What lies beneath
Australian Financial Review, Max Allen, March 9, 2023
The team at young winery Alkina Estate has been digging deep (literally) to come up with some extraordinary releases.
Amelia Nolan is standing in a pit dug between two rows of grenache vines at the Alkina vineyard in the Barossa. She’s holding a geologist’s pick and gently scraping away at the red dirt and stones deep under the vines, looking for roots burrowing into the ground.
“This is all clay and degraded schist,” she says, holding a handful of the red-brown gravelly earth. “The vines growing here are in a happy place. They produce rich, juicy wine. But we need to be careful it’s not too rich, too one-dimensional.”
She climbs out of the pit, and we walk a few metres up the vineyard to another hole in the ground. On the surface, these vines are growing in the same type of red-brown topsoil as the vines we just saw. But down below, in the hole, the underlying rock is white and crumbly: limestone, mixed with some of the stones we saw in the other pit, but much less of the clay.
“This is what I love to see,” says Nolan. “Vines growing into the limestone make wine with more finesse, a cooler quality.”
Another pit, a few more metres along, is schist all the way down – big great grey and brown chunks and slabs of it. And the wines? More tannic, more structural.
“I want to know where all this different geology is though the vineyard,” says Nolan. “And you can’t be sure unless you dig a hole.”
Nolan is the managing director of Alkina Wine Estate at Greenock, in the northwest of the Barossa. Alkina is a new name in the region: the winery was built in 2017, and the first wines released in 2020. But the property is full of history: the original vines here were planted in the 1950s, and the original stone buildings date back to the property’s days as a farm in the 1850s.
Alkina is owned by Alejandro Bulgheroni, an Argentine oil and gas billionaire with an extensive portfolio of wine estates from Patagonia to Napa, from Tuscany to Uruguay.
Nolan spent six years in London as managing director of Argento, a Mendoza wine brand originally established as a joint venture between Bulgheroni and the UK wine merchant Bibendum. When she moved back to Australia with her young family a decade ago, Bulgheroni suggested she might want to look for a project in her home country that he could invest in.
In 2014, she found a vineyard and farm at Greenock that was for sale. “People told me I was crazy,” she says. “The buildings were run down, half the vineyard was old, there were rusty car bodies in the paddocks. But I thought it was perfect.”
Paradoxically, perhaps (given that the source of his family’s fortune is fossil fuels), Bulgheroni’s big focus in his wine portfolio is on sustainability. He insists that, wherever possible, his vineyards are farmed organically. Argento, for example, is now Mendoza’s largest organic wine producer, and the 43 hectares of vines now at Alkina are certified biodynamic. The old buildings have been restored to become the winery, cellar door and accommodation; the creek that runs through the property has been regenerated; the car bodies are gone.
Leading Italian consultant winemaker Alberto Antonini works across Bulgheroni’s estates, including Alkina. Through Antonini, Nolan met Chilean Pedro Parra, a specialist in terroir, who loves nothing more than jumping into holes in vineyards to see what lies beneath.
“Pedro’s team start by mapping the electro-conductivity of the soils of the whole vineyard,” says Nolan. “That can give them a good idea of the variations of underlying geology across the site. Then we start digging pits to verify those observations.”
When Parra travelled to the Barossa for the first time in 2017, says Nolan, he was particularly excited by the limestone and schist he found in the pits.
“The only other place in the world Pedro has seen this combination – sedimentary and metamorphic rocks together – is in Priorat, in Spain,” she says.
This soil mapping and pit-digging allowed Parra, Antonini and the Alkina team to establish a pattern of “polygons” across the vineyard: defined areas where there is more limestone, or schist, or clay. They then started to pick the grapes in some of these small blocks and ferment them separately, to see what effect the underlying geology has on the resulting wine.
“Because if there is no difference, of course, then it’s all been a waste of time,” says Nolan.
But there is. A dramatic difference. As you can read from my tasting notes here of the Polygon grenaches.
Crucially, the Alkina team has moved away from fermenting and maturing these wines in oak. Apart from a few big oval casks, the winery is full of tulip-shaped and egg-shaped concrete vessels, as well as earthenware amphorae.
“Why go to all the trouble of capturing the flavours of these micro terroirs,” says Nolan, “and then cover them up with the flavour of an imported tree?”
And it’s significant, too, that the grape variety that expresses these micro terroir differences most eloquently is grenache rather than shiraz, the grape most traditionally associated with the Barossa. “I just love grenache,” says Nolan. “And I think it loves us.”
2022 Alkina Kin Grenache [Barossa Valley]
This is a delicious, lively expression of new-wave Barossa grenache. It’s made from fruit grown on young vines planted in 2016 on two parts of the vineyard, one on more schist-derived clay, one with seams of quartzite and limestone. Lots of tantalising juicy dark cherry fruit, some sappy spice, really lively and full of crunchy berries on the tongue. $36
2022 Alkina Birdsong Shiraz [Barossa Valley]
This wine is made mostly from shiraz grown in two parts of the older vineyard at Alkina, plus some shiraz from younger vines, and around 10 per cent old vine mataro. It smells quite plush and rich, with blackberry and aromatic dark tea perfume, and carries some of that richness through to the mouth, but is framed in deliciously grippy, savoury, long tannins. $47.50
2022 Alkina Old Quarter [Barossa Valley]
A blend of mostly grenache plus shiraz and mataro, all picked from four blocks of the oldest vines on the property, planted in the 1950s, with the biggest parcel of grenache coming from bush vines growing in fractured clay and schist. Fabulously spicy – woody, exotic, sweet spices rather than peppery aromas – with ripe, dark, intense fruit and a sweep of harmonious tannin across the tongue. $100
2020 Alkina Polygon 3 and 5 grenaches [Barossa Valley]
The new vintage of Alkina’s two single-block old-vine grenaches, both from 2020, will be released in April. Tasting the wines side by side is a deliciously compelling demonstration of the reality of rock-derived terroir.
The Polygon 3 is made from gnarly 70-year-old vines growing in red dirt over crumbly fractured limestone, shot through with lumps of schist. It’s full of fine, floral, perfumed red berries and some macerated red cherry, and has a lovely, flowing, quality of tannin that floods the mouth. The Polygon 5 is made from grapes grown in the same vineyard – but picked from vines planted in patches of deeper red dirt over fractured schist with veins of iron-rich clay. The wine is slightly deeper in colour, with darker berry fruit, earthier aromatics and a sinewy, structural quality to the tannins.
Amelia Nolan also pours me preview tastes of the just-bottled 2022 vintage of wines from the same blocks, and I can taste exactly the same differences in the glass: the Polygon 3 was more floral, with red berries and fine-grained tannins, the Polygon 5 was richer, more intense, with darker, gripper tannins.
Only a few hundred bottles of each wine were produced. $295
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