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A Dummies Guide to the Most Important Wine Thingy

Without grape growers we would not have a wine industry; many people do not realise they are the foundation cornerstone of the industry, and those wine lovers that think they do understand have mostly not even begun to really understand what its all about. It’s a bit like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity; most educated people will be able to sprout the formula, and some may know a little about its application, but only those few in the “know” really understand what its all about and how its applied. In the case of the Theory of Relativity that’s fine, because the average person doesn’t need to get a rocket into space or want to design an atomic weapon from scratch, but in the case of wine, anyone with more than a passing interest can benefit from knowing a little about the critical nature of viticulture and its effect on wine.

There is no single aspect of wine that is more important than viticulture and whilst that is a categorical statement, it’s true! Yet even the most devoted wine lovers and tragically, even many growers, don’t really know much about it. When I used the word “tragically,” it was not an exaggeration by any stretch of the imagination.  Some time ago I wrote an Article Titled “Wanted! Road Map for Growers” in which I outlined some of the horrendous pitfalls and problems facing growers, and how in at least one case, it led to suicide. Without belittling this one ultimately tragic situation, the down side of bad viticulture can result in anything from bad wine to financial ruin. On the upside, it can lead to some of the best wine you have ever drunk.

This whole grower “thingy” and viticulture and has been bugging me for ages; it started off like a small boil on your bum that’s niggling you, and needs a scratch. Then it grows causing mild discomfort; gets infected, causes you pain and a lot of thought during sleepless nights, and finally you just have to get it excised. It’s taken many months of thought and research to put this together but it is not a technical document; it’s designed to be a “dummies” guide, ‘cause when it comes to viticulture, “I ain’t no Einstein”!

By its very nature, this feature story will be lengthy but it's worth reading; it will provide you with a perspective on wine and winemaking that is not only important for the wine lover to understand, but interesting to boot. Prior to going on my May Tour, and in response to the story about a “Road Map for Growers, I received the following, very helpful response from Cecilia Schubert of Schubert Estate in the Barossa Valley. It is an excellent way to set the scene.

A Growers First Hand Perspective

“Vineyards provide movies and romantic novels with an idyllic setting. Television programs foster the affluent and sylvan lifestyle of those who reside in vineyard-surrounded mansions or winsome rustic cottages. Harvests are completed before lunch; tables are laden with the riches of a bountiful harvest; wicker baskets full of freshly baked bread, cheeses and meats. At the head of the table you find the successful winemaker, pulling corks and pouring wines. However, in reality, for many of us, living in wine country is not like that at all.

Many Australians dream of becoming a vigneron. About five years ago, the human resource firm, Morgan & Banks, interviewed 7,000 Australians and asked them where they would like to be in five years time and 3,150 chose owning a vineyard. Obviously, Australians did not consider that running a vineyard involves a great deal of work. In response to the poll’s results the Australian Winemakers Federation chairman, Ian Sutton, warned budding vignerons not to be seduced by the lifestyle, and for good reason.

Today, people still aim to retire and plant a vineyard and make a little wine. Many retirees do not realise the planting of vines is not a new agricultural craze. On the 26th of January, 1788, a formal flag raising ceremony was held, proclaiming the Colony of New South Wales, and soon after vines were planted. On 5th of March 1803, in the Sydney Gazette, the first newspaper published in Australia; the first of a series of featured articles, aimed at helping amateur vignerons with directions on how to plant a vineyard appeared. This first gazette was printed using a press that was transported along with some vine cuttings by the First Fleet, so there is nothing new about growing grapes in Australia.

More than 200 years later, on the very same weekend we celebrated the establishment of our country, another newspaper, The Australian reported that ‘Fleeing the city to start a vineyard takes money, patience and lots more money’. After more than two centuries, many of those Australians who undertake the planting of vines still do not understand the amount of effort; as well as the need for timely performance in carrying out the many tasks required to bring a vineyard into full production.

During the last few years I have gained experience and appreciate living in the Barossa. Visitors often ask my husband, Steve and I about our rural experiences. Some people, who are considering setting up a vineyard of their own, question us about the viticultural techniques we use. Funny how the mundane absurdities are what we remember - not the discomfort of the stinking hot or freezing cold days when the vineyard work needs to be done. With each task performed in the vineyard, you feel time passing too quickly and before you know it, another season and another year have gone by. The experiences that occupied us in previous seasons interweave with the new. How easily we forgot some of the details that formed the foundation of our vineyards. As the seasons change, memories of some of those experiences seem to be revived….

I think back to the Summer of 2001. In those days many Australians did not consider that running a vineyard involved work. The Weekend Australian newspaper was just about to inform us of this fact when our neighbour and winegrower, Gil McDonald, interrupted our Saturday morning brunch. Gil had time for a quick cup of coffee, and in conversation about the recent hot weather spell, mentioned how the extreme conditions were causing havoc for some growers.

Gil told the story of a young Barossa couple, who lived in a shed in order to establish their new vineyard, and had now lost their great Australian Dream. With extremely hot conditions, the young settlers’ version of the Dream meant not much sleep; and they finally fled with their newborn babe in order to escape the incredibly harsh conditions.  Gil’s tale of woe added substance to the front-page story in The Weekend Australian newspaper entitled, “Dream of escape withers on the vine.”

Along with The Morgan & Banks survey showing that 45% of those surveyed would like to be running a vineyard in five years time, The Australian article also revealed there are 6,450 wine grape-growing establishments in the country and in the previous year, Australia had a record 146,177ha of vines, a rise of 19 per cent on 1999.

I am not too sure if we’re meant, after reading this article to give up, keel over and die. I certainly felt downhearted. Perhaps we should have seriously considered ripping out our vines and planted Australian native fruits?

If it came to pass that 45 per cent of the Australian population fulfil their dream and establish a vineyard, we would all have to drink dozens of bottles a day and our wine exports would still have to increase substantially.  In 2001 I did wonder how much more the wine industry could grow.  If the dreams of those who are young, keen and active “wither on the vine,” then what were Steve and I as two retirees really in for? We considered we only had three advantages.  Firstly, we had the prime real estate; secondly we were prepared to work hard and finally, we were hungry for knowledge about the growing and marketing of top quality wine grapes and were prepared to ensure we put into practice all we learned.

Temptations to experience living in wine country have come from many sources including Peter Mayle’s  “A Year in Provence,” lifestyle television programs; or the musings of feature editors describing the pleasures and delights of country living, regional cuisine and fine wine. Before you are seduced to an epiphanous experience - take heed. Enjoy the pleasures, but before investing your money make sure you have stacks of it. We are not talking hundreds here; we are talking thousands, stacks and stacks of thousands. With good backing, you’re guaranteed of having a chance of actually enjoying those promised pleasures.

Is there a Road Map for Growers? To enjoy the experience of growing grapevines, a plant belonging to the genus Vitis, it's best to begin armed with the best information; the personally rewarding experience comes much later. If you do not already own a beautiful, highly productive vineyard I hope you have at least selected your land with the purpose of growing quality wine grapes. If you do not begin with an excellent choice of location, you are already behind the eight ball. Real estate agents always refer to "location, location and location" but the most important factor influencing a great vineyard is terroir; its combination of soil and climate.

When soil and climate combines effectively, you have the basis of what may become a fine vineyard. However, there is more to it than terroir; and as we learnt over the years, it is a whole lot more! In order to achieve a productive vineyard you need to consider both preplanting and postplanting planning, and follow through from there. Planting a vineyard is something one should not do on a whim or without a lot of research, yet people do it all the time.

Professor Brian Freeman, from Charles Sturt University, in the video “The Australian Grape Advantage,” said that Australia is the world’s eleventh largest wine producer, and our producers have shown they are an international force to be reckoned with. Freeman believes that Purity, Integrity, Quality and Economics are giving Australian grape producers a priceless reputation in the world market.  Read between the lines – if you are going to grow grapes and want to be successful, then do it exceptionally well.

                      Cecilia and Steve Schubert

If you are looking to plant a vineyard there is plenty of space remaining but you'd better be quick. The total area of land planted to vines in Australia is still increasing. Already established areas are expanding and vines are being planted in new areas. Most Australian vines are grown within the latitude range of 24 degrees south (Alice Springs,) to 43 degrees south (Hobart). Most winemaking countries have their vines situated between latitudes 30 to 50 degrees, both north and south of the equator.

I don’t know where the saying “Good wine is made in the vineyard” originated, but a poor start can doom a vineyard and produce nothing but mediocre wine. Therefore, in each step in the process of vineyard establishment, it is critical to recognise the need for sound and careful planning; as well as the timely application of the required maintenance a healthy vineyard demands.  Furthermore, make sure there is a demand for your product. Having a grape contract with a winery and/or a feasible marketing plan in place is critical.

Shortcuts to becoming a vigneron are great, especially if you have the money to buy a successful, established vineyard. It will save the heartbreak, hard work and set up costs. However before you buy, get soil and leaf sample tests, or better still, get a specialist's opinion - and by that I don't mean your brother-in-law who occasionally works as a cellar hand at a winery.

If you are starting from scratch, and putting in your own vines, you will need sufficient funding to purchase an excellent vineyard location as well as all the associated setup costs. You will not only need to decide on the grape variety, but also the clone. Plan your vineyard practices in advance! Will you be pruning and picking by hand or using mechanical pruners and harvesters? Will this be your full-time job? In order to establish themselves many grape growers hold down a regular job besides tending to their vineyard. To keep their vineyard well maintained they employ casual workers or obtain a contractor. Most growers try to put in as many hours into the vineyard themselves as they possibly can manage. It is not uncommon for many to work their vineyard for a few hours, early in the morning, before heading off to their ‘real’ job. You have to admire them. Their work mates often remind them how lucky they are having this really interesting hobby. (TORB’s Comment – The Pie King knows all about this one! He has been pruning for months before work and is starting to bitch about it big time; finally realising how much hard work it entails and how little time it leave you to have a life, let alone stopping for a relaxing pie on the way to work.) Many vineyard purchases have been made on emotion; due to attractive views or perhaps a quaint cottage, eagerly awaiting renovation. In many of these cases, there was probably little thought given to the aspect (i.e. the direction that a site faces.) The effect the aspect has is enormous.

