Digging Deep | Winepilot
Tony Love, winepilot.com, December 2020
How deeply do you go in a quest to discover the intricacies of the land you are farming and to make the best wines possible from where you come from?
In grape growing and winemaking circles, the concept of “terroir” is what makes a difference.
In the broadest of views, it can be between one region and another. More intricately, between one vineyard and another, even within the same region, where a minute change in topography, climatic factors, or soil makeup can dramatically affect the flavours and textures of a wine.
How deeply a grower or winemaker taps into these changes can lead to the most supreme wine aesthetics.
The finest wines of Burgundy or Barolo are considered globally to be among the greatest examples of terroir driven winemaking – an intimate knowledge of often tiny plots of vineyard learned after hundreds of years and multiple generations.
In Australia, where no single word has been able to replace the concept of terroir, the drive to differentiate regions into sub-districts and further into single sites, apart from a few dozen prized older vineyards, is a relatively new practice.
In the Barossa, for instance, while several original settler families and blocks are well recognised, an organised project to pinpoint the impact of sub-regional variations and unique soil differences on winemaking and finished wine characters and styles has only been in the making for a decade or so, to the benefit of all involved.
Now, in a tiny corner of the north-west Barossa, just outside Greenock and bordering the creek that takes that hamlet’s name, the first results in bottle have been revealed on one of the most detailed quests into terroir undertaken in Australia.
That project is a 60-hectare farm vineyard and winery known as Alkina, the work of Argentinian vintner Alejandro Bulgheroni and wine manager Amelia Nolan with guidance by renowned winemaker Alberto Antonini and terroir expert Pedro Parra.
Established in 2015 on a vineyard with 70-year-old vines matched by 170-year-old stone buildings in desperate need of rehab, Alkina was unveiled in the Spring of 2020. The property has been restored and enhanced to be an exquisite estate with a homestead and cottage for luxury accommodation, connecting gardens including an accessible kitchen plot for guests and in-house cooking, and a tasting room and courtyard offering a range of wine flights with accompanying delicacies.
All of this, of course, surrounds a suite of elite wines, accomplished after an extraordinary terroir project was undertaken by the Alkina team.
Starting in a small section of the vineyard with vines planted in the 1950s, Pedro Parra used a system of electro conductivity measurements to create a vineyard map revealing changes in the soils, clays and rocks under the surface.
A series of pits was then dug to more closely examine the underground variations that had occurred over more than 700 million years, due to tectonic plate movements and historic climate change.
Some of these pits were just 50 metres apart yet revealed dramatic differences in geological makeup. Suddenly the vineyard’s terroir had become a study of micro-terroir, with the main bedrock material of schist showing distinct changes in fractures, and with varying amounts of clays, ironstone and limestone.
The mapping became the groundwork for Alkina’s terroir based winemaking focus, with a concentration mostly on what was happening below the surface.
“We think that’s what makes the biggest difference to the texture and flavour characteristics of our wines,” Amelia Nolan says. “Other things play a role, but when you are dealing with one farm, how much does the aspect of one row to another make a difference?”.
“Not that much. The sun is there over it all. Most of the rows are running east-west. It’s not overly hilly. The real differences are in the small spatial changes of geology, and we can see the results in the wines with chalky tannins versus broader tannins versus rich, ripe fruit versus layers of smoked meat characters – the list goes on and on. We believe they are driven by soil and rock changes as opposed to anything else.”
After the mapping and the digging of Pedro’s soil pits, he created what are called nine micro-terroir “polygons” within the vineyard according to their soil and geology types. Some have just 200 vines within their small patch.
One extreme example is a 0.4 hectare section of shiraz divided into four mini polygons of 0.1 hectare each, all with a schist makeup but one which Pedro described as “not good”. Every year now at harvest, a tape is put around that exclusion zone and its 250 kg of fruit, about a third from the whole block, is pulled from that particular Polygon wine.
With this much detailing in the vineyard, aimed at creating wines of beauty and vibrancy, the winemaking also has a unique approach to fulfil that ambition. No commercial yeasts have ever been brought onto the property, with fermentations all starting spontaneously. Oak is barely involved, and, if so, it is via larger volume formats. Italian concrete tulips and amphorae are key, so too concrete egg-shaped vessels and Georgian qvevri.
Ultimately, there are many small parcels of wines from the vineyard polygon sections, enabling a range of separate expressions or the complex blending of the best.
“All the options allow us to make the very best we can through blending,” Amelia says. “That’s the exciting thing – it gives you the opportunity to take everything apart, so we can then put it back together.”
