It’s not often you get the chance to stand upon 500 million year old soils. It’s even rarer to have the opportunity to grow grapes from it.
“Cambrian soil”, a term coined by Ron Laughton, winegrower at Jasper Hill in Heathcote, Victoria, “is soil derived from the decomposition of the cambrian volcanic basalt”, and it’s here that some of Heathcote’s best examples of shiraz, riesling, and other alternative varieties originate from vines that grow in this rusting red, prehistoric soil.
“Soils of this age are rare on earth, simply because they’ve been covered with oceans, or glaciers, or lost to erosion, water, or wind”, explains Ron, “but, miraculously, we have this little strip of Cambrian soil here, that, in the best spots, is between three and four metres deep”.
Ron Laughton, owner and winegrower at Jasper Hill has been making wines from these privileged vines since 1982. Formerly a microbiologist and food scientist, Ron became a winegrower after he realised he was, “never going to be gold watch material and stay working for a company for the rest of (his) life”.
Having grown up on a farm, Ron has a self professed, “feel for the soil”, and came to Heathcote, which up until then was a staunch farming community, with the express intention of growing grapes and making wines. Now, Heathcote is a thriving wine growing region with over 48 (and counting) individual labels, and is considered to be one of the best places in Australia to grow shiraz.
“When I first came (to Heathcote), everyone thought I was a hippy because there was no one else here growing grapes”, says Ron, “now, most people in Heathcote would regard me as one of the pioneers of viticulture in the region”.
Jasper Hill has been organic since inception, with Ron’s background as a food scientist heavily influencing his decision not to use any synthetic chemicals to manage and grow his grapes. Soon after starting though, he realised that if he truly wanted to reflect the unique ancient soils of his place, he would need to start putting back in as much as he was taking out.
“If you understand where the molecules that form the colour and flavour (of the wine) come from”, explains Ron, “the building blocks for those molecules are coming from the soil, and therefore, if I remove wine from that site – and sell it around the world – effectively I’m removing a part of the site every time a bottle leaves the place… So, from a terroir point of view, it started to worry me that I was removing a part of the place”.
Having pondered this conundrum for quite some time, Ron eventually discovered biodynamics which he defines as “a system of keeping your place and your soil, alive and healthy with bacterium, molds, and fungi, rather than topping up the place with fertilizers”.
So the decision to use biodynamics as a farming method came from the notion, as Ron explains, that “if you keep topping up the soils with fertilizer, then eventually you’ll be reflecting the terroir of the fertilizer factory, and effectively changing the place”. “So”, says Ron, “BD became the solution in my mind to keep the soil alive and healthy, so that effectively, you are regenerating the same place… it’s a bit of a no brainer”.
For Ron, biodynamics leads into the winery, where his MO is “to do as little as possible”.
“The idea is to keep our yields low”, says Ron, who gets less than a tonne to the acre, “and that gives me concentration of colour and flavour in the skins of the fruit, which, importantly, gives me great balance, because I don’t need to acid adjust”. In fact, Ron still has the same bag of tartaric acid that he bought over 20 years ago. “The need to acid adjust your wine is an admission that you’re not in the right place to grow grapes, or that you’re pushing (your vineyard) too hard by irrigating in order to get your yields up”, says Ron.
From a food scientist perspective, Ron recognises the fragility that food flavours have, whereby, as Ron explains by way on analogy, “if I heat the pan up too much, and put too much energy into the food, there’s a change of state from one point to the next, and if I go beyond that ideal change, it’s irreversible. Every time I do something I have the potential to change it, so I want to change it as little as possible so that the vineyard is reflected as much as possible… I don’t create the flavour, I just have the potential to lose it”.
When it comes to sulphur, Ron uses “bugger all”, but is quick to point out that “minimum sulphur is good, no sulphur is not”. This tends to qualify Jasper Hill wines as ‘natural’ wines, but Ron has never been bothered with the phrase in order to promote his wines. He’s been doing it for so long that it’s really nothing more than another small piece of his winemaking philosophy, which he’s been following for over 32 years. His wines would also qualify as biodynamic, of course, but Ron has never wanted to go down the path of certification.
Certification is something that Ron forcefully rejects. He’s never used the word organic, or biodynamic on his labels (because he can’t), and will only ever talk about it to people if they ask him. For Ron, the concept of certification is backwards, too divisive and unnecessary.
“I’m not certified, and I don’t wish to be”, explains Ron, “I can stand up with my hand on my heart and say I’ve been doing it for nearly 40 years… I think the dirty bastards that are using chemicals on their vineyard should be licensed. Why should I be certified to be clean, and do nothing harmful in my vineyard? It’s the wrong way round, and arse about”, says Ron.
“Conventional farming has only been so after the Second World War”, continues Ron, “and they use chemicals. I am a conventional viticulturist, they should call themselves chemical viticulturists”.
“I want to set my wines apart by being bloody good”, says Ron “and I am disappointed, in some respects (with organic certification), because I see a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon that don’t have their heart in it, and are doing it because it’s a marketing gimmick, and that worries me a little bit”.
Maintaining honesty and integrity through the wines he grows is central to Ron Laughton’s philosophy. The 32 year reputation that he has built for himself, and the wines he makes at Jasper Hill, is of greatest importance to him, and despite not being certified, Ron is certain that his method of farming is the right thing for his site, his vineyard, and his wines. He is also certain that it’s the right thing for the planet too.
“As humans we are putting our thumb print on the world too much, and it’s time that we take it off”, says Ron, “we are simply custodians of the land for the next generation after us”.
D// – The Wine Idealist