Michel Chapoutier already makes some of the best Syrah wines in France's Rhtne Valley, where he owns vineyards in top appellations such as Hermitage, Ctte-Rttie and Chbteauneuf-du-Pape. But the winemaker is so excited about the quality of the grape variety in southern Australia, where it is known as Shiraz, that he has now entered his third joint venture in the country.
This time around, he is partnering not only with a well-respected Australian winemaker, Trevor Mast of Mount Langi Ghiran, but also with the Chicago-based Terlato Wine Group, whose holdings include Rutherford Hill Winery in Napa Valley and Paterno Imports. The group will focus on a collection of estate-grown Shiraz wines, which will range in price from $25 to $100.
"It will be quite interesting to have the influence of three big vineyard areas -- Europe, America and Australia -- all in one project," said Chapoutier.
The partnership originated about two years ago, when Chapoutier began working on Shiraz with the owners of cult favorite Jasper Hill in Victoria; at that time, he also acquired a property in Mount Benson, a new winemaking region on the coast of South Australia. (That venture's first wines, from the 1998 vintage, are coming into the United States this month and will be marketed under the Chapoutier name.) He wanted to bring in the Terlato family, who are his U.S. importers and his partners in a joint venture in France.
After touring all of the southern tip of Australia, the partners purchased 475 acres of land in the Australian Pyrenees, of which 85 are currently being planted to Shiraz. Eventually, up to 300 acres of that property may be cultivated. The group also has an option to buy another 500 acres in the neighboring Grampians region, where Mount Langi Ghiran is located. Up to 250 acres of grapevines may be planted there.
"We think that the potential to produce world-class red wines in this area is tremendous," said William Terlato, president and COO of the Terlato Wine Group. "We just loved the land, we loved the wines we tasted from there, we loved what Trevor was doing at Mount Langi."
The estate will be cultivated according to the principles of biodynamics -- which takes organic farming several steps farther -- that Chapoutier follows in his own Rhtne vineyards. Yields will be kept low, around 2 to 3 tons per acre.
All three partners, which each have an equal stake in the venture, will participate in the winemaking process. Mast will oversee day-to-day operations, and the wines will be made at Mount Langi winery. Chapoutier and his staff, along with winemakers from Terlato's Rutherford Hill, will fly in to help, particularly during the harvest period.
Although the wine will be an international collaboration, said Chapoutier, "The goal is not to make a French wine in Australia; the goal is to make an Australian wine. We just want to play with the outstanding climate and outstanding soil."
He explained that the good percentage of clay in the area's soil, the cooler climate that far south and the absence of rain during Australia's harvest season will allow them to create "elegant wines that can age a long time, maybe 30 years, but are very interesting to taste when they are only two or three years old."
A brand name has not yet been decided, but the partners hope to make at least three different Shiraz wines. "We are looking to produce a couple of different styles," said Terlato. "In the Pyrenees, the wines will be more powerful and muscular, whereas the wines from the Grampians will have a little more finesse."
In addition, about 10 to 15 acres of the Pyrenees property will be planted with pre-phylloxera clones of Syrah that were brought to Australia from France in the 1830s and 1840s. Because Australia still has many areas that are free from the destructive phylloxera vine louse, the group will experiment with a lot that has not been grafted to resistant rootstock.
"We think there are some tremendous quality advantages to be had," said Terlato. "If we end up losing it, we end up losing it, but we should be able to produce several hundred cases of exceptional wine off that specific lot."
The partners will start with about 1,500 cases of Shiraz from the 2000 vintage, using grapes sourced from a vineyard next to their property and from Mount Langi Ghiran's vineyards. The first release is expected to be on the market sometime in 2002. After that, Terlato said, production will grow slowly, perhaps to 30,000 cases.
Learn more about Michel Chapoutier and his ventures outside the Rhtne:
Read editor-at-large Harvey Steiman's recent report on Australian wines: