Grandfather of Grüner


See also Julia's article today about a tasting of mature Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings in Austria. 

 When's the best time to wear lederhosen and dirndl in The Outback? ‘Always’, says Larry Jacobs. He's co-owner of Hahndorf Hill Winery (HHW) of Adelaide Hills and known as Australia's 'Grandfather of Grüner' for his pioneering work planting Austrian aromatic variety Grüner Veltliner Down Under. He's also brought Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt along for the ride.

I'm a proud Grüner Veltliner admirer, having long fallen under its peppery spell. So when I heard about Larry's love of the grape and his journey to introduce it to Australia, I felt an instant kinship. You don't have to spend long with Larry to realise that he's someone you can trust out in the bush. Moreover, he's a man who's delighted and driven by his daily landscape. It doesn't hurt that he looks like he walked straight out of Crocodile Dundee central casting.

Australia has long had an impulse for planting diverse varieties from all around the globe going back to Italian settlers in the 1950s. In fact, Larry's village of Hahndorf and neighbouring Lobethal have a rich German heritage tracing back to the early nineteenth century. Today, Australia is home to over 100 alternative varieties, though they account for roughly 3% of the country's vineyard area. The Australian Alternative Variety Wine Show (AAVWS), founded by Bruce and Jenni Chalmers back in 2001, accelerated plantings from France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and everywhere in between over the past 15 years. For more, you can read Walter's take on Australia's Italian grape obsession and Jancis' and Julia's detail on alternative wines Down Under. More recently, Richard tasted 64 alternative Aussies.

The Adelaide Hills (see this World Atlas of Wine map), surrounded by lower-lying Barossa Valley, Eden Valley, Langhorne Creek and McLaren Vale, has resisted some of Australia's industrial winemaking traditions. Instead it's focused largely on limited high-quality production of restrained, high-acid, minerally whites of the European mould, all with a distinct cowboy spirit. Its relatively high altitude (above 300 m/985 ft) and multi-hilled landscape offers a diverse range of slopes. Morning mists and chilled evening air pools in the valleys contributing to significant overnight cooling and a wide day–night temperature range, the perfect conditions for slow ripening and vivid acidity. Bolstering the region's Austrian doppelgänger status is the ground itself – the Adelaide Hills feature red clay soil overlaying metamorphic rock such as slate, schist and quartz similar to that found in Austria's Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal regions.

Larry, with co-owner Marc Dobson, bought the HHW property (pictured below), located in Hahndorf in Adelaide Hills, in 2002 and began planting Austrian varieties Grüner Veltliner and Zweigelt (for rosé), with St Laurent (aka Sankt Laurent) introduced more recently in 2015. They imported three Austrian Grüner Veltliner clones into Australia in 2006 and another three in 2009, becoming South Australia's first Grüner Veltliner producer in 2010.

Grüner Veltliner vines are a rarity outside of Austria, which is home to over 14,000 hectares (34,600 acres) of the variety. Currently, HHW has 6.4 ha of vines, 2.9 ha of which are Grüner Veltliner; in 2014, a neighbouring grower planted an additional hectare of the grape to use exclusively for HHW production.

Elsewhere in Australia, Grüner Veltliner is planted in the Canberra District and Tasmania. From 1 ha in 2008, there are now roughly 30 ha in the country, two-thirds of those in the Adelaide Hills. 

In neighbouring New Zealand, you'll find plantings in Central Otago, Gisborne and Marlborough. HHW's Blaufränkisch plantings, inherited from its original German owner (though Larry and Marc have expanded these), are on warmer, west-facing slopes that benefit from rich, deep clay subsoil and sandy-loam and ironstone/quartz topsoil. HHW is currently Australia'sonly Blaufränkisch producer, though the variety has recently been planted in Victoria, Tasmania and elsewhere in South Australia. [See also Caroline Gilby MW's excellent article on the most recent discoveries about the parentage and origins of Blaufränkisch – JH] HHW also grows Trollinger, Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz.

Larry has remained humble and focused on improving his Grüner Veltliner over the past decade. He's also sparked a movement – 22 wineries are now members of the Adelaide Hills Grüner Growers Group (GGG). Recently, my tasting group Dirty Grapes and I were lucky enough to taste a smorgasbord of Grüner Veltliners from HHW and other Adelaide Hills producers, including Artwine, Geoff Hardy, Longview Vineyard, Main & Cherry, The Pawn Wine Co and Tomich. As a bonus, we tried a few vintages of HHW's Blaufränkisch. The Grüner Veltliners ranged from elegant, crisp Austrian-style lemon-pear-tarragon zingers to fuller, richer examples featuring riper nectarine and even tropical fruit. The Blaufränkisch thrummed with blueberry, black cherry, black pepper, forest floor and violets. Bottom line – they made us yodel. Having tasted Larry's wines and those he helped inspire, I was all the more thrilled to chat with him.

