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Wine-making

It's All About the Cabernet

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It's All About the Cabernet

Two weeks later we’re easing up to the equinox and going in for the Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s the very opposite of the Malbec harvest – the moon is full, the energy, autumnal, the light silvered, brooding, quiet. The sea is snapping, blasting powerful low timbre pops that rise to reverberate over the ridge, like the sound of a faraway storm. I’m receiving the sounds in my gut like a type of foreboding and I will my breath to slow and my silly human thoughts to empty out so that something else can come in.

The ground is damp to my bare feet. The slightest breeze feathers up laden with moisture, redolent with anticipation. The fullish moon sets down below the horizon and the light has been extinguished. The night has been switched back on. Mercury and Venus have risen and gleam in the East, Saturn and Mars blaze in the western sky. It is a celestially rich moment with various forces and planets lining up perfectly. I’m feeling positively biodynamic as I rock down to the vineyard.

I compose the horoscope of this vintage in my sleep-deprived skull. Addled, grinning, I physicalize the least profound thoughts in all of astrology. I’m giggling with the chill energy of the morning, tasting grapes as we roll up the nets. I pause and listen to the world waking up -- first kookaburra, then magpie, lark, honeyeater, western ringneck parrot, the convoy of crew rolling in. 

Dawn discovers us picking with golden puffs of clouds flying sacred missions through the azure. Then in come the white tailed black cockatoos like a benediction. They station themselves in the marris ringing the vines and set up a cacaphonious hymn that’s immensely cheering. Their presence bookmarks an amazing year – they were here at the beginning of pruning and again as we pick the sum of the year’s work.

We pick and sort and sample brilliant grapes and we’re beaming. The whole lot is relaxed and focused, and dare I say it, fun? The fruit arrives steadily, bursting with flavor, life and energy. This is the essence of harvest.

I arrive with the first fruit at the winery and more cockatoos scoop in for a greeting. The whole world is talking, and I’m smiling as I listen.

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Malbec 2014

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Malbec 2014

It's the quiet moment after sunset when the world is tucking itself in and the night creatures are coming up to speed. There's a perfect swell on after days of doldrums and the sea is roaring a bass hello. I've parked the truck and trailer, both laden with bins for tomorrow's pick and I'm saying goodnight and farewell to the Malbec. There's the deepest purple glow in the West and a purity to the darkness, with the stars beginning to wink on in the moonless gloaming. I'm reviewing the past growing season as it morphs into its culmination with an uneasiness I can neither explain nor shake.

A dry dusty heat continues to rise off the dirt, despite the darkness. Summer is lingering on. The grapes taste delicious, but the crop is tiny -- we have made a tremendous effort for just a small amount of grapes. My mood has been shaped by the employment of the past few days -- cutting off raisined bunches and individual berries that have been burnt up by the relentless sun. It's reduced our low yielding crop significantly. We dance across harvest’s tightrope balancing the success of creating exquisite fruit with danger -- the paucity of return.

I trudge my way back home across the stubbly field, in a great quiet, punctuated by the sea’s susurration. When I reach the edge of the dried streambed, a coolness rises off the earth and resuscitates my spirits. I look up at Jupiter sprawled comfortably in the vast sky and breathe again. I see in that instant how thoroughly wrapped up I've been in business and other compelling concerns causing separation. I will myself to shift into gratitude for the harvest, for this place, my life filled with blessings, my family, friends, well-being.

Later, I rise in darkness and make my way back to the vines. I hear a Roo clippity-clopping in the obscurity. The slightest breeze like earth's exhalation carries a promising dampness. I smell grasses and peppermint and salt. The entire sky is dotted with a gazillion stars and the Sea is clapping and snapping and singing. And when I get into the vineyard open, Mercury and Venus and Saturn and Jupiter ride the moonless sky.

I free the nets and start them rolling. The crew yawns in and we set to work by headlamp, and as the daylight spools in, in come the pickers with their smiles and earnestness. I kneel in the first row and snip a bunch, which I offer to the land, the ancestors, the gods of this place and of wine, and then we all get stuck into it. We work as the light comes in and the sun winks through the trees and the bins fill up and our sweat arrives.  

My family trickles in, along with some well-wishing friends, and the bittersweet feeling returns. Another year, another year, another year. All that effort distilled into a bin. The taste of 2014, as manifest through Malbec. Life in all its magic marches on, and we with it.

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Flowering Peppies in the Kambarang

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Flowering Peppies in the Kambarang

The Wardandi are the traditional custodians of the land in our region and their territory extends from the coast north of the Capel River to the Southern Ocean near Augusta, just to the south of us. In pre-contact time, they lived a life closely tuned to the cycles of nature impacting their lives. They recognized six separate seasons, characterized by cyclical events in nature, and foods that became available during those seasons, whose length varied yearly but were each about two months in length. They were a migratory people, moving seasonally to take advantage of the foods that became abundant at different times.

We are nearing the end of the warm season the Wardandi named Kambarang, characterized by an abundance of wildflowers. It is said that if the Western Australia Peppermint trees (Agonis flexuosa) flower abundantly during this time, it is a predictor of coming rains. This year the Peppies are in deep full blossom. If I squint, they appear to be covered in snow. It is a time where moisture is in the air, especially in the nights and dawn, with cool breezes shifting in from the Indian Ocean.

With the moisture arrives mildew pressure. Powdery mildew thrives in cool, damp, poorly ventilated areas. It loves shade and thus could possibly be an issue in our closely planted vineyard, where the distance between vines is only one meter and our cordon is only half a meter off the ground. Powdery mildew gets its name from the characteristic white powder that forms, along with a fuzzy mycelium that releases spores into the air, which in turn spread rapidly. Its presence reduces yield and quality and in some cases can lead to complete crop loss.

The dryer it is, the less worry about powdery. Spore germination is optimal in temperatures of 22-31 C, typical of this season, and to counter it, I’ve been shoot thinning as well as spraying elemental sulfur on the foliage. Sulfur is a non-specific fungicide. Its presence reduces the microbial life in the soil so I use the bare minimum, but I use it.  It is only effective if applied prior to the appearance of symptoms – if powdery appears in the vine it is already too late. 

I walk past the snow-like blossoms and inhale a heady aroma from the Peppies bordering the vines. The promise of a cooling rain is enticing. And before it arrives, and after it leaves, I’ll keep the sulfur level up on the foliage, without which this lovely crop would be at risk.

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The Terroir of Terroir

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The Terroir of Terroir

All this controversy about terroir has got me thinking about the influences of that “je ne sais quoi” that ends up in the bottle. Most wine is incredibly manipulated. It stands to reason that minimal manipulations should reflect the terrain the best, that any inputs would dull the impact of the place expressing through the final product. It’s an argument for natural wine, but just because a wine is natural doesn’t make it a good wine. This is borne out so often in the tasting, alas.

So I’ve preferred those definitions of terroir that alude to a partnership between the vigneron and land, but still find that concept pretty grandiose in practice. While I do see myself in partnership with my land, I also see that the contract isn’t on my terms, and the fine print keeps showing up. Partnership implies a certain give and take. But even the most enlightened farmers I know are giving through human prescribed lenses and taking what they are able. There’s little sense of mystery - the partner isn't actually acknowledged nor credited.

I don’t know how enlightened I am. I’m dogged though, learning from knowledgable old timers, and books, and from my comparatively limited in duration, direct experience of the land. Theoretically it’s coherent. But I suspect that the land is just incredibly generous and tolerant of or amused by my arrogant attempts to “work with it".

Yet some aspects of my relationship to the land are undeniably reflected in the wine. Does my vibration as a grower enter into it? Do my moods, preoccupations, and energies really affect the outcomes? Or are my results merely a question of the physical inputs the vines receive on this particular piece of earth?

Today I was planting Peppermint trees (Agonis flexuosa) along the Caves Road verge. The rain was hammering down, as it has been for months, no let up in sight, resulting in unprecedented surface water in the vineyard (unprecedented in my experience). All that water has to go somewhere. The result is that I crossed two deep flowing creeks, where previously at most I’ve experienced a trickle.

The freshly shoveled dirt smelled the way it looked, red and luscious and deep. I sniffed it greedily, rain splashing everywhere. I was camouflaged in my green raingear, and crouching on my knees, patting a seedling home, when I was startled by a pair of ducks gliding to a touchdown right in front of me plopping into the creek and swimming upstream.

They actually didn’t see me as they swam in tandem against the current, ducking and feeding and quacking to each other. Partners. Could terroir be the partnership between the land and what we do on it? What an arrogant thought. Terroir is the grace of this place, the generosity of all the forces and powers operating here, mostly beyond my ken. Like this creek that appears in the rainy season to house a universe of animals and plants, only to disappear in perfectly adapted dormancy in the dry, it is the only appropriate response to forces and cycles no farmer can hope to manipulate, or understand.

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Cuttings

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Cuttings

There's a breeze out of the North and the sun has prevailed today over our customary winter rains. I am gleaning cuttings from the first Chardonnay prunings, seeking straight, healthy wood amongst what were the new canes from last year's growing season. I've been cutting the bottom of the canes across the bud itself, as instructed by the old timers, marking the top ends with a diagonal cut so that I can easily tell which way is up.

Margaret River has not experienced grape phylloxera (the sap sucking insect that feeds on grapevines, responsible for the plague that destroyed the European wine industry in the late 1800's), and so it is possible to root these cuttings directly, rather than first grafting to rootstock. The cuttings are placed in a sandy nursery where they will form a white tissue called callus, and the roots will grow out of that. These will be transplanted into the new vineyard blocks. However the cuttings taken today will go directly into the ground, as replacement cuttings for some transplants that didn't make it last year. It's one of many ongoing experiments. Callusing occurs in warm conditions and is necessary for root formation. These replacement vines will remain relatively cold in the ground until Spring, and thus will most likely not callus up until quite a bit later. But I can easily shove them into the soft ground now, without digging, whereas planting the rooted cuttings will require considerably more effort. So I'm experimenting to see how well they take.

I'm alone, and taking my time with it, listening to music with my headphones as I wake up muscles that haven't been used for a while. I listen with the volume turned low enough that I can hear the magpie choir and the leaves chuckling in the breeze. There's a lot of work in front of me, and I'm getting together a plan of how to accomplish everything. Seems like just about every time I come up with a big time and effort saving idea though, I end up expending more. As for this experiment, heavy winter rains have drenched the vineyard. When I place a cutting into the ground I'm met with plenty of water. The rains will continue for several months and there’s a risk that these cuttings might rot in the ground. Am I too early?

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And you thought growing grapes was easy

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And you thought growing grapes was easy

Since the harvest the rains have been abundant, resulting in the establishment of a dense mat of weeds. Without chemicals or machinery it will require a massive effort to remove them. Our thick mulch will help somewhat with the broadleaves and the plain grasses, but the presence of kikuyu, Pennisetum clandestinum, a virile runner grass, will necessitate considerable hand labor.

Kikuyu grass is fiercely aggressive and persistent. It invades new territory by sending out stolons (runners), which climb over all obstacles, including other plants, and everywhere it goes, it develops dense networks of rhizomes (roots), which monopolize all available soil nutrients. This strategy enables it to establish itself very rapidly, outcompeting virtually all other plants. It grows so densely that it chokes out all challengers, plus it also produces its very own toxic herbicide, which further discourages any rivals, even if they are already established.

Some neighbors have burned it with flamethrowers. Most kill it with roundup. It can also be scraped up with earthmoving equipment (along with all the topsoil). But if even the smallest piece is left in the ground, it will start another plant. To remove it without damaging our soil involves meticulous hand weeding. But that is an arduous and very costly process. We will have to dig up and remove every particle of each individual plant, and carry it far away from the vines. If even the smallest piece snaps off, it can establish a new plant!

Such a tremendous expenditure of effort and resources may not be entirely efficacious. So I’m walking around in the night wondering if there is any other way to deal with it. One idea is to move some chickens in and feed them in the vines. Perhaps they will be able to scratch up the kikuyu. But once the buds pop we risk the entire crop, and our low cordon means that the buds will be in reach. We will have at least another month of winter, so it might be worth the risk…

And you thought grape growing was easy!

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When the Cows Come Home

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When the Cows Come Home

It is early morning and I have driven 2 ½ hours north of Margaret River to a beauty of a farm. It is set back where the scarp rises from the coastal plain and is well situated in a spot with abundant water. Even now, in early autumn, the fields carry great vibrancy and diversity, with a density of luxuriant grasses. The cows look exceptionally healthy and energetic as well, and it is no wonder - this farm is alive. I pull up to the barn and join a group of longtime biodynamic farmers, who are hard at work making the “500”, the critically important biodynamic preparation.

