Geologist John Davis of Pepper Tree

I’m not the only person who has long believed that the red soil in many of the best vineyards of the Hunter Valley was volcanic in origin. It’s enshrined in all of the reference books and taught in schools. Now, I know better. It is in fact terra rossa, derived from underlying limestone – similar to the famous soils of Coonawarra. A marine soil, not volcanic. “Close your eyes and open them again and you’d swear you were in Coonawarra,” says John Davis, owner of Pepper Tree (tastings) winery. In fact there is plenty of limestone in the Hunter Valley, says Davis, and he can prove it by taking you for a quick tour of his Tallavera Grove (tastings) vineyard, in the Hunter’s picturesque Mount View sub-region.

There’s no doubt about it: chunks of limestone litter the surface in places, and cultivation regularly pulls more from the red soil. Not that proof is needed: Davis is a geologist by training. He has applied his learning about rocks to two different, but related fields: oil exploration and winegrowing. In his student days, he visited the Hunter to study its coal seams. His first career was in oil, where he hit paydirt – if that’s the word – immediately, finding oil at his first attempt, in WA’s Canning Basin, and soon becoming a wealthy man.

In his wine career, he’s been a Hunter vineyard owner for nearly 30 years, first with Briar Ridge (tastings) – but few wine lovers would know his name. That’s because he shuns the limelight, preferring to stay in the background. Indeed, I hadn’t met him until recently, and can’t recall him ever holding a tasting or promotion. “The winemakers are the ones people want to see, not the owners,” he says, as we soak up the stunning view from his vineyard restaurant at Tallavera Grove, Bistro Molines, which stalwart Hunter restaurateurs Robert and Sally Molines opened a year ago.

Limestone is rare in Australia, but it’s a key to the greatness of the famous wine regions of France. “When you look at why France is so fantastic at wine, it’s underlain by limestone from one end to the other.”

What’s so wonderful about limestone?

“You don’t have to adjust the soil pH, and it contains plenty of organic matter. It has an ideal balance between water-holding and drainage properties.” The grapevine’s hatred of waterlogged soils is legendary, but on the other hand, is also needs a soil that can hold enough moisture to sustain it through dry times.

“There is no basalt in the Hunter”, says Davis, “and no extinct volcanoes. It’s all been misunderstood.”

On the other hand, there is definitely basalt and an old volcano in the Orange district, which is where Davis studied the geology of Mount Canobolas for his honours thesis at Sydney University. Many years later, there he is, growing grapes in that soil. “Riesling in Orange’s volcanic soil in fantastic,” he enthuses, when the talk turns to the affinity of grape varieties for certain soils – such as riesling on slate in Germany’s Mosel Valley.

Davis also has vineyards in Wrattonbully, and again the geology attracted him. Limestone formations again, the result being a bevy of Wrattonbully wines, also crafted by award winning winemaker Jim Chatto at the Pepper Tree winery in the Hunter.

Looking at Davis’s position today, it’s obvious the planets have finally aligned for him. He has an outstanding team of winemakers, excellent vineyards in four quite different regions providing a diversity of wine styles, and now a superb restaurant … and his wines have never been better.

It wasn’t always so easy. For years his holding in Briar Ridge (tastings) was limited to 50%, and one suspects the union with Mildara Blass was not altogether happy. Now he and his family own it outright.

The Davis family vineyards total 173 hectares: 30 at Tallavera Grove, 97 at Wrattonbully, 34 at Orange, and 12 at Coonawarra. In addition, Pepper Tree takes shiraz grapes from the very old vines of the Tallawanta vineyard in Pokolbin, and semillon from Ken Bray’s outstanding Braemore vineyard. Both are iconic Hunter vineyards.

The Braemore semillon is named Alluvius (tastings), after the vineyard’s sandy alluvial soil. Wine names evoke geology left, right and centre: The Gravels (tastings) is just what it says; Feldspars is a shiraz viognier under Davis’s Orange label, Jokers Peak. Calcare is a Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon (tastings).

“Geologists regard soil as a nuisance because it covers up the rock,” Davis jokes. He was trained in rocks but not soils, so “I’ve had to learnt a lot.”

He generously acknowledges Coonawarra viticulturist Pete Balnaves for helping educate him, and local vineyard consultant Liz Riley of Vitibit for overseeing the Hunter vineyards.

We sip on a Briar Ridge Dairy Hill 2010 Semillon (tastings) with our seafood and 2007 Dairy Hill Shiraz with our duck. The Dairy Hill vines are laid out before us on the verdant folding hills. The semillon is tangy and crisp, with the green-limey accent that Davis believes is the signature of the Mount View area. That’s lime, the citrus fruit, not limestone – Davis laughs at any suggestion rock may be perceived in a wine’s aroma.

He’s recently become a passionate advocate of Italian grape varieties, and has planted many of them: vermentino, sagrantino, aglianico, negroamaro… and an Italian clone of merlot. “Australia has poor merlot clones. This Italian clone has been selected for quality, not quantity.” It’s clear Davis is deeply involved in his vineyards.

His oil career ended in 2001. “I wish I could have two lifetimes, so I could have a career in wine and a career in oil,” he muses.

On the other hand, he’s had two distinguished careers, where most people do well to have one.


 

Addenda

Margan Family vineyard in the Hunter Valley’s Broke Fordwich sub-region has its vines on a basalt sill derived from ancient volcanic activity, according to winemaker and owner Andrew Margan. Margan maintains that his is not the only volcanic soil in the Hunter: the Upper Hunter region is well-endowed with volcanic basalt, he says, in response to my October 12 column on Pepper Tree and its geologist owner John Davis. Indeed, the article should have made it clear that Davis was speaking only of the Lower Hunter’s Pokolbin and Mount View areas.
Davis stands by his statements that red terra rossa soils in these areas, including McWilliams Rosehill and Lakes Folly vineyards, have long been mistakenly described as being of volcanic origin.
Margan has nearly 100 hectares of vines on the Fordwich basalt. “I base all of my marketing on the fact that my wines are grown on single vineyards only on the volcanic soil of the Fordwich Sill. This is my unique difference to other Hunter producers as the vines on this soil produce a unique style of Hunter wine which characterises the wines under the Margan brand.”

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 12 October 2010. 

 

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