This is the third in a series of pieces that I’m republishing that were previously print-only. I loved putting together this feature for all the interesting and very human stories around the grapegrower – winemaker relationship. I’d love to have more time to tell these yarns!
Standing in amongst the gnarled bush vine Grenache of the Wait Vineyard in Blewitt Springs, you can be forgiven for thinking that modern consumer behaviours seem like a long way away.
Yet, it is here in the McLaren Vale hills that the face of Australian wine is quietly evolving.
That’s because, for decades, the local wine industry has been dominated by the ‘cult of the winemaker’ – where growers, vineyards and terroir play second fiddle to the success of a label (and the names behind it).
But now, mirroring a society-wide focus on provenance and a movement labelled as ‘conscious consumerism’, a connection with a vineyard is more relevant than ever. Like the runaway popularity of single-origin coffee, chocolate, and even wheat, we’re now seeing Australian vineyards treated as brands of their own, carrying a name and a reputation that is uniquely grounded on a sense of place.
The Fourth Generation Growers
‘People want to know where a product comes from’, agrees Robyn Smith (nee Wait), who runs the McLaren Vale property that her great grandfather first purchased back in 1926.
‘I think that applies across a lot of farming, whether it’s wine or anything – even sheep. People want to where a lamb chop is from’.
This move to increased transparency has seen the celebrated, old, dry-grown Wait Vineyard plot publicly credited on wines like Wirra Wirra’s Absconder Grenache; the Dodgy Bros. Juxtaposed Old Vine Shiraz, and the Jericho Grenache.
‘Getting your name on the label is pretty cool!’ quips Smith.
It’s more than just a Wait Vineyard thing, too. The high quality of grower fruit – especially Grenache – from neighbouring properties is driving the whole area.
‘Blewitt Springs was never anywhere’, explains Smith.
‘But in the last ten years, we have noticed that it has become a place, not just somewhere in McLaren Vale’.
What’s also changed is who’s buying Wait Vineyard fruit. While historically it would have gone to big companies, now it’s primarily boutique producers:
‘We have lots of small parcels, which works fine for those guys who might take a portion – like 5t or half a tonne last year,’ said Smith.
‘I would much prefer to deal with the smaller guys – much better than just a visit from another grower liaison. With them, you know where they are at, and they tend to trust us,’ Smith said.
‘(As a result) We probably get on better with our winemakers than ever before’.
Peter Bolte takes Wait Vineyard fruit, working with business partner Wes Pearson to release wines under the Dody Bros label. But Bolte also has a unique perspective, as he is a consultant viticulturist and grape broker, working with winemakers and growers from around McLaren Vale.
In particular, Bolte has seen the demand for premium fruit off these top grower vineyards first hand – especially for Grenache.
‘There is certainly a lot of competition between the smaller producers looking for any quality of Grenache, but particularly the high-quality old vine material,’ he said.
‘Grenache is without a doubt going to be the hero for McLaren Vale well into the future and will hopefully go some way towards replacing Shiraz as the identifying variety of the region.’
There are, however, clouds on the horizon.
‘The biggest single issue in the Vale will be the impact the Chinese tariffs will have on the industry for many years to come,’ he said.
‘I suspect demand, and hence prices for premium B grade fruit, in particular, will plummet over the next few years, and as a fruit broker of many, I expect to be bombarded with desperate growers trying to find buyers for their fruit. This, after many years of having almost no excess fruit available in the region’.
The Modern Star
The answer for the best growers is to focus on uncompromising quality – and you only need to look over the border to the Malakoff Vineyard in the Pyrenees for an answer.
A finalist in the inaugural Young Gun of Wine Australian Top Vineyards in 2020, this twenty-year-old vineyard has gained a particular reputation as one of Victoria’s key grower sources for Nebbiolo and fine cool-climate Shiraz.
Like the Wait Vineyard, it has now made Malakoff an identity, spotted on labels rather than just another anonymous fruit source. Some 27 different producers now take grapes from the vineyard, including Brown Brothers, Latta Vino, Willow Creek, SubRosa, Lethbridge, Fletcher, Vino Intrepido and Ben Haines.
