The craziest wine region in the world?

mosel-kerpen-1I sentence anyone with romantic notions of wine production to a harvest in the Mosel.

There’s no doubt the last three weeks, spent occasionally in the cellar here at Weingut Kerpen but mostly on the slopes of the Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Graacher Himmelreich and, most distressingly, Graacher Domprobst vineyards, have been the most physically demanding of the year. Two days after the completion of the harvest, each morning is a process of unfreezing various joints and muscles that, I am tempted to think, have been permanently damaged. I’m grateful, however, the various cuts on my hands and arms inflicted by rogue secateurs and blackberry bushes have, for the most part, stopped bleeding.

You’ve probably seen the photos: vines rise scenically above cute German villages that look to have strayed in from a fairy tale. I’ve not seen any witches on my visit so far, but there’s certainly a moral to the Mosel story: this is no sane place to grow wine. One has to walk the vineyards to adequately appreciate how steep they can be, and how difficult it is to simply make one’s way from top to bottom without the added complication of trying to pick fruit.

And yet, vines have graced the south-facing slopes here for two thousand years, as ancient a tradition as any New World winemaker might wish for, proving at the very least that crazy vignerons aren’t a new invention. This is an extravagantly old-fashioned wine region, from its viticultural methods (still predominantly close planted vines, one plant per post, cane pruned in the shape of a heart) to the magnificent wineries that grace the banks of the Mosel in Wehlen, Bernkastel and Graach. The wines are old-fashioned too, gloriously so in my opinion, with few concessions to fashion or varietal diversity. Sure, there’s some Spätburgunder planted here and there, along with a smattering of Müller-Thurgau, but the point of the Mosel is Riesling in its spectacular diversity of expressions.

Wine here is an interesting counterpoint to that from Burgundy. The Burgundian model of wine has had a far-reaching influence in terms of shaping how many other regions, especially in the New World, conceive the winemaking enterprise. The primacy of terroir, the exaltation of single vineyards, the ostensible erasement of the winemaker; one site, one expression, minimal “intervention.” German Riesling is different. For a start, vineyards like Wehlener Sonnenuhr are vast and contain many sites of differing grades. Although generally regarded as having some defining characters, these mega-vineyards are simply a starting point for a winemaker-driven range of expressions: dry, half-dry or sweet, ripeness levels like Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, and so on. These aren’t pseudo-natural, “just leave it and bottle the results” wines, they are a complex matrix of styles enabled by the vineyard and mediated by the winemaker, often requiring simple but highly interventionist winemaking (most notably, stopping fermentations part-way through).

How refreshing: a wine culture that acknowledges both the importance of the vineyard and of winemaking.

It’s this integrated view of winegrowing that prompted Martin Kerpen to send me out to the vineyards to pick. In a series of fascinating conversations, we have discussed the relationship between vineyard and cellar, and how some wine cultures separate the two more than others. His view is unequivocal: winemaking is inseparable from viticulture. Although my formal training presented me with two quite separate disciplines, and my experiences this year have been firmly cellar-based, the wisdom of Martin’s view has slowly dawned on me as I’ve moved between vineyard and cellar, first picking then processing fruit. I find, now, when I taste each batch in the cellar, I know how the fruit looked in situ, what the vineyard was doing as we harvested, the trellising used, the crop load, variability within the site, and so on. It’s a view I’ve not had of any parcel of fruit until now, and it’s fascinating.

Of course, I’ve tasted widely and often since arriving here. I was already a big fan of German Riesling, hence my desire to work in the Mosel, and my appreciation for the wines has grown substantially over the past few weeks. They are, at their best, sublime, spectacular wines. What has shocked me most, I think, is how well, and how slowly, the wines age. They develop a set of flavours quite different from South Australian Riesling, shunning overt toast and honey in favour of a slow transformation that shaves the wines of their highly floral aromas and further emphasises fruit richness and minerality. Minerality is a key term when approaching these wines, and as a descriptor is often used by local vignerons to indicate a separate element from either fruit or structure; a third component of wine, if you like. I don’t think there’s anything magical about the mineral flavours in these wines, but they are most certainly there and are a key balancing element.