Check the dirt! Some (wise people) say you that you should choose your vineyard more carefully than your wedding partner and it is most important to check the dirt! (TORB’s comment – it’s a good idea to do that on your potential wedding partner too.) The soil of your vineyard must be able to provide the vine with moisture and nutrients and it must not be salty. In basic terms there are three suitable soil types for grape growing and these are: limestone-based, gravelly alluvial, and permeable clay loam. Less suitable soils for grape growing include: rich, alluvial, heavy clay, thin and sandy. (TORB comment – The Pie King’s Blewitt Springs vineyard is sandy and controlling vigour is a problem, yet many of the old established vines in the area produce wonderful fruit, but it takes ages for the vines to get to that stage. In the meantime, all you get is pretty ordinary produce and have to content yourself with “the potential of the site.”) 

Whilst vines can be cultivated in less suitable soils, it is not ideal as the quality or yield may be lower and have high maintenance costs. A soil with a high content of clay does not allow water to drain away. Without treatment the roots will become waterlogged and rot, which reduces growth and can cause the vine to fail. Without good irrigation control and expensive treatment such as introducing dolomite, open sandy soil will not retain water and therefore the vine can come under stress, affecting its growth and crop quality. Get expert advice and check the dirt first.

Grape growing areas may be classified into hot, warm and cool regions; it’s all a matter of temperature. The temperature variations affect the quality, quantity, and rate of fruit development. As well, in any one place, climatic variations are experienced from year to year and these have a huge impact too. Furthermore, frost after budburst, hail or excess humidity can all have a drastic effect on the quality of the grapes produced. Hence in one year wineries can have a “great vintage” and the next suffer from a shocker. It is also possible to have a great vintage in terms of quality, but not quantity.

According to the climate, various viticultural practices are implemented, including irrigation, canopy management and trellising techniques. Warmer climates tend to mean faster ripening, larger bunches (depending on water) and high sugar levels. Cooler climates can present a different set of challenges. For example, there may be frost at budburst, a lack of sunshine to ripen the fruit or excessive rain at harvest time, which may cause the berries to split. If you prefer to live in a cooler climate learn to love Rieslings and Pinot and if you like it hot, hot, hot, then plan to live in a warm dry climate and enjoy growing and drinking full bodied Shiraz. (TORB’s comment – Then why the hell do I live in the cold, Southern Highlands of NSW?)

It’s a known fact that grapes best suited to wine grow in a temperate climate and require a dormant winter. A temperate climate is a moderate one with no great extremes of either hot or cold. Optimal growth occurs between 15 - 25º Celsius. Either side of this range and the growth is not satisfactory. Hot humid conditions may prove to produce problems with disease. Too cool a climate and you may experience frequent frost damage, burning of young shoots, reduced yield, and having insufficient sunlight for ripening. The number of sunlight hours is an important measurement; sunlight contributes to the heat of a vineyard and influences photosynthesis.

Then there is the case of the two devils. The first is when you have too much sun causing the grapes to ripen too quickly, without having time to develop flavour. The second devil is when you have insufficient sun for the grapes do not ripen properly. The sugar does not develop and the acids remain high. Either way you lose; now who was it said that growing wine grapes is easy? (Undoubtedly the bank manager; the know-all miser who is eternally hopeful of foreclosing on your loan.)

The idea is not to get bogged down. The Australian wine industry is proudly rooted on its vines, which date back to the first days of settlement, when pioneering hands planted their cuttings. You would think that those who are comfortably ensconced in offices at the National Wine Centre would produce a Road Map rather than the tourism-line glossy publications that arrived in the mail today (2 May 2005).

These brochures are something to behold.  High quality paper, full colour, with large photos and huge bold one-liner headings. For wineries they are about as useful as “tits on a bull”. Why does the industry insist on spending so much money on what they consider “brand positioning & strategic promotion etc” when going back to basics is what the industry is crying out for. Let’s go back and start from scratch with the growers and investors and get them on the right track rather than tackling things from the wrong end.”

An extremely powerful, first hand account of a few, and it needs to be stressed, just a few of the thoughts required to become a successful producer. Cecilia’s comments barely scratch the surface but it will provide readers with an excellent overview of both what is required from a macro perspective, and a first hand account from someone who is doing it well.

What This “Thingy” Is All About

The balance of this article will cover information specifically collected during my last tour of South Australia. 

The more I see a wine, and the more I talk to winemakers, the more convinced I am that the quality of the wine is 100% directly related to the quality of the grapes and the quality of the grapes is 100% related to viticulture.

Viticulture can be managed in many ways. The scientific tools available are truly mind-boggling; I never had any idea of the range of technological options that were available. Most serious wine lovers would be aware of the lab equipment in many wineries which test grapes for ripeness, but in reality, this equipment is about as technologically sophisticated as the Abacus. During this trip, an assortment of methods, as diverse as soil profiling which is used by d'Arenberg; through to heat seeking aerial photography, which is used by Southcorp; are two of the methods that are used as of the foundation stones for their individual viticultural practices. One company uses the soil, one company uses the sky; how far apart can you get in terms of scientific approach?

To make that is even more confusing, some growers and winemakers, who produce first-class fruit, don't believe in scientific voodoo to manage their vineyards; it's all done on experience and virtually as an artistic form. These artists do it all by sensory perception, the way the vineyards look at any particular given time will dictate their course of action; and the way the grapes taste, will dictate when they are picked.

