Jasper Hill produces some of Heathcote’s most acclaimed wines. Ron Laughton’s status in the wine and food industry in Victoria was acknowledged when, in 2006, the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival awarded him Legend status for his contribution to grape growing and winemaking in Victoria. He is a softly spoken, thoughtful man, a scientist trained in chemistry and food science, and an excellent ambassador for the Heathcote wine region.
In his early 30s, accompanied by his wife Elva and their very young daughters, Emily and Georgia, Ron walked away from a well-paid salaried job in the food manufacturing industry. He used his experience in agriculture, science, and business to explore a growing belief that there was too much technological manipulation and unnecessary chemical intervention in food production. Having identified the Heathcote area as an ideal location for growing shiraz grapes, he and his family moved to what is now their Jasper Hill property.
“In our early adulthood we were drinking Australian wines. They were fine, but I found myself thinking that perhaps we could do better. I felt that we needed to give more thought to where we grew grapes, maybe in a cooler climate. I just love shiraz and consider it to be the most wonderful grape, complete in its own right,” says Ron.
“Growing shiraz in a cooler place, on its own roots rather than grafted to American root stock, without irrigation, in the right place, was my goal. Every plant that has evolved and survived, anywhere in the world, did it on its own, without human intervention or watering. If the plant needed irrigation then it was in the wrong place. The climate needed to be cool enough to produce an elegant wine, but sunny enough for the fruit to ripen properly. The soil needed to be fertile enough for healthy grapes, but not too fertile. I had a very clear idea of what I was looking for.
“Australia is an ancient land and many of our topsoils are infertile and shallow. When I discovered the deep, red cambrian soil around Heathcote I thought it would be ideal. Visitors often ask about the cambrian soil so I take them to the Pink Cliffs Geological Reserve in Heathcote. As you enter the reserve there’s a much-photographed tree growing on a dark red cliff to your right, its roots can be seen deep down in the dark red soil. That’s cambrian soil. It’s an even more beautiful red after rain.
“This soil is an essential element in the ‘terroir’ of Jasper Hill,” says Ron. “The basic premise I have always worked with is that wine quality depends on grape quality, which depends on the quality of the soil and the climate. Wine made from grapes grown on the left side of the hill does differ from wine made from those on the right side.
“The French word ‘terroir’ denotes the special characteristics that soil, location, geography and climate have bestowed upon a specific place. It loosely translates as ‘a sense of place,’ but there’s no real English equivalent for it. In France the term has evolved from centuries of knowledge about winemaking.
“All of what I had learned as a chemist and a food scientist is relevant to winemaking,” says Ron. “One of the reasons it is an important part of our culture is that we can relate the wine to its place of origin. We care about the place the wine comes from and the season it was grown in. As a food scientist I came to realise that chemicals are used because they help farmers make more profit from the land, not because they help us make a better food product. One of the reasons I left the food industry is that too many chemicals are used in processed food production. We need to get back to organic farming in order to produce cleaner, simpler products, which are superior products in flavour and quality.
“Therefore, to make the wine I want to make, I need to grow the grapes myself. I don’t think of myself as a winemaker, I am a vigneron. That’s another French word, meaning ‘someone who cultivates a vineyard for winemaking’, it emphasises the critical role that vineyard placement and management has in the production of high quality wines.
“It’s about having respect for the environment. We have not sought certification as being ‘organic’ or ‘biodynamic.’ Sometimes such labels are more about politics and marketing. We just do it. It is hardly any more work to follow organic / biodynamic principles and use no chemicals. Maybe you need to be more observant around your vineyard. I am convinced that our fruit is healthier because of our farming principles and practices.
“We believe that as we harvest grapes from the vineyard some of the ‘vineyard place’ is being removed and we need to replace what has been removed as naturally as possible. If chemical fertiliser is used then some of the ‘vineyard place’ is replaced by ‘fertiliser factory place.’ What we need to do instead is to actively create an environment where nature itself can replace what’s been removed, by making our own composts and applying them at the correct time. We use no chemicals at all in our farming. No synthetic herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides.”
At the same time that Ron discovered Heathcote’s potential for grape growing, other vineyards were also being set up. People such as David and Diana Anderson, Leonard French, Albino Zuber, Leigh and Jo Hunt, and the Tudhope family, were laying the foundations for what is now the highly regarded Heathcote wine region.
Ron, Elva, Emily and Georgia lived in what Ron describes as a ‘hole in the ground,’ their cellar, while they built a mudbrick house above it, using soil from their property. A small existing vineyard of three hectares became Emily’s Paddock. Additional vineyards, including Georgia’s Paddock, have been added, taking the total area of vines to thirty five hectares. Some grapes were sold in 1981 and the first Jasper Hill wine was made in 1982. Annual production is around 3,000 cases of wine in a good year.
Ron’s approach to knowing when to harvest the grapes is simple. “The best instruments to use are your mouth and your eyes,” he says. “They give you the best guide to read the future of the crop and anticipate when the flavours will peak.”
In 1985, at the Exhibition of Victorian Winemakers in Melbourne, Jasper Hill was recognised as the best red wine. The same award was won for seven consecutive years. These successes and the subsequent accolades they receive every year mean they have a strong mailing list of customers who purchase direct from the cellars. Agents in every capital city assist in distributing Jasper Hill wine to retailers and fine restaurants around Australia, with the balance of about twenty percent exported to a dozen countries, spreading the good word about the Heathcote wine region.
Jasper Hill does not have a regular cellar door open as they often have no wine left to sell. “But,” says Ron, “if anyone wants to come and talk with us about our wines and our approach, we are happy for them to call us and make an appointment for a barrel tasting.”
Elva is delighted that some of those who bought their wine in the early 1980s continue to call in each year to collect their wine. “As our family has grown up we’ve seen the same families arrive each year to purchase wine. We’ve seen their families evolve, we feel privileged to be part of their lives.”
“I am humbled by some of the accolades we receive,” says Ron, “I have never chased the accolades but I am delighted that we have played a small part as a catalyst for other wine producers to come to the region, enlarging its importance. We enjoy building and maintaining relationships, not only with our customers, but also with our distributors and our staff. Three long term full-time staff assist in the vineyard, with twenty-odd casual employees when needed at peak periods, like harvest.”
“We are very pleased that we are able to employ people from our district,” says Elva, “they share part of our success. They have all trained on the job. All our crew went to France in 2006 on an educational trip. Justin has done a vintage with M. Chapoutier in France, with whom we now have a partnership, as a separate venture with the same philosophy.
“Ron is often invited to universities and seminars around the world to talk about his philosophy and his viticulture techniques. His Q & A sessions with students are very popular. He is always willing to share his knowledge,” she says.
Jasper Hill has just completed its 30th vintage. The biggest challenge that the family had over those years was the bush fires of 1987. “We didn’t lose buildings or houses.” says Ron. “We lost two years of our crop and one third of our vines were killed. It was traumatic, both mentally and physically, and it affected the future of our business. Our low point was losing our vines. But the high point of the same tragedy was how our industry rallied around. People came out of the woodwork to offer assistance and we produced wine under a “Friends” label in those two years, from grapes purchased from friends.”
After 30 vintages, Ron and Elva are looking forward to spending less time in the business, and more time “doing things outside of the business,” says Elva. “I love to sew and to read a book. I want to do more travel. We’ve become an extended family business now. Emily and her husband Nick are working in the vineyard and the winery and Georgia keeps the office running. Nick is an excellent cook and has taken over cooking for visitors. When you work for yourself it’s easy to become a workaholic. I am looking forward to some ‘me’ time, to be able to choose what I do.”