If there is anything magical about Mosel Rieslings, it’s in their balance. For example, wines with over one hundred grams of residual sugar taste only off-dry and finish cleanly, yet with the most powerful, luscious fruit on the mid-palate. This is a trick I’m repeatedly astonished by, and I’m keen to learn the magic from Martin. I’ve been conscientiously tasting ferments as they take their course, and we will soon begin arresting ferments. Martin does this mostly by taste, and I’ll be tasting alongside him, training my palate to recognise the right moment.

It’s truly nuts here: the vineyards are insanely steep (and even more insanely beautiful), the complicated system of quality classifications surely invented by a committee of lunatics. Most of all, though, the wines are wildly, crazily, fittingly beautiful.


There’s a book in all this.

About a hundred miles west of Austin along Texas State Highway 71, the road widens for a moment. The speed limit dips to fifty five and, if you’re not paying attention, you might miss the town of Pontotoc altogether. Keep an eye out, though, and you’ll see a vineyard on your right: a few acres of Tempranillo with a beautiful old windmill and stone well. Next to the vineyard, there’s the old, derelict town centre dating from the turn of the century, when this community was first established: a cinema, grocery store and post office, all made of locally quarried stone. Adjacent to these, and looking out over the vines, is a magnificent residence in which I find myself right now. Dating from the same era as the town centre buildings, it is designed in a style that, I imagine, felt good to the Germans who originally settled this place and who remain a big influence throughout Texas Hill Country. These beautiful structures are in various states of repair and their owner, Carl Money, is slowly restoring them to their former glory.

Carl Money, Pontotoc Vineyard

Carl Money, Pontotoc Vineyard

Carl is also responsible for planting the vineyard, which in land area comprises a large part of Pontotoc. A prominent lawyer and longtime globetrotter, Carl fell in love with wine as a young man in Europe. He is the archetypal Texan: friendly, talkative, assertive; a man with a big accent, big plans and, it seems, the drive to realise them. Having tasted wine all over the Old World, he clearly has an international perspective, which makes his decision to make authentically Texan wine all the more interesting. He might have chosen any number of places to plant his beloved Tempranillo vines, but he chose Pontotoc, Mason County. He isn’t just establishing his own Estate; in effect, he is building an entire wine community in Pontotoc. When complete, the old town centre will house three wineries, a large tasting hall and various entertainment spaces. His belief in the State’s wines is demonstrably strong, as is his conviction that a geological feature known as the Llano Uplift, which underpins Pontotoc Vineyard and runs through much of Mason County, provides a unique terroir for the region. Having spent some time with him over the past few days, Carl’s enthusiasm is infectious. While in Texas, I hope to get a sense of why this region’s wines have inspired such commitment.

The old stone town centre already houses Pontotoc Vineyard’s winery and it is here that Don Pullum, Pontotoc’s winemaker, works with the vineyard’s Tempranillo and premium parcels purchased from other Texas vineyards. “All Texas fruit” is the philosophy, a somewhat radical, purist approach in a state that has habitually purchased grapes and wine from California to blend with the local product. Don Pullum makes wine at a couple of other wineries too; in fact, he was the first commercial winemaker in Mason County, where Pontotoc is located. He also planted the County’s first commercial vineyard, Akashic Vineyard. It’s fair to say he’s the father of the wine industry in Mason County, and growing the County’s wine industry remains his focus.

Don Pullum

Don Pullum, Winemaker

It wasn’t an easy birth. In fact, the first winery in the County, Sandstone Cellars, had to wait for an amendment to the Texas Constitution before it could sell its wines at cellar door. Mason, you see, is a dry county, and the sale of alcohol is only permitted in specific circumstances. From Sandstone’s establishment in 2003 has sprung a whole industry in Mason County, albeit one that is tangibly emerging from the vacuum of prohibition. There are now about ten vineyards here, most of which were established with Don’s encouragement, and everywhere I go there seems talk of new plantings, both underway and contemplated. A handful of new wineries has also appeared. The wines are still few in number and astoundingly varied in varietal composition, but not style. In fact, stylistic consistency is striking across producers, a fact that becomes much more interesting when one considers how few harvests have taken place, how many different varieties are being used and the relative lack of any winemaking tradition here.