Every site has its own unique climate, each block is different, each grape variety has its own unique requirements, each clone is slightly different; old vines have different requirements to young vines, and every plot of dirt is made up of differing soils, sand, bio-organic matter and minerals. Throw all those variables together in an infinite number of possible combinations and permutations and you can just about begin to appreciate the complexities of viticulture.

Voodoo, science or art; ask 1,000 viticulturalists or growers and you will get 1000 different answers. So what is right and what's wrong? The only thing that is right is viticulture that works for you and your site. The only thing that is wrong is viticulture that does not produce the best possible grapes from the site, allowing for the season, the age of the vines and other uncontrollable factors. In reality, viticulture is an attempt to produce the best possible grapes by exerting some control over the infinite number of variables which can be influenced, and minimising the effects of those over which you have no control.

The Down To Earth Method

d'Arenberg believes the key to successful viticulture lies in the soil and analysing its profile to find out exactly what is in it. The level of nitrates is a direct result of the decomposing organic matter in the soil. The end result of having high nitrates is the production of elephant juice. You wind up getting massive leaf profile, much of it intensely green. During harvest, a walk through the vineyard will quickly reveal the vine vigour and that has a direct bearing on the berry size, the skin to juice ratio and berry profiles. The winery has completed extensive analysis of the soils of all their vineyards and this information is key to the understanding and management of the vineyards. Based on the soil profile information, they have modelled ripening profiles.

In most cases, the majority of their vineyards have not received any fertilisation in about seven years.

d'Arenberg also have a very nifty way of illustrating to serious wine drinkers the impact that soil type actually has on the end grape. They offer for sale, a pack of three bottles of Grenache from the same vintage; the only difference between the wines is the soil the grapes were grown in, which ranges from sandy to loamy.

During our walk around the winery, in passing Mark said "when you look at top wines like Dead Arm, it's all about the vine being in absolute ultimate balance - and our vines are self-regulating. As it turns out, this phrase is the objective of every good viticulturalist and a phrase that we would hear regularly on this trip.

The “It’s All Voodoo” Philosophy

Many wineries will go to a great deal of time, trouble, and expense to hand-prune and hand-pick their vineyards. These wineries believe that hand-pruning and hand-picking produce the best wine and that the additional expense is justified. Naturally enough, these wineries usually "market" the labour-intensive processes to great effect and having spent the money, who can blame them for trying to make the most of their investment.

But how important is hand-pruning and hand-picking? Many wineries like d'Arenberg, Rockford, Torbreck swear that it is the only way to make truly good wine. Yet others completely disagree. The perfect example of this was when we visited Brian Lynn at Majella in Coonawarra the next day.

Brian proudly boasts that they machine-pick, machine-prune and don't use basket presses and are still able to turn out excellent quality wine on a consistent basis. In addition, Brian is confident that even using these mechanical processes, he will be able to turn out consistently good wine in the long-term. 

An Eagle Eye in the Sky Solution

Yet others that have machine-picked and pruned have not done so as successfully. Going back to about the 1996 vintage, I was openly critical of Wynns (and other SC Coonawarra wines) consistently stating that the quality was dropping. As this drop-off in quality became more apparent, most wine lovers thought the reason for the drop-off in the quality was directly related to years of machine pruning.

When I interviewed Brian Finn, (the then Chairman of Southcorp for a feature story) about two years ago, he agreed with my comments and stated the reasons for the decline were directly related to major viticultural issues in the vineyards. Specifically, the vineyards had not been managed as well as they should have been, Southcorp had recognised the problem and were literally spending millions of dollars in redeveloping and reinvigorating their vineyards in the region. In reality, the machine pruning was symptomatic of overall vineyard neglect; it was not the root cause of the problem.

Brian suggested the next time I went to Coonawarra, I should have a close look at what they were doing, so an appointment was made with Allen Jenkins, the Regional Vineyard Manager for the Limestone Coast area. We spend about an hour and a half crawling through the vineyards and the tour was both fascinating and informative.

Much of the vineyard issues and problems are literally steeped in history. A perfect example of the way things have “just happened” can be illustrated with the vines directly out the front of the Wynns Coonawarra Estate cellar door. The vines are Pedro Ximénez which were planted in the 1890s. Now let's face it, firstly Coonawarra is not exactly a great Sherry growing area and secondly there is not a huge demand for this grape variety, yet for over a hundred years these vines have been sitting there when in reality, they could have been put to a much more productive use. In fact, this is finally been realised and part of the viticultural plan is to graft them over to Cabernet Sauvignon.

The size of the Southcorp operation, and hence the magnitude of the viticultural attention to detail that is required, if they are to produce good wines, is mind blowing. Wynns alone has 950 ha under vine; a large proportion, i.e. 85% of the red vines are 40 years of age or more. (As an aside, in total, Southcorp have 3,300 ha of vineyards in the area with five vineyard managers overseeing the operation.) About five years ago, the need to renovate and re-trellis these older vines was recognised and the work commenced.

As an aside, although the Wynns winery was built in 1896, the Johnson’s vineyard is reputed to have the oldest Cabernet vines in Coonawarra and as they were planted in 1954, there is not a long history of Cabernet in Coonawarra. Interestingly enough, the Johnson’s Vineyard is also reputed to have the oldest Shiraz vines in the district and they were planted in 1925 so they have been growing Shiraz for far longer than Cabernet in the region.

