Wet, windy and cold for pruners
The first suite of winter frosts
Jack Frost pinched my ear so sharply at five I got up and turned the heater on. The light woke me next or the feeling that I was not alone: the lawn was crunchy white all the way down to the dam. It was twitching with Elegant parrots, studiously grazing on something. We get all manner of parrots and the like here, but these are not common. Equally distributed, perhaps a hundred of them chatted and squeaked quietly, each bird lifting its own little genie of steam from the icy grass.Like the insects, the bird population changed a lot when the Yangarra vineyard went organic and the frogs came back. If you're gonna have healthy frogs, you've gotta have healthy insects. If you've got healthy insects and frogs you'll have healthy birds. You can't have a healthy textured and balanced bird population without the whole joint being healthy. Turn the petrochem off, and you get the old natural texture of life returning.
These changes, and others, seem to come into sharper focus on such a morning. After a good sousing month of rain, the first real frost of the year performs miracles to the smell of country. It thins the aromas, giving each one greater distinction. The bouquet of the place becomes crisper, cleaner, better defined.
It's been too frigid and wet for a writerly sop like me to be out there looking pruners in the eye, but it looks like they're past the half-way mark in these big vineyards. Once they're done, it's much easier to see the sheep spread through the vines. This is a huge change. Where just a few years ago, vineyards were blitzed habitually with common poisons like Roundup, leaving a landscape devoid of cover or life and a bad taste in my mouth, a great deal of the McLaren Vale vignoble is now fenced, and the moment the grape crop's off the sheep go in. They mow weeds and grasses indiscriminately, turning them into tiny pellets of fertilizer which stay put, trapped in the remaining sward.
When the vines start to shoot in the spring the sheep must go, but there's a handy queue for their flesh, which has fattened on that thick organic pasture. No petrochem; no poison. And like the influence of the frost on the air, the wines too are cleaner, more vibrant and healthy.
It's hard to give this change of mentality the emphasis it deserves. I can soon see the day when back labels can state "free of glyphosate".Lambing time again: vineyard manager of Yangarra and Clarendon Estates, Michael Lane pumps some patented prep into Timmy the orphan bleater ... Timmy was a pioneer vineyard Roundup replacer
Speaking of labels, there are other huge changes afoot there. The random spread about my desk at this moment includes seven Shiraz, three Cabernets, one blend of the two, and a couple of Merlots. Then there's Syrah/Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Saperavi, Sagratino and a ravishing Touriga nacional/Tinta amarella/Tinta cao blend. Dining table? Shiraz (11 bottles), Cabernet (5), Chardonnay (3), Merlot (2) Pinot noir (1) and Riesling (1). Then there's a radical change of gears. This is the general tasting stock that ambles through my week: they are random. But after those common varieties, the rest go like this: Carignan (1), Mataro (aka Mourvèdre and Monastrell) (6), Cinsault (1), Vermentino (1), Sangiovese (1), Tempranillo (1), Tinta negro mole (1), Durif (1) and Touriga nacional (1).
This change of the colours of Australia's wine rainbow is as radical as the vineyard changes outside my window. Neither my view nor the load on my table is reflective of what's on the shelves of your BWS, by any means, but I can recall no time in the last thirty-plus years where this critical funnel was confronted by such an incredible array of flavours.
How this happened is not yet clear. It is partly a response to a shrinking wine world, where people and wines travel more and faster than ever before; and it's partly a response to global warming, which threatens the old status quo varieties, but I think it's mainly a contrary response to what was taught by rote in our wine schools over the last thirty years. There's a generation of winemakers who tested the water with a little Tempranillo or Sangiovese; since then there's another which seems desperate to try not just anything, but everything.
And I've only mentioned six varieties which end in O. Others popping up include Trebbiano, Souzão, Prosecco, Primitivo, Nebbiolo, Montepulciano, Greco, Graciano, Fiano, Aleatico, Aglianico, Albariño, and so on. I'm sure I've missed some – I only found these by reading the ampelography upside-down. Just how the people who planted them chose to go for the O's beats me, but I'm sure it has nothing to do with typography, terroir or market research. It's a reactionary whim. A fad.
Gimme that chaos. Bring on the fractals.Brrrr sunset last night photo Philip White
Once this new wave of old varieties really begins to break across the shelves, they're gonna present the retailer with a great deal of trouble. Like, what do you stack? When confronted by a new grape variety, Australians typically try the first one they encounter, then another brand's attempt at the same thing, and so on, until they've tried them all: like, "I done all the Viogniers." Then they change varieties, leaving the retailer reeling.
Since Woolworths bought one of the biggest wineries in Australia, Cellarmasters in the Barossa, it makes a continually-increasing percentage of the wine it sells in its own shops, like BWS and Dan Murphy's. This is killing many small producers: they cannot possibly manage the pricing, or match the economies of scale. And so they whine as they dwindle and fade.
One thing worth remembering: Woolworths will not plant vineyards. It will not take risks. So these winemakers who are bravely or stupidly attempting to give us something new to drink have a range of products that Woollies cannot quickly match. It'll be those who plant too much of something new that get in the shit, and they'll soon imagine that the only way they'll get out is to sell the balance in bulk to Woolworths. Woolworths will use their industrial rote recipe to make wine from it, undercut everybody else who's trying to do the new variety justice, and probably tarnish its name forever.
Until you get that happening broadscale, and the entire viticulture industry reacts badly by retreating to what it thinks is the safety of the old standards, there's a very good chance for the dwindling number of independent wine stores to specialize in getting these new flavours to an increasingly curious marketplace.
As a buyer and consumer, it's really up to you now. Find your specialist, and encourage them to make you happy. Because it looks to me that the winemakers, for the first time in my life, are seriously trying to replace the old industrial mindlessness with something that will be better for everybody, including our tired old planet.