If you follow the wines of Sandstone Cellars, you can piece together the story of Mason County wine. The cornucopia of varieties that have been used to make these wines prompted Sandstone’s owners, Scott Haupert and Manny Silerio, to name their wines sequentially, as if to reinforce the fact they are embarking on a kind of vinous expedition. Starting with with the I in 2004, an almost-standard Rhône blend (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, with a cheeky dash of Primitivo), Sandstone’s wines have included varieties as diverse as Touriga Nacional, Viognier, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Zinfandel, Merlot and Barbera. Often mixed in complex “fusion blends,” these varieties provide different expressions of local growing conditions, often with quite different flavour profiles, but which are unified by unwaveringly bright fruit, strikingly floral aroma profiles and, in the mouth, medium bodied elegance.

As good as these and the wines of Pontotoc Vineyard are (and they are very good), producers here are still working with open minds toward a set of varieties that best express the local terroir. Tempranillo features strongly, as does Touriga Nacional, Mourvèdre and Syrah. Whites are more problematic, although Viognier has its proponents. But my sense is the experimentation will continue as growers get to know their sites better and winemakers discover how to harness the region’s fruit most effectively. Without a long history of winemaking, there’s a shared sense of discovery amongst producers here; this is truly frontier country when it comes to wine, and those working to establish the region show a curiosity and energy I’ve not encountered in more established regions.

As for me, I’m working with Don for a month or so, following him as he consults to the region’s wineries and vineyards and learning about how it’s done here. My goals are to taste and learn about Texas wines of the region, and I couldn’t be better positioned to do so. Stay tuned…

Southern Hemisphere vintage wrap

My work at Terra Sancta finished on Sunday, so I’ve taken a few days in Queenstown to relax and reflect on what has been a hectic time.

Now that my string of Southern Hemisphere vintages is at an end, my most immediate, visceral reaction is to feel somewhat at a loose end. Harvest is such a busy time, with no shortage of things to do at any point in the day, that having to search for things to occupy my time seems alien. Moreover, as much as I might have wished for breaks during vintage to rest a bit, now that I’m no longer actively engaged in making wine, I miss it. A lot. And it’s only been a few days.

Harvest at Terra Sancta proceeded as smoothly as it started, which is to say remarkably so given the new winery. A few niggles here and there, mostly with equipment and electrics, but no more so than one might expect at any winery. The winemaking team seemed pleased with how things went, and certainly from a quality perspective I saw a lot of very exciting batches come through.

If I’m in a position to give advice to the few people less experienced than I, I would suggest doing a vintage with a good deal of lab time as well as cellar work. I did about half-half at Terra Sancta, and while cellar work is massively enjoyable, being in the lab meant I monitored and tasted everything, from the largest open fermenters to individual barrels, which isn’t always possible if one is confined solely to a busy cellar. As with previous vintages at Lake’s Folly and Dowie Doole, I was exceptionally fortunate to work with a chief winemaker whose enthusiasm manifested in a willingness to share thoughts and experiences on a daily basis. Jen Parr, just last year awarded New Zealand Winemaker of the Year at the New Zealand International Wine Show, is a very intuitive winemaker, and it was enormously educational to discuss with her the progress of each ferment, how to respond to changes, when to make additions and initiate key actions such as pressing or arresting fermentations. I’m not sure how much I was able to contribute other than to provide data, but it certainly fascinated me on a daily basis watching Jen steer each batch through to safe completion.

Jody Pagey, other half of the winemaking team, looks after cellar operations and does so most ably, as he is highly experienced across the full range of cellar activities. I will always remember a particularly fast forklift session Jody performed to weigh a large batch of fruit that was delivered just moments before home time. I’m still not a sensationally good forklift driver, but to my surprise I found myself doing the full range of forklift duties and generally zipping around the cellar when not in the lab. I still feel like I need to deepen my experience of cellar tasks, but this vintage was another step forward in that regard, especially in terms of reductively handled white wines. Towards the end of vintage, it was personally satisfying to be able to be given job by Jody and to not have to ask him to talk me through each aspect of how it should be done. Progress, I hope.

I suppose it’s natural to reflect on the differences between each experience I’ve had so far. Going from regions like the Hunter and McLaren Vale, both amongst Australia’s oldest and most traditional, to an upstart like Central Otago, provides plenty to think about.

One obvious difference, apart from simply the styles made in all three regions, is an apparent freedom to experiment in Central that may not be so readily available (or accepted by the market) in more established regions. While Pinot Noir winemaking here seems pretty consistent, with some key practices that don’t vary much between producers, there is a lot of energy and excitement directed at white and rosé styles, and much variation to be found between producers. Pinot Gris ranges from dry to moderately sweet, Riesling even more so, and I was surprised at the amount of oxidative handling given to all whites and rosés, often as a component to be blended into a larger amount of more simply handled material. Mount Difficulty’s rosé is a good case in point – it’s quite un-aromatic in style, all barrel fermented, and all the more interesting for it. Another especially interesting example is a batch of Pinot Gris we made at Terra Sancta, fermented to dryness on skins. That was really educational to taste each day, and I was fascinated by how far removed its aromas and flavours were from more traditionally handled Gris.

One might interpret all this experimentation as an ongoing search for the region’s proper styles; wine does seem to gravitate towards stylistic consensus within regions. But it’s also a lot of fun and I sense, as much as Pinot Noir is the main deal here, that more creativity is to be found in whites and rosés, even allowing for the inherent potential for more winemaking trickery with these styles compared to dry reds.

Equally, however, I continue to find satisfaction in well established styles that have been honed over many years by guardians of particular regions. Lake’s Folly Chardonnay, for example, has been consistently made over many years, and to my mind is a pinnacle of its region and style. To improve on it, one would have to branch out in a different direction, which is what Rod Kempe has done with his Hill Block bottling. It’s too easy to dismiss classic New World styles in the rush to discover even newer regions and varieties, and part of my personal wine mission is to value New World wines whose styles represent an authentic winemaking tradition, whether fashionable or not.

Not to posit regions in opposition to one another; if anything, working in three very different regions so far has elevated my sense of the diversity of wine, which is a large part of the pleasure of loving wine. As a drinker, I’d not want to be without any of the key styles I’ve worked with so far – luscious Hunter Chardonnay (yes, it’s good), flavoursome McLaren Vale reds, mysterious Central Otago Pinot Noir. They can all house beautiful wines that have a place in any sort of vinous canon one might want define.

Making wine in a very cool climate

There have been a few surreal moments over the past two weeks, not least during the drive to work each day, the backdrop to which is a landscape that seems more properly suited to a fantasy film or, at the very least, an extreme sports holiday. Central Otago is surely one of the most spectacular wine regions I’ve visited, brushing aside the prettiness of intensive viticulture for vast mountain ranges and pristine lakes. As a tourist, I’ve enjoyed three visits here, but this time I’m hard at work, doing vintage at Terra Sancta.

Having grown out of an acquisition of Olssens Garden Vineyard by prominent New Zealand businessman Mark Weldon, Terra Sancta now draws on three estate vineyards in Bannockburn, including the oldest planting on Felton Road. A range of aromatic whites grace the portfolio, but the main game is Pinot Noir, in both rosé and red forms. The winemaking team comprises Jen Parr and Jody Pagey, while viticulture is headed by Len Ibbotson. I’m one of three cellarhands. Working in a small team is wonderful in that I’m able to have regular chats with Jen, Jody and Len, getting great insights into their approaches and experiences.

A couple of days in, Jen asked me to put blankets on some Chardonnay barrels so they’d start fermenting. The idea so tickled me that I couldn’t resist taking a photo. Going from McLaren Vale, with its high-thirties days to Central Otago, where autumn frosts are a real threat to harvest, is like entering another winemaking world. Warming is a real issue, and we’re often having to warm tanks to prepare them for innoculation. Fruit comes in at fifteen degrees at two in the afternoon. Acids are stratospheric. There’s a tub in the winery marked “sugar.” I regularly wear three layers, two of which are made of merino, and my terry towelling bucket hat is completely without use.

There’s no question that New Zealanders take their Pinot Noir very seriously. This is my first experience of making Pinot, and the process does seem somewhat more finicky than the rough and tumble of McLaren Vale Shiraz. Terra Sancta’s winery is of a sufficient capacity to allow extended time on skins, so we’re cold-soaking, gently plunging during ferment, leaving wine on skins post-ferment and generally allowing each parcel to go through a fairly disciplined winemaking process. The condition of the fruit coming in has been spectacularly good, due no doubt to sound viticulture but also a dry growing season. Although the winery is state-of-the-art, tonnage isn’t huge and cellar practices are firmly artisanal (no must pumps, for example) so there’s a lot of manual handling along the way.