We labor filling cow horns with gorgeously scented manure freshly produced from their lactating cows which we then orient in circular patterns in a specially sited pit. They have designed a machine that extrudes the manure in such a way that it is possible to fill the horn much like filling an ice cream cone. But you have to keep up with it, because if you don’t, a pile of you-know-what will accumulate quickly. After a while I get the hang of it - tip of the horn down, held securely with one hand when placing each filled horn in the wheelbarrow and so forth. We actually are able to get into the swing of it enough to be able to carry on a conversation while we work. I turn into a question machine – the opportunity to learn from experienced farmers comes rarely. So I question and they reflect and time passes quickly. I learn tons – not just about how to make 500, but also insights about its application and effects.

We fill wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, which then are ferried over to the pit. We establish a layer by placing the horns in tight circles, based on their proper orientation, one next to the other in an area approximately one meter by five. Each successive layer is covered with a thin topping of deliciously rich loam, which is wet down slightly with water. The next layer of horn is then arranged on that and the process is repeated. When a meter and a half pile of layers is completed, we move out and start another one, adjacent to the previous column. Finally everything is covered with tin sheeting for sun protection, secured by the weight of old tires.

The preparation will remain in the ground until early spring, at which point it will be sent out to many of the biodynamic farms in Western Australia, including ours. This particular pit is capable of producing enough preparation for 100,000 acres, although this year there is only a need to cover 20,000. Since Cloudburst is small scale, we will hand stir a small amount before applying it to our land and vines. We’ve applied this preparation since we began and our soil is integrated and vibrant. The health of this farm and their magnificent cows is further testimony to the validity of this practice.

The day passes quickly and I shower off and head down the road to the winery in the dwindling light. We will be pressing the juice off the skins tonight and I don’t want to miss a thing!

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Rocking the Ferment

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Rocking the Ferment

We picked our Cabernet Sauvignon on a coldish autumn day, and the grapes were still cold when they were crushed and pumped into open fermenters. We covered the fermenters with shadecloth secured by elastic to keep out dust and insects and left them resting overnight in the open air of the winery shed. It was a cool night and in the morning the ferment had barely begun.

The next day dawned slightly warmer and the ferment heated up a degree or so, but there wasn’t very strong activity. Apparently it was going to stay cold for a while so we ferried the fermenters into the warmer barrel room and that did the trick, for overnight it began to move. When the ferment was really going we brought it back outside into the open air. Every few hours the temperature rose just a bit more until the yeasts were happily cranking away.

Every day I returned at regular intervals to punch down the cap or pump over the juice, and take a sample to measure and taste. The smell and color and flavor intensified with each successive visit. It was a thrill to inhale the scent of this bubbling exuberance. With each successive visit I could feel it growing more deeply into its own distinctive personality. Several times a day I tasted. I tasted with my nose, my eyes, my ears, my mouth. My hands were purple with tasting!

It reminded me of the magical time of pregnancy, when at first there’s just the slightest inkling that something miraculous is developing, and then suddenly that something is brewing with a speed and rapidity and intelligence. From that early moment of a barely perceptible glow it proceeds through its enchanted stages and the days have a timeless celebratory fullness. Likewise, as I monitored the ferment, moment to moment movement was barely perceptible, but under the surface mysterious changes were rushing to an incredible conclusion.

After six days of this ripening, blossoming, deepening, thickening, rather than extract too much from the skins and seeds, we decided to press it off. It will finish the ferment off skins, simply as juice. I took a last sniff and taste as we prepared to shovel the skins into the press and was intoxicated again by the magnificence of it all.

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What goes around, comes around...

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What goes around, comes around...

After the crush I returned to the vineyard with the stems and potpourri of matter discarded at the sorting table. They will be composted and returned to the soil. The sun was slipping down behind the ridge, sending golden and orange and pink rays into the gathering clouds. A chilly breeze tickled the leaves of the now fruitless vines and I was struck by how different it is already. Like when the kids have first climbed onto the bus and the house feels empty and changed with the missing of them, the vineyard drew similar feelings from me. The energy had fully changed from outward to inward, from the exuberance of summer to the contemplation of autumn, all in a matter of hours.

That lone kangaroo was back, having a feast amongst the grapes that had dropped, and I opened the gates to welcome in any and sundry that wanted to glean. I stood there in the fading light gazing at this lovely spot where I spend so much of my days. The Cabernet’s leaves were dark and green in contrast to the fading yellow of the Chardonnay. Seasonal rains will soon be knocking the leaves down and the vines will be heading into dormancy. Everything moves.