The Johnson 's vineyard has been renovated and by “renovation”, Allen explained that they used the existing root stock, re-trellised the vineyards and created a new canopy. Three different methods have been used to create the new canopy, depending on the conditions and environment of the existing vines. Allen explained the details of each method, as well as the selection method, which are too involved to go into here, but it certainly was interesting and John was positively salivating as he soaked up all the knowledge. In some cases, varieties like Pinot Noir that are deemed as inappropriate for the area have been replaced. But they are not just replanted haphazardly; indeed nothing is left to chance as you will see in a moment. It is only when talking to someone like Allen that you can even begin to fathom the complexities involved in viticulture.

Earlier on, I mentioned that d'Arenberg thought the key to successful viticulture lies in the soil and knowing exactly what's in it. Interestingly enough, so do Southcorp but they approach it in a completely different way and use some nifty technology to great effect to achieve the same end result. The first of these involves aerial photography and mapping of the vineyard. At verasion, aerial photography utilising infrared spectrum films are taken of the vineyard (see chart 1.) These photos show the different colours of “vine greenness,” or to put it another way, (almost) the vine stress; and that colour can be directly attributed to the soil type, depth etc. (see chart 2.) This information is invaluable as it accurately maps the vineyard in incredibly fine detail and provides scientific information that had previously not been available.

In the case of the Pinot Noir vineyard mentioned previously, the original vineyard ran east to west. With the aid of the aerial photography imagery, an incredible amount of detail about the site was obtained. For example, as the vineyard moved towards the western extreme the slope of the land dropped off by about a half a metre and, more importantly the underlying soil structure changed. It went from being reasonably shallow Terra Rossa to a heavier, Rendzina soil that was more likely to hold water (see chart 3.)

As a result, when the vineyard was redeveloped backhoe pits were dug, the contours of the land were taken into account, when necessary they were adjusted, the vineyard was planted north-south, Shiraz vines were planted to take advantage of the Terra Rossa soil; and a combination of Chardonnay and Riesling were planted in the heavier soil (see chart 4.)

It's fascinating to think that an infrared photograph of the vines can tell you so much about the soil and dictate the best varieties for every individual square metre of land.

When I asked Allen what caused the problems in the first place, he was wonderfully frank. The first issue related to incorrect varietal selection. In the first year of the vineyard regeneration program, 60 ha of Pinot Noir alone were replanted with other varieties. In some cases, there were older vines in beautiful Terra Rossa soil that had never produced fruit to the level that was expected. In most of these cases, it was put down to originally plating incorrect clonal selections. They have now been removed, in some cases maintaining the root stock and grafting over to new varieties.

I then asked the $64 million question. Had machine pruning been part of the problem? Once again, Allen answered frankly and honestly. “Machine pruning in itself is not a problem; the problem would result if, over a long period, you machine pruned and did not take care to renovate the vineyard as you went.” Or to put it another way, machine pruning is perfectly acceptable as long as additional maintenance is carried out in the vineyard on a regular basis."

Allen went onto say, “It’s all about maintaining the vines in a healthy state. You can do it with machine pruning provided you devote a lot of attention to detail with the hand cleanup, or you may decide to take a close shave of the canopy on one side every three or four years. The objective is to make sure you never produce a mass of deadwood.

The pruning method is not the issue; it is getting the vine in balance and ensuring you get the right bud numbers."

When it comes to getting the vines in balance, once again nothing is left to chance and technology is used to an incredible degree. The scope of the operation when you are managing 3,300 ha of vines and want to ensure that each and every line is in balance boggles the mind. Needless to say, nothing is left to chance in an operation of this size. As well as the five vineyard managers that report to Allen, there is a full-time technical officer, a regional viticulturalist and a bunch of technical officers and other associated people.

As part of having the vines in balance, the next ‘buzzword phrase’ you are going to have to come to grips with in this complex equation is "yield targeting”. Now we or are not talking about something as simple as a yield estimation program, which anyone could easily understand without terribly much thought; this is far more complex and interesting.

For a moment, let your mind wander and place yourself in a winemaker shoes. Let's say you want to crop at 3 tonnes to the acre because you know that will give you the quality level that you desire. That is a “yield estimation program” but the science to actually make it happen is the “yield targeting program”, and that is far more complex and scientific because how do you control nature to give it the yield that you desire?

Straight after vintage, samples of dormant buds from the vines across the Limestone Coast are taken, not just a few of them, 40,000 of them! That's right, 40,000. The buds are sent to a lab in Victoria where they are dissected under a microscope and the number of bunches that would have eventually bloomed are counted.

This process has been going on for five years and as each vintage passes and the greater the mass of the data, the more valuable it becomes as a forecasting tool. In time, it is hoped by analysing the past spring’s temperatures, they will be able to accurately predict how many bunches there will be in the dormant buds. This will then enable them to go into each block and look at the bud to fruit yield ratios over the last few years, compare it to the current bud count; throw all the numbers into a computer modelling program, calculate the quality of the fruit that is desired from the block and projected yield; and the program will tell them how many buds they need to leave on the vine in order to achieve their objectives. Once they have done that, they can then machine prune the block. Absolutely fascinating stuff!

