The best wines in the world all share at least one thing in common, and that is a winemaker who brings a unique combination of both vision and passion to their work.
At the age of thirty, winemaker Ron Laughton found himself managing the southern hemisphere’s largest cheese factory, and with a total absence of passion for what he was doing. Having grown up on a farm and gotten degrees in chemistry and food science, Laughton worked all over the world for Kraft Foods before being headhunted by an Australian dairy company. His career path seemed as assured as it was unbearable.
“That was about the time they invented the term mid-life crisis, I think” says Laughton. “Just in time for me to have one.”
Laughton knew he would never be “gold watch material” but he wasn’t clear on exactly what he wanted to do, only that he wanted to do something on his own.
“Given my training there were a few paths I could follow, and wine seemed easier than cheese. When I was thirty or thirty-two I don’t know if I really knew what I was doing. Now looking back, I know why I’m here. My maternal forbears were scottish raspberry growers, my paternal ones were iron workers. I have some green genes in me” he explains.
At that point in his life, wine was a somewhere between a passing interest and a passion. He had worked for a time in Europe and had the opportunity to explore the wines of the Old world and compare them to what Australia was producing in the 1970s.
“Along the way I started to have these thoughts, that whilst Australia was making good wine, the flavors were being lost. I saw things in European wine that Australia just seemed to be missing. In particular I fell in love with the Shiraz grape in all its forms. I think it is the most profound grape of them all. As a single entity it has everything, and is very versatile. I knew what Australian Shiraz tasted like at the time, and I was a young smartass thinking I could do better.”
Once the idea of making wine began to settle into place in his head, everything seemed to click into place. Just what that “everything” was is a little hard to explain, but it lies at the heart of what makes Laughton tick as a winemaker. Here’s how he explains it.
“First, you have to understand that the grapevine is not a native to this continent. It evolved in the Middle East and Europe without us tipping a bucket of water on it. What this said to me fundamentally was that if you’re trying to grow grapes and you need to irrigate, you’re doing it in the wrong place. It’s simple logic, isn’t it? To grow grapes the way they evolved to be grown you need a certain amount of rainfall and a certain quality of soil that will retain that rainfall. And if you want the absolute purity of flavor of the grape, you want it growing on its own roots. It’s a philosophical choice, but it’s an important one for me. As soon as you graft onto American rootstock, you’re interfering, aren’t you? It’s a matter of getting back to the absolute essence of the grape.”
So in the midst of his “mid-life crisis” Laughton arrived at an equation that made sense for his life: “I wanted to build my own house, grow grapes, make my own wine and sell it.” But more than that, he wanted to make the purest expression of his beloved Shiraz that he could possibly muster.
“To make it work I knew I needed lots of capital and lots of time. But more importantly I needed the desire. I took the bold step of resigning, even with my kids in nappies. And then it had to work. It was only a question of where.”
While working at the dairy farm in the state of Victoria, Laughton found himself regularly driving through the countryside between Beechworth and Bendigo and had noticed, thanks to what he calls his “farmer’s eye for observation,” a deep red soil exposed here and there. With a little research it turned out to be something called Cambrian soil, a finely eroded ancient basalt that had been exposed by the action of a fault which runs through the center of the valley.
Then one day, Laughton and his wife Elva were coming home from a social function and stopped in the village of Heathcote to look in the window of a real estate office, where they saw a small card that simply said “vineyard for sale” with an address. Within 10 minutes Laughton was standing in between a few rows of scraggly, neglected grapevines.
“There was nothing here except this little vineyard that had been planted by the local bulldozer driver of Italian descent. His name was Bruno, and he had planted it with the hope of making some wine at home just for himself. But those hopes were dashed when one of his daughters had a serious illness and he was forced to put it on the market. I met him as soon as I could, and asked him what variety of grapes he had planted. ‘dunno,’ he said I just asked the local agricultural department what to plant. I can’t remember what they told me. Something that ends in a “z” maybe?”
Cue the heavenly choir.
Laughton’s hand built, adobe-walled home sits at the top of his small six acre vineyard known as Emily’s Paddock, after his daughter. The tiny winery sits just next door, both at the top of a small dirt driveway. These first grapes were planted in 1975, long before the region achieved recognition as an appellation, and long before most anyone else thought of planting grapes there.
Since the very first day that he owned the property, along with the two other vineyard sites he has acquired since (Georgia’s Paddock and Cornella vineyard) Laughton has farmed his vineyards organically. Despite his training in the more commercial aspects of agribusiness, the idea of adding anything foreign to his vines struck Laughton as an unnatural mistake. Such an orientation made it easy for him to transition to biodynamics after striking up a friendship with French winery owner Michel Chapoutier who is an outspoken advocate for the practice.
Laughton’s friendship with Chapoutier has also led to a joint venture together, a beautiful wine known as La Plieade, named after the distinctive constellation that is visible in both the northern and the southern hemisphere. Laughton has another tie to France — a small estate in the south of the country where he and his wife spend part of the year, and from which they make another wine under the label “The Agly Brothers.”
Laughton’s winemaking has the delicacy and deftness that you might expect from someone with such a distinct philosophical vision for what he is trying to achieve. This delicacy is balanced with a certain rusticity that immediately distinguishes the wines from most others in the region, and the natural acidity of his wines makes for distinct and compelling evolution over time. Above all, the wines are incredibly distinctive, with their own strong sense of place, the truest testament to Laughton’s vision and the passion he brings to its execution.