The Alkina focus is on the texture of their wines, grenache leading the way along with shiraz and mataro. Alberto Antonini also talks a lot about the energy and voltage in wine.
If the roots are working down deeply and pulling from the nutrients and minerals, he says, the fruit and the corresponding wine will have energy, and vibrancy. One of the first things he looks for in a wine is not the variety, nor the country or region it comes from, but whether it’s a schist wine, a granite wine, a limestone wine, or from clay, or if there is a lot of iron present.
Winemaking for the various Alkina wines is almost identical, from right next to each other in the vineyard, although they are directed into different vessels in the winery for fermentation and maturation, depending on their geological indications. Some reveal more or less crushed rock characters, others chalk and powdery notes, while some are clearly more about fruit and concentrated juiciness.
The primary Kin range introduces the Alkina wines without digging too deeply into micro-terroir detailing while still exploring new vineyard parcels to understand each and their various blends.
The Polygon wines are about fine pointing and exact expressions of specific geologies under the vineyard. “If you want to taste really, really focused terroir wines that are true expressions of one piece of dirt, these are the wines,” Amelia says. “If you are a real dirt nerd, a real Burgundy freak, and you want to just drink pure rock wines, then these are for you – and there are just 40 cases of each.”
There also is one wine here that tells the whole story of Alkina more than any other. The Old Quarter is not a single varietal style, but a single block wine, a blend of certified organic and biodynamic grenache (50%), shiraz (29%) and mataro (21%) from five separate polygon patches on three hectares of the older vineyard.
It’s a wine that defies separating it into its components as you taste it, and rather speaks of an accomplished completeness. Amelia Nolan is passionate about it, describing it as the total expression of the Alkina site, “This is our most important achievement”.
After just five years of digging out those first rocks and guiding the vines and wines to this point, she is very aware, however, that the Alkina story has just begun.
“You have to look at cultures around the world where winemaking has been going on for a very long time to see the evidence that humans have seen the differences in characters according to place and site,” she says. “It’s been going on for hundreds of years in certain places like Burgundy and Barolo, and if you look at that history you see the pattern very clearly.”
Burgundy, she says, is the ultimate example, dividing plots into grand cru and premier cru. Why? Because over the years the wines tasted different – and they always talk about the geology.
“It’s no new concept globally, but in Australia it is, and Alkina’s is quite a detailed study by Australian standards. What we are doing is validating what lots of farmers and vignerons around the world know. In our vineyard, the deep clay vines grow lots and lots of fruit, but the vines in the hard schist with limestone capping are smaller and don’t grow nearly as much fruit because they are struggling to get their roots down there. We can see it physically in the vines, and no one would debate that it’s soil-related.”
The Alkina crew could spend the next couple of hundred years trying to work out whether their farm has such differences, Amelia says, but they want to learn what they can in a more compact timeframe with the research and knowledge available. “We want to be able to handle these polygons and really understand them to get the very best out of them.”
Alkina Kin Semillon 2020, Barossa Valley 11.9% $35 91 points
"The “Kin” wines from this adventurous new Barossa winemaking enterprise is essentially their estate range that offers a look into evolving styles and blends from across their north-western vineyard in the Greenock district. Semillon has long been the Barossa’s traditional white variety, here fermented as whole berries with indigenous yeast in a Georgian qvevri as well as a stainless steel tank, left on skins for six months where it has built a unique waxy textural feel as well as the faintest of flor characters woven into its more varietally familiar lemon, floral, and field grass footings. Great to see this kind of expression created from what often can be semillon’s bare canvas."
Alkina Kin Rose 2020, Barossa Valley 12.5% $35 94 points
"One hundred percent grenache from a small block section in Alkina’s Greenock district vineyard, NASAA certified organic and biodynamic, the fruit picked early then the pressed free run juice moved to a single concrete tulip with a bucket or two of skins for the palest of pinks to develop. Florals and flints to start, the grenache giving its oft-seen white strawberry tops and watermelon notes with citrussy acidity driving a lip-smacking palate. Most refreshing and excellent retention of flavour in its long finish."
