The peripatetic winemaker personally tending to his Barossa Valley vineyards.
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Think Globally, Vinify Locally

Martin Gillam / December 2009

Australia's Shiraz guru is mining the terroir of three continents to create bottlings with distinctive taste of place.

Not so long ago, Syrah was hardly grown outside its native Rhône Valley or the sunburned plains of Australia, where it takes the name Shiraz. But now it seems to be on everybody's play list, from California and Washington to South Africa and South America. And there's probably no winemaker on the planet who is doing more to help burnish the grape's new international star power than Australia's John Duval.

If that name doesn't ring an instant bell, that's because, in an age where winemakers often achieve the diva status of Michelin-starred chefs, the soft-spoken Duval has always put standards before fame. In his own quiet way, however, he's been a huge influence on the wine world since becoming Penfolds' chief winemaker in 1986. It was Duval who crafted the legendary 1990 Grange Shiraz that helped launch the Australian export boom, after Wine Spectator named it Wine of the Year.

After 28 years at Penfolds, he left during a spate of corporate takeovers in 2002 and quickly became one of the world's most sought after Syrah gurus. He's making superpremium Syrah on three continents and consulting on a fourth. "It only took me 28 years to get my name on the label," he jokes as he pours one of the handcrafted reds from his own John Duval Wines, launched in 2003. After three decades with one of the world's biggest wine groups, he's now very much a one-man band.

"You're looking at the entire full-time staff of John Duval Wines," he says in the living room of his Barossa Valley home--and as there's no one else in the room, that means the company staff amounts to one. "I'm keeping things very simple. I buy in all my grapes from growers I've known for years, and I've got a couple of mates who own wineries who rent me the space to make the wines. It's working out fantastically well."

There are three wines under his eponymous label totaling less than 10,000 cases a year--Plexus (a Shiraz-Grenache-Mourvèdre blend), Entity Shiraz, and a new reserve Shiraz called Eligo. All have won raves from the international critics. A highly rated family business might well have been enough for Duval, but no sooner had he announced he was leaving Penfolds than his phone began ringing, and one of the first calls came from Washington State.

Allen Shoup, one of the great pioneers of Washington wine as CEO of Stimson Lane Vineyards & Estates (Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest) had retired to pursue a long-term dream. He wanted to bring some of the world's best winemakers to the Columbia Valley to make luxury bottlings from the local fruit. He persuaded France's Michel Rolland to make a Merlot-based wine, Germany's Armin Diel a Riesling, Italy's Folonari family a Sangiovese blend, California's Randy Dunn a Cabernet Sauvignon, and the team of Chile's Agustin Huneeus and France's Philippe Melka (ex-Quintessa) a Cabernet blend. Shoup called the project Long Shadows, in homage to the influence each maker has cast across the wine world. As Shoup was mulling over names to make his premium Shiraz, news came that Duval was a free agent.

"He came over and his first reaction was that the Syrah vines in Washington were mainly too young," says Shoup. "So I pulled out all the stops and went to growers with the oldest Syrah vines in the state--about 15 years old--and told them we had this rare chance to bring this great winemaker to our area but we needed the fruit. That persuaded John we could make something special. He still doesn't have 50 or 100 year old vines to work with like he does at home, but we're all very happy with the wines he's making for us."

Duval relished the Washington opportunity. "I'd visited some Washington wineries about 10 years earlier, and I thought it was a pretty special area, completely different from Napa or the Barossa," says the Australian. "It still surprises people who haven't been there that you can ripen Shiraz and Merlot in an area wedged between Oregon and the Canadian border. They imagine it must be too cold. But the thing is, once you get over the Cascades you're in a rain shadow--the Columbia Valley actually gets less rain than the Barossa--and during the summer there's plenty of sunshine, so it's great."

Duval and Shoup's new Syrah is called Sequel (a fitting name for two men in their post-corporate careers), with 2003 the first vintage and the 2006 recently released. Just as he did with Grange, Duval adds a soupçon of Cabernet to the blend for structure and complexity. Each release has been given high scores and has sold out quickly.

The Australian says Washington Syrah is not like the ones he makes at home: "The soils are different from Australia's--more sedimentary and stony--and you have volcanic influence as well. There's a nice structure to the Columbia wines, a nice richness, probably a little more savory than the Barossa style, a little bit Rhone-ish. And it's early days because the oldest Syrah vines in the state are less than 20 years old, so they'll get better."

Shoup says he's never seen a winemaker with Duval's determination for getting a wine exactly the way he wants it. "Each of our winemakers has his own individual approach, but none of them has the degree of intensity that John brings. He constantly visits each vineyard that sources the Syrah grapes, he spends about twice as long as most sorting through each barrel sample to see what's good enough for the final blend, and he's extremely meticulous. I think the notes he takes would make a great textbook for any young winemaker."

Duval is not there year-round, of course. He leans on Long Shadows' chief resident winemaker, Gilles Nicault. "I'm given a lot of say on vineyard management. I go on trips around the vineyards with Gilles and pick out the ones I want to use," explains Duval. "He has a great relationship with the growers there. I'm there three times a year for about a week each, including vintage time and to supervise the blending."