The system hasn't been perfected yet but every year of history that goes into the model will make it more accurate. Some fine-tuning is still required, for example with the St George block seven different pruning techniques were used across the block to get the bud numbers right.

The yield forecast is then made in December, however, you can't just leave the vines alone and hope your forecasts will be achieved by accident.

The next stage of the process occurs early in January. A great swag of bunches of pea sized green berries are picked. The berries are then counted and then analysed in a laboratory. The information gained is used to determine how closely on track the vines are to their target yield. If the crop is balanced then no further action is required, however if the crop is larger than expected as happened the previous year, the crop is thinned. A full PDF flow chart and pictures illustrating this process can be found here.

As to how accurate the system can be, the yield forecasts on quite a number of blocks that were made last December were within 5% of the fruit picked, and when one considers that long-range weather forecasting has to be taken into account and added into the equation, this is quite phenomenal.

Now returning to the way vineyards are maintained, as already stated, over 80 ha of poorly performing, wrong grape variety and inadequate clonally selected vineyards have been replanted in the last three years. But the work has not stopped there. A further 220 ha have received extensive trellis or canopy reconstruction work.

A number of these vineyards had received minimal pruning; the vines had a massive canopy with lots of deadwood in the middle. Whilst this minimal pruning method had been effective because they had been able to get everything right; the yields were OK (but not at the optimum levels.) The fruit was pretty good but there was still a mass of deadwood in the middle and disease pressure was a threat. That was why these vineyards needed to be renovated.

One method used to renovate involved going through the vineyard with a circular saw and literally cutting the tops off the vines. In a number of vineyards this proved to be incredibly successful. Within two years the new growth has an enabled re-trellising of the vineyard, which will result in higher quality fruit and a more controlled, less disease prone output.

According to Allen, the best of vineyards are the ones you have to do the least in, and that is the primary objective of this renewal and renovation activity. Once the vines are in balance, they can just about be kept that way naturally. Once that is achieved, all they have to do is to get the bud number right, get the yield target right, and do a little fine tweaking with minor amounts of irrigation. The particular St George block that we were talking about at the time, had received all of six hours of drip irrigation at one period during the entire season.

In the last three years, close to 900 ha of drip irrigation has gone in and whilst that mightn't sound like much, it's enough to go from Mount Gambier to Darwin; essentially the width of Australia across the centre. The drip irrigation has primarily been putting in as one component of their environmental management plan. They still maintain approximately 100 ha of dry land vineyard (not irrigated) and the yields in these vineyards have to be kept even lower than normal to cater for the dry seasons.

As a region, the Southcorp’s Coonawarra vineyards have an environmental management plan, one of the first regions to do so. Spray irrigation, which wastes enormous amount of water, is now only used occasionally to stop frosts. Instead of using broad-based harsh chemicals, they are now using minimal amounts of low-toxicity targeted insecticides as required. There are a number of other programs that complete the environmental management plan.

As we drove from one end of Coonawarra to the other, Allen once again stressed the importance of the vines being in balance and the yield being right. He said, "If you have a big crop and ripen after Anzac Day you're in trouble. Normally we have opening rains around Anzac Day and if you still have fruit on the vines in late April or early May, you are at considerable risk of disease or fruit quality loss through rainfall. Wynns keep their average yield to around 5 1/2 or 6 tonnes to the hectare and all things being equal we are able to get our fruit off before the rain.”

The original block of land that was first planted by John Riddoch in 1891 was planted to Pinot Noir. Twelve months ago they removed about 20 ha of vines, some of which was Cabernet Sauvignon because the vines had a virus and were not healthy. The land is premium Terra Rossa soil and now contains baby Cabernet Sauvignon vines that one day will hopefully yields some pretty special grapes.

With over 900 ha of vines in the area, if you think the fruit just arrives at the winery and they decide that batch “A” will go into Bin 707, that batch “B” will go into John Riddoch, the next batch will go into Black Label and the following batch will go in to Bin 407, think again. As we drove around the vineyards Allen knew exactly which blocks were targeted for each individual wine.

As we reached one block of old vines, Allen told us that the fruit from this block was normally destined for Bin 707. The block had been machine pruned for about 30 years resulting in a fair bit of dead wood in the middle of the canopy and in reality, the block really required renovation. Unfortunately, the fruit was still excellent and they didn't want to lose it at this point in time. The solution, they will continue to hand-pick it until it is eventually renovated. Obviously during this extensive renovation process, they still have to try and obtain the best fruit possible even though sacrifices are being made for the long term good of the vineyards.

  

Our next stop was at an open pit which had been specifically dug to enable visitors to obtain an appreciation of the Terror Rossa soil and the profile of the ground in the area. Most of us do not spend much time thinking about “dirt” so needless to say; I certainly learnt a fair amount whilst in the pit. The first factor to consider is the Terra Rossa soil can very in-depth dramatically over a small area. In some points it will be 5 feet deep, yet only a few metres away the depth of rich soil my only be a couple of feet over the limestone. The depth of the quality soil is obviously critical to the vines growth and vigour. It's a lot harder for the vines to penetrate rock than it is to keep growing in soil, so the depth and the composition of the soil has a direct impact on the vine vigour.