2009 Jasper Hill “Emily’s Paddock” Shiraz (Barrel Sample), Heathcote
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of crushed stones and dried herbs mixed with blackberry fruit. In the mouth it is mineral driven and spicy, with a rich earthiness and woody character that linger in a finish that has a touch of bitterness. Balanced and quite interesting. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2009 Jasper Hill “Georgia’s Paddock” Shiraz (Barrel Sample), Heathcote
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of rich cassis and earthy, even farmyard aromas. In the mouth it offers red fruit and blackberry notes with a nice cassis quality on the finish that brings in black pepper flavors. Nicely balanced. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2007 Jasper Hill “Georgia’s Paddock” Shiraz, Heathcote
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of rich blackberry and black pepper aromas. In the mouth the wine has gorgeously chalky mouthcoating tannins and ethereal flavors of blackberry cassis, and a beautiful aromatic sweetness that lingers in a long finish. Somehow delicate and brawny at the same time, which is a remarkable feat. Lovely. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50.
2007 Jasper Hill “Emily’s Paddock” Shiraz, Heathcote
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberry briar and flowers. In the mouth it is stony in character, with very fine grained tannins that linger in the front of the mouth, while the rest of the wine spreads its wings across the palate. Wonderful cassis and blackberry flavors mixed with a dusty earthiness linger for minutes in the finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50.
2002 Jasper Hill “Georgia’s Paddock” Shiraz, Heathcote
Dark cloudy ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of blackberry pie and stewed cherry aromas. In the mouth the wine is wondrously soft and velvety with tannins fading smoothly into the body of the wine and lovely fruit qualities of cherry and hints of cocoa powder. Balanced and complex, with an incredibly long finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50. Click to buy.
2002 Jasper Hill “Emily’s Paddock” Shiraz, Heathcote
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of dates and prune aromas with a wonderful cedar note to them. In the mouth it is rich and mouthfilling with sweet cherry and redcurrant fruit that swirls over a bed of stony earthiness and lingers with a fine sawdust quality in the finish. Excellent. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50. Click to buy.
1992 Jasper Hill “Georgia’s Paddock” Shiraz, Heathcote
Medium ruby in the glass and holding great color for its age, this wine smells of smoked meats and candied redcurrants. In the mouth it has developed an incredible sweet quality despite being totally dry. This gorgeous wine hums with a really beautiful redcurrant and cherry note, with cedar and other savory flavors that linger into a very long finish. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $50. Click to buy.
1992 Jasper Hill “Emily’s Paddock” Shiraz, Heathcote
Medium cloudy ruby in the glass, with some little signs of age in lightness at the rim, this wine has a somewhat shy nose of leather and hints of bacon fat. In the mouth it offers wonderful cinnamon, orange peel and cherry qualities with still muscular, grippy tannins. Wonderful spicy characteristics linger in the finish. Fantastic. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $50. Click to buy.
2008 Jasper Hill “Occam’s Razor” Shiraz, Heathcote
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of ripe blackberries. In the mouth it offers ripe blackberry fruit with hints of cassis, and juicy acidity backed by sneaky, but grippy tannins that have a woody quality. Made by the winemaker’s daughter, Emily. Score: around 9. Click to buy.
2007 La Plieade Shiraz, Heathcote
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet perfumed cassis and flowers with a hint of dried fruit. In the mouth it is expansive and broad with blackberry and black cherry flavors and powdery mouth-coating tannins. The wonderfully long finish has a citrus component as well as cedar. This is a joint venture with Michel Chapoutier and is sold as “Cluster M45” in the USA. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2007 Jasper Hill “Cornella” Grenache, Heathcote
Light to medium garnet in the glass this wine smells of strawberry and raspberry. In the mouth it is exceedingly juicy with fantastic acidity and amazing juicy raspberry and cherry flavors mixed with a light earthiness that lingers along with faint tannins in the finish. Outstanding and incredibly drinkable. Score: around 9.5. Click to buy.
2009 Jasper Hill Riesling, Heathcote
Light gold in the glass this wine has a nose of golden apples and lemon zest aromas. In the mouth the wine is bright and juicy with golden apples and lemon zest. Competent, but not remarkable. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2002 Jasper Hill Riesling, Heathcote
Light old in the glass, this wine has a nose of apples and petrol aromas. In the mouth it offers lemon juice and bright pears with a nice mineral undertone. Aging very nicely. Score: around 9.
2006 Agly Brothers Red Blend Coteaux du Rousillion, France
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of black cherry and blackberry aromas. In the mouth it is smooth and polished, with lovely blackberry and black cherry flavors with a nice smoky quality in the finish. Made from 60% old vine Carignane (average age about 108 years), 25% Syrah, and 15% Grenache. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2001 Jasper Hill “Georgia’s Paddock” Nebbiolo, Heathcote
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of cherry and dried flower aromas with a lovely note of anise seed. In the mouth the wine is soft and velvety with cherry and cassis flavors with hints of dried flowers. The wine finishes with lovely woody notes and the persistent sensation of powdery tannins. Score: around 8.5.
2009 Jasper Hill “Georgia’s Paddock” Viognier, Heathcote
Light greenish-gold in color, this wine has a nose of fresh apricots and lemon zest. In the mouth it is rich and silky with peaches, lemon zest, and golden apple flavors. Perhaps not quite as much acidity as I would like, but amidst the softness there’s a very nice set of flavors. Score: around 8.5.