The critical issue for owner Robert John, who runs the property with son Cameron and daughter-in-law Steph, is about meeting demand:
‘The biggest challenge at the moment is to ensure that we can meet our supply requests in line with the winery orders’, explains Robert.
‘You have to make sure that when it comes to the end of the harvest and our last picks, that you haven’t run out of fruit or have fruit leftover.’
To ensure that everyone is catered for, John has an exacting system of fruit estimations, where fruit volume is calculated per vine and extrapolated over the whole vineyard. This precise measurement is especially vital for the vineyard’s revered Nebbiolo.
Whether it’s building an insulated storage shed to ensure that picked grapes are kept in optimum conditions or the grafting over of Shiraz for more Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, there’s a sense of restless progression that surrounds the Malakoff Vineyard too – and it translates into the reputation of the fruit.
There are, however, no secrets to this success.
‘We have no plans in establishing a winery ourselves, and we have a philosophy that its best to do one thing really well, and in our case its growing grapes, and let our winemakers make the wine’, Robert explains.
The Young Gun
One producer who has used Malakoff fruit with great success is Young Gun Of Wine Finalist James Scarcebrook, with his Italian-varietal focused label Vino Intrepido.
Scarcebrook ended up with Malakoff fruit almost by accident.
‘In the 2017 vintage (only my second), I had lost my Sangiovese mid-vintage and needed to find a replacement. I almost got some from the Grampians, but then the vineyard manager suggested I contact Robert John about some Nebbiolo from the Pyrenees,’ he explained.
‘It probably wasn’t until after I had bottled the wine that it occurred to me that it was the famed Malakoff Vineyard!’ he said.
Scarcebrook is part of a growing class of (typically younger/newer) prominent producers who don’t own vineyards and rely on grower fruit – to whom it’s impossible to ignore the quality draw of vineyards like Malakoff.
The key for Scarcebrook is the connection between fruit and site.
‘I’ll always visit the vineyard to get a sense of the place and how the grower is working, and I think about my experiences visiting regions in Italy and what style of wine the particular site might be suited to’, he said.
‘This vintage, for the first time, I made wine from a vineyard where the grower approached me, which I think means I’m doing something right’.
It’s impossible to underestimate the value of that relationship between grower and winemaker. It’s an age-old dance often characterised unfairly as a farmer selling off fruit to wealthy wineries when the reality for top growers like the John & Wait family is more of a symbiotic relationship hinged on mutual respect.
At Oakridge in the Yarra Valley, growers are treated almost like family.
‘Everyone here in the Valley seems to be related’, explains David Bicknell.
‘We’ve all worked together, studied together, it’s pretty tight. So we tend to have mature relationships between winemakers and growers as it’s ultimately a small place’.
While Bicknell has been moving to control more and more vineyard resources through purchases and long-term leases, he is very aware of the need to support growers.
‘When times get tough, we will go over and above to take every berry from our growers,’ he said.
‘Often in years in 2020 or 2011, it’s out of everyone’s hands. We can’t control the weather. If you want to keep the growers in business, you do the same thing’.
Oakridge’s Local Vineyard Series wines have notably been a celebration of Yarra Valley growers. Still, it is arguably the Willowlake Vineyard release that has gained the most traction – and it has now made Willowlake a named vineyard in itself.
‘Willowlake is an interesting one as we feel like we put them on the map,’ he said.
Planted at Gladysdale in the Upper Yarra, this forty-year-old plot is renowned for its premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and forms part of a protected part of the Yarra known for consistent quality.
‘It’s a vineyard that performs even when the conditions are against it. It’s metronomic in what it does,’ notes Bicknell.
There are some politics around such a prized site, however.
‘We’ve tried to take all the Willowlake fruit, but the owner wants to mitigate risk by having a number of clients. Plus, why would I shaft friends who also use that fruit by pushing for more?’
No matter which region, there will always be tension surrounding coveted fruit from these named vineyards (particularly between the old guard and the young guns).
Ultimately, it counts for little, as Bicknell explains:
‘We can complain about guys blowing in and just taking fruit. But in the end, you get judged by what’s in the bottle, and that’s all that matters.’
(Feature photo – Dave Bicknell, from Oakridge Instagram).
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