According to Allen, any owner-operator with 40 or more hectares cannot afford not to embark on this sort of viticultural practice if they want to produce quality fruit in the long term. "It is one of the most critical things the grower needs to do."

We then had a look at a number of different trellising systems that were used throughout the various vineyards. Now you wouldn't think that in an area the size of Coonawarra, which is not exactly huge, that Southcorp would be using different trellising systems for the same grape variety but in reality that is exactly what they're doing. One of the reasons for this is historic, for example, some of the original Rosemount sites which were acquired during the merger, were trellised differently to be majority of the existing vineyards. Even then, there was a vital and valid reason for the difference. It’s all got to do with soil. As mentioned earlier, the soil throughout the region not only does not have a uniform depth, it does not have a uniform makeup and varies from block to block and can even very within blocks. It is for this reason that some blocks will produce better fruit with a different trellising system.

Hopefully by now, readers will be able to appreciate growing quality grapes, even on a small-scale is not as simple as planting vines, throwing on some fertiliser, watering them from time to time, harvesting them and then sitting back and watching the money roll in; a fallacy that many investors failed to appreciate. But if you think you are starting to have an appreciation for how difficult it is to grow high quality grapes, in reality we have not begun to scratch the surface yet. To see how complicated it can be will explore this a little further.

During my conversation with Allen, I mentioned the d'Arenberg relied heavily on understanding the soil profile to manage their fifth cultural practices had asked him what he thought of that idea. Here is what he had to say.

"Understanding your soil is critical. The knowledge enables you to plan your irrigation; it enables you to split your fruit up within a block; understanding your soils is just sound viticultural logic. Within a lot of our vineyards when you go from a sandy parcel into a clay loan, we will plant in a full sward of lucerne in the sand. When we prune and we come to a shallow band of soil over rock where the vines are struggling, we prune a bit harder so we don't have as much crop over those areas. We will also mulch using straw where there are little bony ridges. You can't even out the vineyards completely and the fruit variances will still be there, but you can improve the poor quality sections to a level that is pretty good; and the really wonderful gear can be picked off separately.”

But the story of technology and understanding your soils does not end there. In one of Southcorp's Cabernet blocks, they have been working with the CSIRO for the last six years on a yield monitoring program. The block has been broken up into three parcels, a low yielding segment, a medium yielding segment and a high yielding segment. When the grapes are picked, the harvester has a GPS system on it as well as a load cell. These two pieces of equipment combine and logs the kilograms of fruit picked as the harvester travels along the vine trellis. Now here is where it gets interesting. Most wine lovers would think that low yields produce better fruit but the research carried out using this equipment actually proves that this is not necessarily the case. In a high yielding year, the low yielding segment, or block, will produce the best quality fruit but in a low yielding year, that low yielding block may only produce one tonne to the hectare (which sounds good on paper) but the fruit will probably be in inferior, and the best fruit will probably come from the medium or high yielding blocks.

This trip around Coonawarra with Allen was both an educational and fascinating experience.

Other Aspects of this Thingy

By this stage, hopefully you will have an appreciation for not only the magnitude and complexity of viticulture, but just as importantly, the critical nature that good viticulture plays in producing high-quality wine. Essentially, viticulture is the foundation on which the wine is built. If you have lousy foundations, no matter how good the interior design, the house will never be stable. Cracks will appear at an early age and problems will develop quickly. If the house is being built by a shonky builder, even rank amateur homebuyers will notice things are not what they are meant to be. In many ways, building a wine is no different but in the case of wine, the foundations, or viticulture is everything. Every step that the wine maker takes after the grapes have been picked, in reality are not steps to make the wine taste better. In the case of good winemaking, every step in the process is designed to maximise the quality of the fruit and each step is designed to do as little damage as possible. Or to put it another way, when making great wine, it's not what you do in the process that’s important; it's what you don't do. Likewise, it's not what you put into the wine that makes it great (expect the great grapes of course;) it what you leave out.

For a moment think about Southcorp's operation in the Coonawarra region; they have over 900 ha to look after. That's well over 2,000 acres. Think about how many rows of vines that represents, let alone the individual vines that are planted. If you laid each row of vines in a continuous straight line, you could start in Adelaide and you would still be going well into the ocean north of Darwin. From this, it's easy to see the larger the operation, the more growers have to rely on the technology to assist with viticulture. Even medium-size wineries like d'Arenberg, are dealing with massive level of vineyard complexity, and if they are to produce good-quality wine in the long-term, need to have very strict controls in place and more importantly, an excellent understanding of their vineyards if they are to ensure good wine is produced.

At the other extreme, take an operation like Zema Estate for example. When I asked Tom Simons

how they made their viticultural decisions, he said "we spend a lot of time in the vineyard and pick on ripeness.” Bear in mind, Zema only has three vineyards and 150 acres to worry about so a hands-on approach is a feasible option. It also helps when you have continuity of ownership and or staff because the viticultural knowledge and experience is maintained within the winery. The bigger the winery (or grower,) the more complex the issues; hence the more difficult it becomes keeping all the information in one's head.

