“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





24 August 2016


Sheep rats weeds and wine: first shoots of '17 bring a new green attitude to clean grape-growing

After that perfectly wet winter, there is peace in the valley. Budburst has commenced in McLaren Vale, as in other regions, before some farmers have finished their pruning. Bits of the steeper ground have been a bit too dangerous in the bountiful rains, and some of the creek flats stay really muddy after the streams fill and flood. But the sun's been out these last days, it's been unseasonably warm, and they're all on it now: the home stretch; snips clacking.

It's probably my global warming paranoia that has me imagining the new buds are early, but Inkwell Wines co-prop Dudley Brown, whose vineyards are way south at the other end of the region, says this timing is normal there on his California Road patch ... these things vary from one spot to another.

My bellwether indicator is the Pirramimma Chardonnay vineyard (above) which lies halfway between us: opposite The Salopian Inn, on the south side of McMurtrie Road. I emerged from a car there on Friday and yep, budburst: some leaves were already two or three centimetres wide.

Half-way through a perfect lunch it hailed. I squished across to take a look as we left: some of the buds were damaged, but not too many. I've seen much worse in other years. They'll make up for that early blitz.

The author with Kerry Flannagan in August 1984: the first stages of the rebuild of The Salopian Inn, now McLaren Vale's pre-eminent fine dining establishment and a very cool pitstop for the thirsty traveller ... this photo by Steve Richardson; all others by Philip White 

 Zannie Flannagan, co-founder of Prewett's Kangarilla and then The Salopian Inn, in about 1984 ... photo Philip White ... amongst other amazing achievements, Zannie has since played a big role in getting the Willunga Farmers' Market functioning

But back to now. There were other bands of hail belting through different swathes of the Vales over a 24 hour stint, but again, these were mercifully early, narrow and brief.

Budburst is also occurring in the South Mount Lofty Ranges, the Barossa, the Lower Hunter, the Yarra and parts of Tasmania, where things are supposed to be cooler and later ... I suspect that once it's all rounded up and properly considered, we may actually find it to be a touch earlier than average.

I couldn't handle being a farmer. My stoicism doesn't stretch as far as to slave away all year, painstakingly preparing a crop of grapes to produce a beautiful, profitable result only to see it belted by bad weather and spoiled.

But then, I suppose sensible writers never really expect a profit. Gotta remember to build them losses into the International Sonnet-writers' Prospectus before we poets float. Whatterya reckon? Budget for one good crop in ten?


One of the most satisfying aspects of a drive around this district, and increasingly in others, is the way vignerons have learned to use sheep in just a few quick years. Where vineyards were for 35 or 40 years blitzed mindlessly with Monsanto's Roundup glyphosate, growers are finding that while sheep bring the one-off cost of fencing with them, they eat the winter weeds and leave a healthy short sward and a well-dispersed layer of perfectly natural fertiliser pellets behind them.

Then they are rounded-up and removed before budburst. Sheep love those juicy little buds.

The venerable Leo Pech was for many years the representative of the grapegrowers of the Barossa. Very early in this career - like early '80s - the young Whitey went to visit Leo to discuss the state of viticulture. Leo was pruning in the rain. His vineyard looked something like a raked Zen temple garden: apart from the immaculately-pruned vines in the row behind him, and a pad of moss here and there, there was not a blade of vegetation of any other sort.

It seemed to me to be the classic example of recreational cultivation: if there was ever nothing else to do, a good farmer jumped on his tractor and went out and killed everything that didn't make wine. It seemed vengeful and spiteful.

Leo made me wait in the ute while he finished schnipping his row; something to do with teaching the ignorant hack a thing or two about Barossadeutscher stubbornness. When he eventually joined me in the truck he turned the windscreen wipers on so we could see and explained how well-kept and healthy his vines were.

I was brash enough to suggest that if all the vines were suddenly removed in a flash, the field would be completely barren at this, the end of winter, which hardly indicated a healthy piece of ground. Healthy ground is supposed to have grass at the end of winter.

Leo didn't spend much energy hiding his irritation at such blasphemy.

Now, however, we see fewer such grapeyards but grassy vinegardens with sheep everywhere. In future winters, take notice if the vineyard with the sheep is signposted: very simply, those beasties indicate a new enlightened sense of responsibility on behalf of that grower. Support those people with a purchase.

You still see many vineyards betraying their owners' scorched earth policy: fields with no grass at all, or tell-tale stripes of bare earth right below each vine row. These growers are probably still on the old glyphosate regime: a rote cycle shown to kill all sorts of bacteria and bugs, like the helpful micro strands of fungi that keeps dirt rich and alive. Glyphosate has the opposite effect of mulch.

Ewes with lambs cleaning up weeds in a corner of the Yangarra Ironheart Shiraz vineyard

Living as I do in an old cottage in Yangarra Estate's big biodynamic/organic vineyard, I find it a delight after harvest when they put the sheep in. 

It's fascinating to watch the fussy order the beasties show in the types of plants they eat. The girls have already been to visit the boys. When the lambs arrive, they're just hilarious to watch, and one grows to enjoy their bleat.

I had a whinge here earlier in the season about the rodents who prefer to move in by the fire with Unca Phil once the grass is chewed back to a couple of centimetres and there's nowhere for such field mice and rats to hide. To think these wee beasties are so prevalent in thicker fields is another indicator of good pasture health.

Rodents lure raptors. Raptors scare grape-eating birds away.

Roger the Rat II: on his way back to risking it on the range ... he couldn't resist a big dollop of peanut butter with a pistachio on the top after I interrupted him making this mess:

If they aren't poisoned with the sorts of stuff still used widely by many, these critters form what winemakers politely call protein at vintage: the machine harvesters interrupt the rodents dozing, feasting, or frozen with fear in the vine canopies.

Protein makes wine hazy and unstable. Winemakers use fining agents to remove the particles. Better to have no protein in the fruit.

If your crop is picked by hand, most of this gross protein never reaches the crusher/destemmer. Even more finicky bunch sorting, and now mechanical berry selection, will remove all the protein donated by earwigs, ants, millipedes, moths, spiders and whatnot.

So. Here's Yangarra winemaker Shelley Torresan about to load some real clean hand-picked Shiraz whole bunches in to the grape sorter:

... here's what it'll reject if you put crap in there (click, enlarge, see the protein):

... bad berries, grubs, worms, millipedes: machine-harvested 2011 rejection bin botrytis-infected Langhorne Creek fruit ... this is the sort of stuff a good grape sorting machine strips out of your crop to be sent off to distillation ... leaving berries like this hand-picked, machine-sorted 2012 material [presuming there were some berries this good amongst whatever you tipped in there in the first place, it'll polish them like caviar]:

Fortunately, these bugs don't follow the rats and mice in here for company once the sheep have done their job. Which they have, just as those new fluffy leaves emerge; a subtle green wave moving gradually up the hills toward the rim of the Onkaparinga Gorge at the northern end of the vignoble.

Now the ewes are sick of the endless suckling and nudging of their offspring, which are no longer frail wee things. They have eaten no poison, those beauties: no pesticide, no herbicide, no petrochem fertiliser. They've been sorted and sexed and tailed and they're so fat they make me dribble.

Welcome to vintage 2017.

Roundup is now a thing you with the sheep and lambs at budburst ... once they've turned the weeds into fertiliser, you round 'em up before they get a taste for the new vine shoots ... here's  the view south from The Salopian across the faultline to the Willunga Escarpment and the Front Hills as they slide into Gulf St Vincent, patron of viticulturers, at Sellicks

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