Master of his domaine

A Rhone Valley winemaker is rewriting the rules for our national red, writes Jeni Port.

RHONE Valley winemaker Alain Graillot is big in Crozes-Hermitage. He was once described as its ''brightest new star''. However, in person he is quiet, at times barely audible. This might be a ploy designed to make you hang on every word, which, of course, you do. And what does the gentleman with the twinkly eyes, ready smile and wild white spectacles have to say?

Well, to his Australian business partner, Rob Walters, the man is a constant source of wine knowledge and experience. ''I love talking to Alain,'' he says. ''I always learn something.''

To Australian shiraz drinkers, Graillot wants to start a discussion on style, specifically about the way we view our national red. He calls the grape, as the French do, syrah.

The discussion centres on two new shirazes called the Graillot Project from the 2010 vintage out of Heathcote. The title sounds grand and Walters says the name was his suggestion, not Graillot's.

Originally, three wines were made but one failed to make the cut and was sold. The remaining two offer an interesting juxtaposition, as if Walters and Graillot couldn't decide so put both wines out for contemplation and dissection. Maybe it was a new-world versus old-world debate; certainly, the use of obvious new oak in the second wine (called Graillot Project Syrah No.2) alludes to it. That and the fact the wine is the friendlier and cheaper of the two.

''I think Graillot No.2 is more Australian,'' Graillot says cryptically. ''It is more similar to what I have tasted in the past in Australia.''

Which makes the first wine, the flagship of the project, the more French-inspired? Possibly.

To understand what Monsieur Graillot wants from Australian soil, it's worth considering his history. He was not born with dirt between his toes and French winemaking tradition burnt into his DNA like so many Rhone Valley vignerons. He was a businessman travelling the world when in 1985 he and his wife put down roots in Crozes-Hermitage, establishing Domaine Alain Graillot.

His style appears to be less about tradition and more about practicality. He is a big supporter of the white wines of his region as well as its syrah. He often speaks of balance and doesn't seek a lot of oak personality in his wines.

Graillot prefers a ''certain amount'' of whole bunches (that is, grapes and stems). ''With stems,'' he says, ''you get longer wines.''

Presumably, he's referring to age- worthiness. He is said to assign, depending on flavour and evolution, each newly vintaged wine sitting in casks to a ''style family''. Those wines contribute to a Domaine Alain Graillot house style. This could be a key to the Graillot Project.

The other half of the project is Melbourne-based importer and wholesaler Rob Walters. He saw the possibility for a Franco-Oz alliance when he came across a three-hectare vineyard in Heathcote. ''I thought it capable of producing something distinctive and elegant,'' Walters says.

The vineyard, now 10 years old, is at Colbinabbin. It faces east (good for the morning sun and not the blazing-hot afternoon variety) and has a distinctive soil mix that includes limestone and low-pH characteristics. The vineyard's first wine trials were in 2007 and the first Graillot wines followed in 2010.

Why a Frenchman? Why not? Walters did work with Australian makers before he approached Graillot, so he did try for some local input. He was looking to bring out what he saw as the leading attribute of the vineyard, something he calls ''intense elegance''.

We have seen a great deal of intensity in Heathcote shiraz in the past: intense colour, intense depth of plummy rich flavour, intense black fruits, intense everything but not necessarily a great deal of elegance.

There are, of course, a few producers pursuing this ideal so the Graillot Project is not alone in its desire to reveal the less-masculine side to Heathcote shiraz.

''This is the style of wine I personally want to do - not too high in alcohol, with freshness and fruit,'' Graillot says of the 2010 Graillot Australia syrah ($50), which is a modest 13.5 per cent alcohol.

This is the principal wine, the one that will probably decide the success or otherwise of the project. It's from a fab year, which is a good start. The colour is a translucent red. It has earth and leather on the nose; a savoury start to the syrah is followed on the palate by a different grouping of flavours with lifted and pretty fresh herbs, musky lavender, red fruits and fine, fine tannins.

It is no coincidence the recent Melbourne Graillot launch involved a tasting of the Graillot syrahs with some fine Aussie shirazes, including the Clonakilla 2010 shiraz viognier. Moderate alcohol, fine structure, fruit building in the mouth, plush and beautifully balanced - if you are in search of a finer expression of Aussie shiraz, it is in Clonakilla.

The 2010 Graillot Project syrah No.2 ($30) is a shiraz with plenty of upfront charm, using a barrel selection that includes a lot of new oak. The colour is deeper than No.1. The scent is stewed fruits with loads of spice, with cinnamon predominant. It feels heavier in the mouth (although the alcohol is the same as the first, 13.5 per cent) and overall appears bigger, more expansive and generous, with red-blue-cherry fruits, aniseed and sweet tannins.

Did Graillot consider, maybe for a nanosecond, blending a little of No.2 with No.1? It's just a thought.

The two wines are markedly different; they're expressions of the same bit of dirt that put in the shade Graillot's argument that terroir - the very French notion of the holistic relationship between climate and soil - must rule.

Graillot Project wines are available from The Prince Wine Store and Armadale Cellars. Distributed by the Bibendum Wine Co; 8415 0070.

This article Master of his domaine was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.