What drew you to Austria, particularly its lower Kamptal region, to begin with? Also, Austria's wine regions are located between the 47th and 48th parallel, similar to Beaune, the Swiss Alps, and the northern tip of Maine, which means it's frigid. Excuse my ignorance, but how cold does it get down in Australia?

‘When I did my original research after “discovering” and falling in love with Grüner Veltliner in 2005, I was intrigued to find out that the summer climate of the Kamptal region was similar to that in the Adelaide Hills. Both regions feature warm-to-hot days and cool nights during the summer ripening months. For example, the average maximum and minimum July temperature in Kamptal is 25.2 ºC [77.4 ºF] and 13 ºC [55.4 ºF], respectively, which means a Mean July Temperature (MJT) of 19.1 ºC. Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills has a Mean January Temperature (MJT) of 19.2 ºC, stemming from an average maximum and minimum January temperature of 26.3 ºC and 12.1 ºC, respectively. It's our exceptionally cool nights that help produce this desirably low MJT, allowing the fruit to retain its natural acidity and intense aromatics.’

On my first visit to Lower Austria, I spoke to numerous Grüner Veltliner producers, and they stressed the importance of a prominent summer diurnal range to produce high-quality Grüner Veltliner. This, together with the similarity in the two regions' underlying metamorphic rock, was more than enough to set my heart racing!

Can you touch on the history of the surrounding region, including its German roots, and how it influenced grape-growing and winemaking?

‘Hahndorf is the oldest surviving German settlement in Australia. Its history began in 1838 with the arrival of the first boatload of Lutheran German refugees. These industrious people settled in the district and established the town of Hahndorf, named in honour of the sea captain, Mr Hahn, who safely brought them to South Australia. The influence of these early German settlers is quite striking in the local village architecture and even more so in the heritage of grape-growing and winemaking that they introduced to the region. Ultimately, their influence spread beyond the Hills to other regions, such as the Barossa Valley.’

Jancis has detailed Australia's exceptionally strict quarantine procedure, with a vine cutting taking up to 11 years to pass through quarantine and into production. And we're well aware of the Albariño–Savagnin mix-up. Can you talk about your experience importing Austrian vine cuttings and producing wine in Australia? Any hiccups along your journey? What did you learn from them?

‘Australia indeed has strict quarantine procedures. However, it’s streamlined them of late. When I imported my first Grüner Veltliner cuttings in 2006, the minimum quarantine period was three years, and that's if all went smoothly! Fortunately, all did go well and I received my plant material within the approved time. The worst thing that happened was in 2009 when I imported a further batch of plant material. All the cuttings I imported died as a result of the fatal combination of an extremely hot Melbourne day and what was probably overly vigorous heat treatment, which is mandatory once the vine cuttings leave the airplane. Sadly, this set my planting strategy back by a full year as I had to wait until the following season to get suitable cuttings again. I wasn't the only vigneron who lost imported cuttings that year, but as a result of this disaster, the quarantine procedure has been upgraded with alternative options now available to the cruel, mandatory heat-treatment process. In addition, the entire quarantine process has now been streamlined and material can now be available after 24 months of intensive disease testing. Regarding the Albariño–Savagnin mix-up, I routinely genetically test all my imported plant material so that there are no surprises!’

What's the biggest challenge in growing Grüner Veltliner and Blaufränkisch in your neck of the woods?

‘I suspect that the challenges here in the Adelaide Hills are similar to those found in other Grüner Veltliner growing regions. Now that I've invested in good clonal material, the main issue regarding quality production is that of yield control. As a variety, Grüner Veltliner has a lavish, unsparing personality. Each vine cane can support up to three sizable bunches of fruit, and individual bunches can be of biblical proportions. On top of that, some bunches, hell-bent on big-hearted generosity, will often support a sizable shoulder of fruit as well! And given that berry size is moderate rather than small, one can very easily run into dangerously high yields.

‘The secret to managing this issue starts at pruning and continues throughout summer canopy management. Strenuous green pruning and crop thinning are your best friends. Even shoulder thinning of individual bunches should be considered.

‘Our Blaufränkisch plantings have been happy campers in this part of the world. The vines are easy to train and yield control is not an issue. I feel that the style of wine being produced here is perhaps similar to what is found in Südburgenland.’

What distinguishes Adelaide Hills Grüner Veltliner from Austrian Grüner Veltliner? Do you and your fellow winemakers generally produce Grüner Veltliner in Wachau's richer, heavier Smaragd style or in the lighter, earlier-picked Federspiel or Steinfeder styles?

