Wines for koalas

At a time when winemakers are vigorously diversifying into ‘alternative’ grape varieties, it can be disconcerting to find that a given winery’s shiraz, cabernet, tempranillo and sangiovese all have much the same flavour. Minced gumleaves! Eucalyptol is one of the most volatile and concentrated aromas found in wine. How it gets there has been a subject of argument. Is it gum trees near the vineyard? Does it carry on the wind? Is it in the soil? If the vines are on cleared land, did the gum trees leave a residue that gets into the wine?

Later in his life, the great John Middleton of Mount Mary (tastings) was upset at a plan by his local golf club to plant eucalypts on the fence marking its boundary with Mount Mary vineyard in the Yarra Valley. He was convinced it would ruin his wine by imparting a dominant gumleafy aroma.

Markus Herderich, group manager research for the Australian Wine Research Institute, says the offending compound is a monoterpene called eucalyptol, and it’s primarily spread by air. ‘The closer the vineyard is to eucalypt trees, the more eucalyptol you find in the grapes and wine.” He says the second most common way is eucalyptus leaves in the MOG (matter other than grapes that finds its way into the crusher by accident).

Mintiness, whether manifested in wine as peppermint, spearmint or garden mint, is derived from the same compound. Herderich says eucalyptus or mint aromas are common in Australian red wines. “We tested 146 wines from various Australian regions and 40% contained eucalyptol,” he said.

Many wine drinkers in other countries love this aroma and consider it a distinctive Aussie trait. But a lot of us aren’t so keen. Many winemakers dislike it and try to avoid it – if only they knew how (short of pulling up sticks and moving to another location). What is it about gumleaf that bothers us?

In short, a dominant eucalyptus character drowns out everything else. It swamps the subtleties that make wine interesting. Even after many years of aging, gumleafy wines still smell and taste gumleafy. A small dose of mint can be quite pleasant, even adding to complexity. But in larger quantity it has the opposite effect – it simplifies wine by dominating it.

Some winemakers regard it as a symptom of underripe grapes. I’m not so sure, but I often find gumleafy wines astringent on the palate, as if the tannins were a touch green. This seems to add weight to that argument.

What are the main regions which produce these wines? Langhorne Creek (tastings) stands out, particularly the vineyards along the Bremer River, which is bordered by eucalypts. Padthaway (tastings) and Wrattonbully (tastings) also (just think Orlando Lawsons Padthaway shiraz!). The central Victorian regions of Pyrenees and Bendigo are big on gumleaf (Blue Pyrenees Estate (tastings) in particular), but Heathcote, Rutherglen and Grampians too. Clare Valley also has it, and it’s been known in Mudgee. The Barossa Valley isn’t immune. Many others get it from time to time. Even Tasmania has produced the odd eucalypty pinot noir.

It’s usually a red-wine thing, but some tasters with keen palates also pick it up in whites. I suspect reds show it more because the eucalyptus oil settles out of the air onto grapeskins, and reds are fermented with their skins. Markus Hederich agrees.

Some winegrowers whose wines consistently show eucalyptus defend these wines by suggesting that it is a characteristic imparted by the environment of their vines, and is therefore part of the terroir. The implication being that if it’s part of the terroir, it must be good.

Not in my book! A little bit goes a long way.

If you like eucalyptus-scented wines I wouldn’t want to rain on your party. Everyone has the right to enjoy whatever wine they like and not care too much what anyone else thinks. My point is simply that gumleafy wine is never great wine, and those who aspire to producing great wine should avoid it. Lake Breeze (tastings), a property located on the Langhorne Creek floodplain, has a $20 shiraz cabernet called Bernoota (tastings), which is almost always eucalyptus-scented, and is one of the best value for money mid-market reds in Australia, regularly winning gold medals and trophies. It is very good wine, and excellent value, but never great. And I’m sure that doesn’t come as a surprise or insult to the skilful Greg Follett, who makes it.

But it all comes back to a fundamental point about quality. Great wine is about subtlety, complexity and finesse; it is not about the obvious or shrill or coarse.

Peppermint aroma is much more pleasant in wine than gumleaf, and such wines also have more finesse and complexity than gumleafy wines. Witness the famous Peppermint Pattie – Mildara’s 1963 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. It is justly regarded as one of the great Australian wines of the period.

But generally, in regard to eucalyptus and mint in wine, less is more.

First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine – Apr-May 2009.

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