Long Shadows is not Duval's only new venture in the Americas. Almost dead-heating with Shoup's phone call to Australia was another, from one of Chile's top winemakers. "Aurelio Montes called and said he was consulting for Viña Ventisquero, a go-ahead wine group there, and was I interested? I'd never been to Chile, but Aurelio had earlier shown me an experimental Shiraz they'd made, and when I went there in 2003 I was very impressed with the people and their ideas. I began with simple consulting, but then they suggested we develop some high-end wines together, and the result was Pangea."

Pangea is an elite Syrah (only about 1,000 cases were made in 2004, the first vintage) from the Apalta Valley, which Duval makes in close consultation with Ventisquero's resident winemaker, Felipe Tosso. As with the Washington wine, Duval's Chilean debut was greeted with critical acclaim and "sold out" signs--likewise, he is struck by the effect of the new terroir.

"The Shiraz in Chile is totally different from the Australian style," he says. "They don't have the big structure you can get in the Barossa, but there's an elegance and savoriness--a kind of cross between Australia and the Old World. Even though the vines are a lot younger--it's a fairly new variety for Chile--the quality is exciting because we're already getting elegance and complexity from the wines.

"The soils are nothing alike. They have granite soils, whereas the Barossa soils are more limestone and ironstone. Climate-wise they get a longer growing season and no rain during vintage. That works out great for me," Duval admits, "because even though we have parallel seasons in the Southern Hemisphere, I can get my own Barossa harvest tucked away in barrel and get over to Chile while the top Shiraz is still on the vine. With no rain in their vintage we're not in a hurry to pick, and we can get optimum ripeness."

Duval says Syrah's ability to produce markedly different wines from region to region is a major reason that it's become so popular. "There's growing excitement about it in the wine world, including among winemakers. I think it reflects its terroir better than Cabernet. If you grow it in cool climates you get spice and pepper, whereas in warmer areas like the Barossa you get great richness. By comparison, Cabernets from different regions tend to be more similar."

Duval's services are also in demand in Europe. He consults in both Italy and Spain--but not about Syrah. "It's more a case of their getting a New World opinion on things, rather than actual winemaking." And he's hardly a prophet without honor in his own country--a consortium of British businessmen has hired him to oversee a luxury Shiraz project in South Australia's McLaren Vale that the partners call "pursuit of the world's best Shiraz." Duval advises on vineyard and fruit selection and setting the style. The resulting wines--"very handcrafted," Duval calls them--are sold largely to Europe under the Songlines label and in the United States as Oriel Sygnet.

It's no surprise that a Shiraz-hungry world has jumped at the chance to corral Duval's expertise--his treasure trove of knowledge is unique. Not only was he custodian of Grange from 1986 to 2002, he spearheaded the drive towards new Penfolds wines that have since become classics, such as Yattarna Chardonnay and RWT Shiraz. "I came up with the idea of RWT because I could see there was so much great Barossa Shiraz that didn't really fit into the muscular Grange style," states Duval. "I saw an opportunity to make a more open, perfumed style in French oak instead of the American oak used for Grange. It's that elegant style I'm pursuing in the wines I'm making today."

And Duval's ties to Shiraz go back further still--to birth, in fact. "I was almost destined to a life in agriculture because my parents had a sheep farm near Adelaide, where they also grew Shiraz. Penfolds used to buy the grapes, and they liked them so much they bought cuttings of our Shiraz vines and planted them in the original Penfolds estate vineyard at Magill."

Little did his parents guess that young John would one day blend the produce of those very same vines to make Grange. He began at Penfolds in 1974, in time to work with the legendary Max Schubert, who invented and developed Grange in the early 1950s over howls of protest from company directors that it would never sell.

"I really treasured working with Max," Duval remembers. "You could see the passion Max brought to wine and the attention to detail. He was a great one for planning, and I learned the importance of thinking hard about a wine before making it--that it isn't just a case of ‘suck it and see.' For example, what level of maturity do you want the grapes at before picking? How much oak do you plan to give them? What's the overall style you're looking for?"

Duval is now injecting that knowledge and passion into a new wave of international Shiraz. And as someone who's known the grape since the cradle, he brings with him a foreknowledge of what mistakes to avoid. "We had an era in Australia in the 1970s and early '80s when some winemakers got lightness confused with elegance, and those wines lacked structure. At Penfolds we didn't go that route, nor did we swing toward that very big style of Shiraz--there are very few Granges that reach even 14.5 degrees alcohol.

"Today many makers go for 16 degrees–plus, some with success, but that's not a style I'll be making. If the wine is balanced, you can get away with higher alcohol, but balance is key."

Balance and elegance--those are the stamps of a John Duval wine, whether it be a Washington or Chilean Syrah, an old Grange, or a wine under his own label. "I'm loving the chance to express 30-odd years of winemaking experience, using some of the best fruit in the world."

That world seems to get bigger every time his phone rings, but any new callers will need to be persuasive. "I'm pretty happy with the current setup, and I don't have any major expansion plans," he says. "I want to keep my feet on the ground. Plus, of course, I want to enjoy my life. I don't want to be in an airplane all year long."