The last of the sun reflected on the tops of the Marris as I headed back to the winery. The sun had equinoxed northward a week ago. The moon, which crossed the equator today, would be rising, virtually full, within the hour to bathe these emptied vines with its silver. And those lovely crushed grapes were resting in an open fermenter, gathering themselves for their alchemical transition.

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The Sorting Table

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The Sorting Table

There were eleven of us bent over the sorting table as the grape bunches hit the destemmer and began their vibrating dance towards the pump. Twenty-two sharp eyes and twenty-two vigilant hands, with one aim - to insure that only perfect grapes made it into the ferment. Our careful handpick assured that a minimum of leaves and foreign material made it to the winery mixed in with the grapes, but the sorting table takes that careful attention to the next level. This is the final chance to discover and remove anything that shouldn’t go into the wine that might have slipped past our scrutiny during the handpick.

We were mainly targeting anything green. Nothing escaped our watchful eyes and quick hands darting in to cull the odd stem that had evaded the destemmer, random petioles, a stray leaf, unripe berry, a snippet of cane. We removed anything but sound ripe grapes. Without foreign material, nothing interferes with the perfect expression of our incredibly healthy Cabernet Sauvignon fruit. It's painstaking work and costly, but the elegant end result makes it well worth it.

After passing across the sorting table, the juice and skins and seeds were then gently pumped into a large open steel fermenter, which had been thoroughly scoured and rinsed and inspected. Over the next several hours the precious liquid gurgled in and rose slowly towards the top. As it did, the faintest of smells greeted my curious sniffs –a clean and unpretentious odor of fresh fruit – not too sweet, not too green, just a simple pure smell. It was the smell of beginnings, the smell of promise, the smell of a miraculous transformation about to commence...

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Recipe for Extraordinary Grape Harvest

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Recipe for Extraordinary Grape Harvest

With cool weather and potentially wet grapes, I scheduled the harvest a bit later than our customary sunrise pick, anticipating a possible need for things to dry out first. At sunrise patches of blue sparkled through the lifted cloud cover. Sure enough, the wind had dried things so thoroughly that it was as though the downpour had never occurred. What a relief! It was exhilarating to be out in the autumn morning with the light changing and clouds moving dramatically.

Our crew jumped to the tasks of preparing the vineyard in anticipation of the picking team, which would be arriving a bit later. The nets came off easily and my son headed off to pick what he could before leaving for school. The sky was opening now with drifts of clouds and the sun valiantly peeking through.

Soon everyone was bending to the task – literally, because our cordon is at a half-meter height, and the fruit was coming off quickly and easily. It was a lighthearted and celebratory time, with great energy going into the grapes on a lovely fall morning. We finished as the clouds broke apart completely and we could feel the sun. With great gratitude we ferried a most gorgeous collection of grapes up to the winery for the crush.

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What We Do When We're Waiting to Harvest...

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What We Do When We're Waiting to Harvest...

What a pretty restless time it was after canceling the pick! It was Monday morning and I became the classic Monday morning quarterback. Cloud after cloud rolled in from the Indian Ocean carrying drizzle, followed by a low grey blanket of clouds that tucked the region in with a denseness in the air. Repeat, drizzle, denseness, drizzle, denseness. Repeat elation at having not picked, despair, elation, despair. Yoyoville.

I squish through the fields to the vines for the third time and notice that the grapes are still dry beneath the canopy despite the downpour. Silvereyes are massed in the trees. A huge male kangaroo lopes lazily away at my approach. He’s harvested a little snack for himself, I notice as I readjust the bird net. I don’t remember his signing up for an allocation, but I’m delighted to share with him. We kept the fruit on an extra day just for him.

In the night the wind picks up and the rain pounds so hard, my heart pounds along. I go out into it, connect with its intensity and wonder whether the harvest will proceed in the morning. Sleep is utterly banished by the howling winds and the thought that maybe I’ve misjudged it. Have I jeopardized the entire season’s work by cancelling the pick? I pore over the radar and a stew of weather reports and go back and forth about it all. It looks like we will have a brief window in the midmorning, but will it be dry enough?

Soon enough the light comes up and the clouds have lifted. I’m noticing patches of sky! I rush out barefoot into grass that has been dried by the wind. It’s looking like a particularly perfect autumn day. A kookaburra has a good laugh and so do I. The grapes needed another day. They needed to taste the first autumn rains and a little bit of chilliness so that that could be in the wine along with everything else. 

With a lifted heart I head down to the harvest. 

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