Even as I become more knowledgeable and confident with cellar operations (though I still come across new things every day), landing in the world of cool climate Pinot Noir has thrown my sense of wine and it’s been an educational challenge to get my head around not only the vastly different berry composition of the fruit here but the sensory aspects and how these influence winemaking decisions. These aren’t shallow considerations; it would take years to get comfortable with a region and its styles, to master the vinification of fruit from specific vineyards. I like the idea of that deep dive, and it’s something that appeals to me when I think of my own plans, even as the urge to see more regions and different fruit remains.

For now, though, I’m excited to taste all the batches we are working on each day, some ultra-fragranced, some dark and more structured, yet others rich and fully fruited. Maximising extract isn’t the game; it’s more about gentle management and getting enough structure from the fruit while preserving the delicacy of the variety. As with my experience in McLaren Vale, some parcels have looked stunning from day one, and I’m especially enjoying their transformation through fermentation, seeing which characters persist through that process and which morph into something else. The aromatic whites are fun to make too, particularly off-dry styles, and I’ll be very interested to see how they compare with those I’ll be working on in the Mosel later this year.

Most of our fruit should be in by the end of the week, and we’ll soon start pressing the first of the reds. As always, a huge amount for me to learn.

McLaren Vale vintage wrap

There’s a point during vintage at which things seem to click. Everyone knows what to do, any quirks in the equipment have been sorted and things just happen, even though the team is tired and a tad over it. It’s a nice moment to reach, and I felt able to move from a focus on learning basic operations to actually looking at each wine, its progression and how it might compare to other ferments in the winery.

Overall, the vintage was characterised by a stop-start rhythm, fruit arriving in waves based on a weather pattern that alternated between scorchingly hot and messily rainy. I saw no parcels of fruit that came in before full flavour ripeness, so although the weather was a bit tricky, everything seemed to fall into place in terms of being able to pick at the right time. Shiraz came in first and was generally full and generous, parcels varying quite a lot in fruit character but everything seeming of good quality. Then Cabernet arrived (more of which later) along with Grenache and Mataro. Some more unusual varieties also passed through the Geddes winery, notably a parcel of Nero D’Avola destined for the Brash Higgins NDV label and some Petit Verdot right at the end of vintage.

One thing I’ll be doing more of in future is branching out from McLaren Vale Shiraz into the wonderful Cabernets, Grenaches and Mataros it can produce. I do love the region’s Shiraz for its generosity and plummy flavour profile, but I saw so many parcels of great fruit of these other varieties that I feel they are due greater attention. Cabernet Sauvignon in particular was a surprise. I’ve enjoyed some McLaren Vale Cabernets in the past but have always tended to reach for Coonawarra or Margaret River when looking for great Aussie Cabernet. Although the Vale’s expression of this variety is quite different, I saw some really exciting, varietal fruit come in and it has reopened my eyes to the potential of this variety in the region. Fruit from Blewitt Springs, with its sandy soils and cooler climate, was especially fragrant and intense.

A lot of winemakers in the Vale are excited by Grenache and Mataro, although there’s more stylistic divergence between makers when it comes to Grenache in particular than for the other red varieties. It ranges from a fragrant, Pinot-like wine to more Shiraz-inspired expressions. The best ferments I saw seemed to fall between these extremes, preserving the fragrance and bright fruit of the variety while ensuring sufficient density, intensity and structure. Mataro continues to baffle me a little. It’s talked up a lot amongst wine writers and makers and, to be fair, I’ve had some really nice Aussie Mataros, but its dark, challenging flavour profile will have a hard time stealing the easy drinking crown from Shiraz. No matter; it’s a variety worthy of attention and I hope makers in the Vale continue to experiment with it, in blends and on its own.

Outside of the fruit, I developed enormous respect for the team I was working with and feel very lucky to have done vintage with them. Dowie Doole’s winemaker, Chris Thomas, managed a hectic vintage without really breaking a sweat. I love it when people move through stressful, constantly changing environments with seeming ease and Chris has that talent. He patiently showed me all the required cellar operations (sometimes more than once) and did so with clarity and patience. What a great teacher to have. Tim Geddes, in whose winery we worked in most days, is even more laid back and assembled a spectacularly fun and diverse vintage team comprising Julian Forwood, Tina Deng and Jack Christie. I’ve not laughed so hard in years. I’ve written about Amanda Geddes’s lunches before, and these provided pleasure and sustenance right to the end.