‘The styles that have emerged from the 25 to 30 different Adelaide Hills' labels vary considerably, but, I think, would be easily recognised by a producer in Langenlois. I have always felt that our Adelaide Hills style is perhaps more akin to the classic style of the Kamptal or the Federspiel style of the Wachau, rather than the opulent Reserve or Smaragd styles. However, as new vintages here have come on line, I've also noticed some wines reflecting the more exuberant, fruit-driven and so-called 'spicy' style of the Weinviertel region.’

Have you or other producers experimented with lees stirring, malolactic fermentation, oak fermentation and oak ageing with your Grüner Veltliners?

‘The Hahndorf Hill GRU2 (Reserve style) is made with all these techniques in back of mind. The crushed fruit is allowed some skin contact, and then the juice, together with gross lees, is transferred to old French barriques for wild fermentation. About 20% of the wine is allowed to undergo malolactic fermentation, and the wine is aged on lees for 10 months with weekly stirring.’

Are you planning to expand Grüner Veltliner and Blaufränkisch plantings in the future?

‘We've now expanded our Grüner Veltliner production to the point that it is by far our most important and most planted variety. I've achieved this by purchasing 2 ha of neighbouring land in 2006 and by convincing a nearby producer to plant an additional hectare of Grüner Veltliner, exclusively for my use. I suspect that I'll enter into similar agreements with other vignerons in the future. Regarding Blaufränksich, I've now imported two further clones and will be expanding our plantings within the next couple of years.’

While there's still a long way to go until harvest, where are you now for the upcoming growing season and what do you envision for the 2018 vintage? Good conditions for budburst, shoot growth, flowering/fruit set?’

‘Right now we're at the height of spring exuberance with zillions of green shoots bursting forth from the vines. It's so attractive and appealing, but also extremely demanding. I can hear each new shoot calling my name as I dash to their needs.

‘This season seems to tick all the boxes, so far, with excellent budburst and vigorous shoot growth. The next critical stage of flowering and fruit set is still to come and, as always, we're at the mercy of the weather gods.’

Has the average growing-season temperature increased over the years? Have you had to adjust harvest times and clone selection as a result?

‘In the 16 years that I've farmed in the Adelaide Hills, I've yet to find an “average season”. I suspect this exists in concept only. Having said that, a recent run of earlier-than-normal seasons have now been followed by two later-than-normal seasons.’

While drought stress is an intensifying challenge in other parts of Australia, the Adelaide Hills are blessed with relatively high rainfall. Have you seen changes in this rainfall over the years that have affected surface-water catchment or underground water supplies?

‘The Adelaide Hills is indeed blessed with good winter rainfall. Somehow, in the past 16 vintages, and even in years of endemic drought, we've always managed to notch up good rainfall from as low as 550 mm (21.7 in) to just under 1000 mm (in 2016), with the long-term average for my part of the Hills being about 795 mm.’

How have you seen the Adelaide Hills generally evolve and expand in recent years? Which subregions (e.g. Lenswood, Piccadilly Valley, Basket Range) are you particularly excited about?

‘Since I moved into the Adelaide Hills over a decade ago, the number of producers has tripled and so has the number of cellar doors that are open to the public. This expansion has been buoyed by the surge of interest in cool-climate wines and the general success of the region from a tourism and wine quality perspective. The growers and producers have widened their repertoire to include a range of so-called alternative varieties and each year seems to bring exciting and creative new blood to the region. Currently the Basket Range subregion is definitely generating waves from which the whole region benefits.’

What are some of the new trends among Adelaide Hills producers and what do you see on the horizon?

‘Other than the voracious local interest in new and exciting grape varieties, we've seen many of the new producers experimenting with diverse fermentation processes that include more whole-bunch inclusions in fermentation, indigenous fermentations and more natural and non-proactive winemaking techniques.’

Are organic viticulture and natural wine important trends in the Adelaide Hills? Are more producers getting certified as organic?

‘There was an increase in organic and biodynamic processes about 10 years ago, but this seems to have plateaued.’

What are your hopes and expectations for Australian Grüner Veltliner and Blaufränkisch and for the Adelaide Hills?

‘My hopes and dreams revolve especially around Grüner Veltliner, where I would like to see this grape become the hero variety of the Adelaide Hills. Already, via the encouragement from the Grüner Growers Group that I helped to establish nearly 10 years ago, our region has become the undisputed epicentre for this variety in Australia and perhaps also “the epicentre for Grüner Veltliner in the Southern Hemisphere”, as quoted by Adelaide wine writer Dan Traucki. I hope to see ongoing camaraderie and kinship evolve around this variety in our region, combined with further work and the unravelling of the secrets of this beautiful foreigner. I've already seen great progress over the past eight years and I'm excited by the passion and the quality that has emerged from our region.’

Does the 'Grandfather' title make you feel old? (I promise to stop calling you that.)

‘That title was “awarded” to me when I presented a Grüner masterclass at the London Wine Fair earlier this year. I wear it as a badge of honour!’