When analysing the wines tasted on the trip, I came to the realisation that many of the wines from the top producers in Coonawarra (with allowances for vintage variation) are remarkably consistent year in and year out. In many respects, the area is much more consistent than a lot of other regions. So why is this so? A lot of it has to do with the fact that a high percentage of the vineyards are well-established and utilise sound viticultural practices. It is not by accident or by good fortune that Coonawarra is renowned as being one of the two best Cabernet Sauvignon areas in the country. The secret is in the well run, established vineyards.

In reality, viticulture is everything. During my last trip, I also came to the realisation that many of the “ordinary” wines that I have tried recently have come from new vines. That does not mean that new vines are incapable of producing good fruit; you just have to look at some of Torbreck's wines to prove that it is eminently feasible to produce great wine from new vines. The difference between new vines that produce "ordinary" wine and new vines that produce excellent wine can be summed up in two word "excellent viticulture."

So how does one achieve excellent viticulture? There is no one right or wrong answer. If you ask either d'Arenberg or Southcorp, they will tell you the answer is in the soil, yet both of them look at their soil in two completely different ways. If you ask Cecilia and Steve Schubert, who besides making their own wine, sell the majority of their fruit to Torbreck, they will tell you they do exactly what Dave Powell tells them to do. Likewise, if you ask Greg Hobbs, he will tell you he does exactly what Chris Ringland tells him to do. All of these wineries use different methods, and all of them achieve excellent viticulture which results in wonderful wine. It doesn't matter whether you use sophisticated science or are an incredibly “talented artist” that manages to do it by instinct as long as you are an able to achieve excellent viticulture.

In her story, Cecilia Schubert mentioned the advantages of purchasing in the existing vineyard, but even then that one needs to be extremely careful. My good mate John Davies, aka The Pie King purchased a vineyard in Blewitt Springs just over a year ago. Whilst John did some research and knew the vines weren't exactly great, he purchased the property thinking that as long as he covered his costs in the short term, he would be happy. John regarded the first few years as an opportunity to learn, improve his vines, and that when things eventually came good, he would make some money. All very admirable and sensible on the surface!

During our recent trip, John came up with his new grape marketing strategy and shared it with us: "Pie King Bridge Vineyards - ordinary grapes at ordinary prices, maintained and managed by an ordinary vigneron.” After one full season, John has no illusions about the condition of his vines, his lack of knowledge, the time and effort involved in maintaining them, and what an interesting “ little hobby” he has become involved in. In short, he knows how bloody difficult this game can and will be for years to come.

As far as advice is concerned, it's not as simple as just hiring a viticultural consultant that will somehow magically give you all the answers in an instant and you will be producing marvellous grapes the next year. Viticultural consultants are like any other consultant, there are lots of them, the problem is finding one that you think is truly worth feeding and when you do, the chances are it will take years of careful management to get your vines to the condition they should be.

The Future

During my last trip to South Australia, one winemaker who wishes to remain anonymous provided some fascinating insights into the future direction of viticulture. It turns out although everyone knows you cannot make money out of grapes at the moment, the largest single vineyard planting in the history of the Barossa is currently being planted; 1,500 acres of Shiraz. The planting is being completed on behalf of an investment fund.

In many ways, any rational person would think this is the height of sheer stupidity, so why are they doing it? My source, who actually rang up a director of the fund to find out what was going on told me the following. “Firstly, the one thing that does make sense is the sales aspect of this venture. Eventually when they do have grapes to sell, they can go to one of the large corporate and offer 6,000 tonnes of fruit. Now to the average person, that might not sound like an awful lot, but that 6000 tonnes will produce approximately 4.5 million bottles of wine. If the average grower has say 50 acres, that would mean a corporate winery would have to deal with 30 growers to get the same amount of fruit. Think of how much easier it is to deal with one investment fund employee rather than thirty individual growers. Make no mistake, these large operations are going to be attractive to the big producers and they will make things even tougher on the smaller family growers.”

In some ways all of this is a side issue. There are no tax advantages any more and this is a guaranteed loss-making venture, and will be so for some years, so why are they planting it now? Once again, my source provided the answer. The director of the fund managing the project told him that often these projects are set in stone five years previously. My contact asked him “well isn't there a ‘dickhead clause’ or a change of the time clause to stop it?” The answer was no!

So, the fact that this operation makes no rational or economic sense does not matter, it will go ahead anyway. The mind boggles! 

And then there is the question of environmental sustainability. Do these mass vineyard plantings consider the environment? Do the men in suits who organise the large plantings and their investors consider land-care etc as much as some of the small growers? But that’s another whole can of worms that can be opened another time.

Finally

One thing is certain; it will remain tough for growers for some time. As things stand at the moment, many of the plantings that have taken place over the last decade will never produce good fruit as basically they have inadequate viticultural practices or have been poorly planted. There will be a lot of very ordinary wine produced from these vines, but that's fine, about 50% of the wine produced in Australia today wines up in a bag inside a box. Where it becomes a problem is when people have unrealistic expectations on their proposed return on investment, or they intend to produce their own bottled wine. In the latter case, it's a case (bad pun intended) of ordinary grapes in, ordinary plonk out. In today's extremely crowded boutique market place, and excess supply of grapes, that a perfect formula for “growing” broke.

Good viticultural practices are the roots of fine wine. TM (Einstein’s Wine Theory)

Copyright © Ric Einstein 2005