Time outside the winery was also fantastic, albeit necessarily limited. McLaren Vale is a real gourmet area and my host, Leigh Gilligan, ensured I was able to experience most of what the region has to offer in this regard, including via his own delicious cooking. It always mystifies me when wine regions have no food culture; when these things come together, as they should, pleasure is exponentially increased. A particular highlight was seeing Lulu Lunn, partner of Dowie Doole’s charming Drew Dowie, stretch mozzarella and hand me a portion, all warm and fresh and juicy. What a pleasure.

I’ll be popping back in early May to have a look at the wines we made, most of which will be in barrel. I’m fascinated to see what’s changed, how malolactic fermentation has affected each wine, which parcels have remained my favourites and which will surprise me.

So good was the experience that I feel strongly I’d like to do it again. Could this be the beginning of the end?

In praise of vintage lunch

A great friend of mine recently wrote: “You have to work a vintage to understand what people mean when they say vintage. It takes over your life for a defined period of time. Damage control: eat, sleep, catch up with cleaning and that’s mostly life for a few weeks. Lots of relationships are made or broken. But I love it.”

She was right and I, along with countless others in wine regions across the world, am living it.

The people with whom one works in such an intense time become very important, and the rituals one shares with them provide a sort of glue that makes vintage a highly social, as well as busy, time. I’m spending most of my time at the winery run by Tim Geddes, where Dowie Doole (amongst other producers) makes most of its red wines. Tim’s engaging wife, Amanda, is a chef, and it is her task each day to feed the hungry, tired winery troops.

There’s something slightly surreal, and at the same time outrageously civilised, about sitting down each day to an extravagantly delicious lunchtime meal, book-ended by hours of messy, physical work. At twelve each day, the small vintage crew pauses to not only to satiate our appetites but also to, just for a moment, enjoy the sorts of sensual pleasures we are, in fact, in the process of producing for others.

It’s perhaps inevitable that we all love our food, and I hope we are a receptive audience for Amanda’s exceptional cooking. But it’s so much more than just a meal. Vintage lunch at the Geddes winery has become somewhat legendary in the region, and each day sees a visitor or two eagerly joining in the ritual. There’s even the occasional guest chef, today’s being Brad Hickey of the Brash Higgins label (quesadillas, corn – delicious). Great food, a beer or two, relaxed banter as our stomachs settle; vintage lunch makes sense of the morning’s hard work and makes bearable the prospect of another late night making wine.

I wonder what’s on the menu tomorrow?

The McLaren Vale

The main reason for me undertaking a series of vintages is to learn about making wine. However, a range of other nuggets have been regularly dropping into my lap along the way; for example, just a couple of days ago I stood corrected on the issue of the name of one of the country’s oldest, most famous regions: McLaren Vale. Following a reckless tweet, I now have it on good authority that McLaren Vale is not preceded by “the.” Dear readers, you have been thus advised.

Shameful, really, to perpetuate such an error regarding one of my favourite Australian wine regions, one in which I find myself right now, in the throes of assisting producer Dowie Doole with vintage. I’ve long had warm regard for Dowie Doole wines, which regular readers of this site will already know. The portfolio mixes traditionally styled reds with an adventurous Chenin Blanc-driven white portfolio, always cleanly made and generously styled. I’ve also enjoyed an entertaining email correspondence with Leigh Gilligan, Managing Director of Dowie Doole and McLaren Vale veteran. When he became aware that I was looking for vintage opportunities, he offered me a cellarhand place from late February to the end of March, which takes in the bulk of vintage activity. I’ve not always found wineries amenable to considering a wine writer, no matter how niche, for a vintage cellarhand position, so I am grateful for his willingness to give me a go.

I’m primarily involved with making red wines here, and the learning curve is steep after focusing on Chardonnay at Lake’s Folly. One exception is a rather interesting, oxidatively handled Vermentino that is (wild) fermenting in barrel as I type, hopefully becoming something delicious and beautiful. Dowie Doole’s red styles are in the mainstream of McLaren Vale wines, privileging drinkability above eccentricity, and are made in small lots using highly manual winemaking approaches. Chris Thomas is Dowie Doole’s winemaker, and the red wines are made at the winery formerly occupied by Wayne Thomas (father of Andrew) and now by Tim Geddes. Chris is energetic in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever been and patiently talks me through each decision and operation. He also has strong views on wine, which seems to be a mark of all the winemakers I find interesting. It’s all that I could hope for, really.

