in Margaret River and still label the wine with the subregional moniker. That’s a potentially lucrative position for some producers, especially with blue chip wineries like Cullen raising the cachet of the name.

For Gladstones, while Wilyabrup is a clear candidate for being accorded its only legally defined status, it is a move that doesn’t detract from the other zones, but rather is the start of an ongoing and very positive process. “Other ‘sweet spots’ for grape varieties and wine styles are progressively being identified, and more (some not yet thought of) will doubtless be identified in future,” he wrote. “All these will need to be able to claim their precise and legally protected origins if the full value of the region’s wines and of its advantages can be realised.”

That long-sighted view is one that Cullen agrees with, but for her it’s also a very personal journey. “It’s about honouring the land,” she says, “and acknowledging the land. People can make a regional blend if they want to honour the huge region of Margaret River, which is fine, but my wine comes from Wilyabrup, and I want that honoured.”

Cullen are a partner of the Wineslinger Awards.

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