Alkina Kin Grenache 2020, Barossa Valley 14% $35 94 points
"Sourced from two section of the estate vineyard, each with varying ground and soil makeup, a key focus from the Alkina team in their recognition of tiny terroir mapping across their 43 hectares of vines. For the record, these are 2016 plantings, certified organic and biodynamic, one section is schist base with some limestone, the other schist and quartzite with limited topsoil supporting bush vines. All whole bunch fermented in three concrete tulips, one with extended skin maceration. The clever crafting of this wine results in a juicy style with a lot of extra, in-built interest, a note of flint which seems to be a vineyard trait here, the variety’s subtle blood lip character seasoning the cherry-ish fruit along with a liberal dash of peppery spice and lightly grainy tannins. Good friendly grenache pleasure with perks."
Alkina Kin Field White 2019, Barossa Valley 13.5% $47.50 92 points
"Delving into the great tradition of field blends gives us an insight into the adventurous souls within the Alkina winemaking crew, here tapping into a small vineyard patch in what is known as the Old Quarter to bring 95% semillon with the remainder riesling and ugni blanc to co-ferment on skins – a good portion in a Georgian clay qvevri with high skin to juice ratio. Left for nine months before pressing, the result has a golden complexion in the glass, flavour sensors of quince and dried mint, as well as the usual skin-contact white wine saline and rich textural feels. Bravely geared to drinkers of this niche style, fascinating in its own right, and brilliant with anchovy dishes."
Alkina Kin Field Red 2018, Barossa Valley 14% $47.50 94 points
"Not surprisingly, the hero varieties out in this Greenock district vineyard are grenache, shiraz and Mataro, here in a 45:45:10 blend harvested from a range of older and newer plantings across several quite different ground profiles. The Alkina team work intensely on separating small vineyard sections according to their geologies – this was the first vintage they made such intricate divisions, picked and vinified individually, fermented with an average of 40% whole bunch by indigenous yeast then matured in a mix of concrete and oak vessels. Fragrant, vibrant and juicy with tasteful fringe benefits like a streak of salt-cured meat and gastronomic faint orange amaro bitters, finishing with a touch of subtle chalkiness. Delicious."
Alkina Old Quarter 2019, Barossa Valley 14.2% $100 97 points
"The Old Quarter refers to a section of the Alkina vineyard planted in the 1950s to the district’s classic varieties, in this instance the reds grenache, shiraz and mataro. The crew here consider this the purest expression of the site as a whole, Alkina manager Amelia Nolan calling it “our most important achievement”. Having mapped the block into tiny sections with unique geologies, each called a polygon, the fruit from five separate patches was fermented individually with indigenous yeast in concrete tulips with an average of 70% whole bunch included before maturation in a mix of concrete and older, larger French oak. The makeup of 50% grenache, 29% shiraz and 21% mataro weaves together a multitude of aromatic and flavour characters: charcuterie, blood pudding, dark plum, dark choc and orange with an underlying chalk and talc composition that acts as a textural foundation to its lifted top notes. The crowning achievement here is a completeness, a symbiotic and harmonious wine that defies being deconstructed into its parts. All class and right at the top of the league in this genre."
After mapping and separating the Alkina vineyard in Greenock into tiny patches known as polygons, based on varying geologies, the winemaking team has made tiny amounts from the most distinctive of them in what they deem the results of intense research and extreme commitment. The prices of their Polygon wines reflect this and their rarity.
Alkina 2018 Polygon No. 3, Barossa Valley 13.8% $295 95 points
"From a limestone-based section of just 200 grenache vines, this is made in much the same manner as all the Alkina wines, here 50% whole bunch fermented in one concrete tulip before 15 months maturation in 10-year-old barrels. Delightfully red-fruit juicy, subtly spiced with a surround of chalky tannins, imbued with energy, the balance of all involved elements delivers a purity of intent as well as fabulous drinking pleasure."
Alkina 2018 Polygon No. 5, Barossa Valley 14.2% $295 95 points
"Another all-grenache wine from a small schist and ironstone section, the wine is radically different to its Polygon No. 3 sibling. Here it reveals darker fruits with herbal wildness, some orange peel and flesh also in its initial aromatic greeting. Bigger, more generous in its layered fruit power, its tannin texture is still superfine with an earth and chalk dust feel. Again, a complete statement of grape and ground."
Alkina 2019 Polygon No. 1, Barossa Valley 13.5% $295 95 points
"Even within just a 0.4 hectare section, four distinct parcels have been further separated for this unique creation of shiraz, 100% whole bunch fermented in concrete before nine months in a ten year old barrel. Lifted with raspberry and chocolate notes, peppery spices - almost Szechuan, certainly an Asian pantry feel – this immensely attractive, medium bodied, open-weave wine is simply delicious to drink. Chinese dishes for sure, though it’s so appealing on its own."