To say that I ache all over is a vast understatement, yet each morning when I arrive at the winery, the body warms up and the learning continues. It’s been a while since I’ve had to learn so much every day just to keep up. Pumps, hoses, fittings, cleaning, presses, pump overs, rack and returns, additions, measurements, vineyard sampling; even after less than a week’s work here I’m slightly astonished by the number of winemaking operations I’ve been exposed to. But this is just how it happens, and as my sense of incompetence fades, I’m able to look up now and then and smile at the fact that I’m actually helping to make some pretty damned interesting wines with a bunch of people I really like.

I even had a moment where I thought I might just be able to do this.

The timing of all this proved interesting. In the lead up, I checked with Leigh as to my start date, and all looked good for a gentle easing in from late February. A couple of hot days, though, brought forward several parcels of fruit, and just hours after arriving in the region, I started work in the winery. So far, we’ve processed some Tempranillo (destined for the G&T label), the aforementioned Vermentino, which is bottled under Dowie Doole’s experimental range, and several parcels of Shiraz. It fascinates me how diverse the flavours of fruit can be from day one. Of the parcels of Shiraz we are currently fermenting, some are dark and structured, some are vibrant and fruit driven, others sit somewhere in between. It’s exciting to see them evolve through the fermentation, and a big learning for me is seeing the ways in which flavour and structure change through this process. I can understand a complete lack of interest by some in anything but the finished wine, but for this wine obsessive seeing the evolution of a wine from its raw materials is quite compelling.

Chris made an astute observation the other day about the difference between winemaking as taught at University and as practiced in the real world. Production management is just an idea at school, something to engage with when planning the capacity of one’s theoretical winery with the theoretical budget assigned by one’s lecturer. In the Hunter, I had some glimpses of the importance of logistics in many winemaking settings, but now that I’m seeing first hand the challenges associated with having to process sixteen parcels of fruit through five open fermenters in a single vintage, it has somewhat radically changed my understanding of the options that may or may not be available to winemakers. What does one do if Cabernet is ready to come off but there’s several lots of Shiraz sitting on skins post ferment? Does one delay picking, or press ferments earlier than is ideal? This is winemaking in the real world, encumbered by annoyances like space, time and money.

The next few weeks ought to be bloody interesting.

A week on

Today marks one week with Lake’s Folly, and my time with the team will shortly come to an end. Legendary assistant winemaker of twenty eight years, Peter Payard, asked me today whether the experience has been what I thought it would be.

Hard question to answer, and I’ve resolved not to jump to too many conclusions before the year has played out. Two things are obvious, though. Firstly, I’ve an enormous amount to learn not only with respect to winery operations but also winemaking itself. The tree of decisions facing winemakers in the real world is related to what I learned at University in the same way mathematics might describe the path of a bouncing ball – accurate in its way, but quite unable to bring to life the reality of the situation, let alone equip one to catch the ball.

Secondly, and perhaps less obviously, I’ve had a niggling question in the back of my mind since planning this year: what if I hate it? What if I get into a winery, start helping out with things and realise in my gut that it’s simply not for me? To my relief, I am loving it. Even the cleaning. I’m excited by the vineyard, the juice, the ferments, the winemaking decisions, the transfers to barrel, the topping up, the sensory evaluation, the daily measurements; everything. No doubt some is due to the novelty of it, but what is more profound is a sense that I’m only now truly learning about wine, that it’s only in the making of it that I am starting to understand how the finished wine becomes what it is. As a wine lover, that is beyond gratifying.

So with that litmus test passed, what remains is simply to experience this year’s vintages here and abroad, to see how it’s done differently by different people in different regions and, eventually, to perhaps draw some conclusions about what it all means.

Much yet to come, then.

In the meantime, we have more beautiful Chardonnay to process tomorrow, a dinner with the team that promises to be spectacular for various reasons, and the long drive to Tasmania, my next stop.

My first crush

The first crush of my Year of Winemaking, indeed of my life (excluding my horribly fucked up student wines, which simply don’t count in any meaningful way), was about four tonnes of Lake’s Folly Chardonnay. Together with the excellent winery team, led by Rod Kempe, we processed two press loads of great fruit and then cleaned up.

First point to note here is that all the stories you’ve heard about cleaning at wineries are true. It’s incredibly important and seemingly endless, though when it does end there is often a refreshing beer on hand, which for me, today, was beyond welcome. I’ve already learned to detest the way seeds get stuck in every nook and cranny of processing equipment. To the extent that I have any OCD tendencies, they were certainly exercised today.

As I sit here, feeling pretty tired, a lot of things are swirling around in my head. Three years of University, in many ways, has barely prepared me for work in an actual winery, where process and equipment are of the essence. But it’s fascinating to jump in and out of the physical act of making wine to reflect on the decisions being made. Rod has shared his thinking every step of the way, from his decision to pick, taken late yesterday, to each choice he has made during initial processing of the Chardonnay. His is a deliberate approach borne of twenty five years of experience as well as respect for the heritage of the Estate. I’m soaking it all up.

What’s completely evident to me after only a couple of days here is how much I have to learn, and the distance I have to travel to integrate a lot of (valuable) textbook knowledge with its real world context. For example, Rod and I wandered through the whole vineyard tasting grapes today. I could see his experience shoot through what he was tasting to a decision on which blocks to pick. For me, that sort of knowledge remains to be acquired.

As ever with wine, the industry’s collegiate vibe is a great joy, and I’ve already paid some fascinating visits to Tyrrell’s and Thomas Wines, both fully in the vintage swing. The different choices each winemaker makes, some simply nuances, some quite large, are a source of great fascination for me, even as the experiences out of which they have grown remain opaque. Clearly, though, within the basic parameters of winemaking, there are a multitude of paths one night follow, which adds enormous interest and variability to what is already a highly variable agricultural product. There’s a reason why wine can consume people, both makers and drinkers, and this is part of it.

Tomorrow, we’ll rack the settled Chardonnay juice and get some ferments going, some in tank and some straight into barrel. Should be good.

A year of winemaking

When one plans a year of travel, getting stuck a day after leaving home isn’t usually on the cards. And yet here I am in the Thora Valley, cut off from the Pacific Highway by several metres of violently flowing river, unable to reach the Hunter Valley. It’s at Lake’s Folly in the Hunter I will start this year of adventure, though the rain has reached it too and picking is delayed.

I’m still surprised to find myself in this position and, in retrospect, I blame a mixup with an exam paper. Around August of 2012, I was ready to sit the final exam of my Masters, primed to smash through it, looking forward to the elation of accomplishment and the reward of junk food. Bathetically, it turned out my exam had been misplaced, and I sat idle in the exam room, exchanging embarrassed glances with the invigilator, for the half hour it took to find my paper.

While I waited, my mind started to wander past a December graduation into the land of “what next?”. I have a good, challenging day job that keeps me busy (as well as fed and watered), but without the structured engagement of University, I had no idea how I’d keep learning about wine growing, aside from simply drinking the finished product. I could always take a year off and follow the harvest around the world, but that would be ridiculous, impractical, not to mention financially ruinous…

And here I am, en route to the Hunter, without income, trapped momentarily by nature, but very much on my way to a year of helping to make wine. So far, the little idea hatched over a misplaced exam paper will take me to Tasmania, the McLaren Vale, Central Otago, Western Australia, California and Germany, perhaps by way of some work in France or thereabouts. I’ll go from a very theoretical view of winemaking to a messily hands-on one, helping a bunch of talented winemakers make lots of different wines in lots of different ways, starting to learn all the things one can’t from books alone.

My wonderful friends wonder if I’ll chuck in the corporate towel and make wine my life once the year is up. I wonder something more essential: how a year of doing this will change my relationship to the drink. For a writer whose currency is a subjective, aesthetic reaction to wine, an immersion in the practicalities of winemaking risks robbing the drink of its mystery. I’m also a scientist by training, though, and know the natural world becomes even more compelling and beautiful with knowledge of how it works. Perhaps the same will happen with wine; as always, I’ll record these experiences and the wine I encounter on Full Pour.

I hope you will keep me company while I find out.