We’re all familiar with vineyard images of vines trained along a trellis, forming neat curtains of grapevine rows as the growing season progresses. But recently in the Australian wine drinkers’ lexicon, the phrase ‘bush vines’ has been popping up. So what are bush vines, and, more importantly, how do the wines from bush vines differ to those from a conventional farming system? Nola James chats to Matt Swinney and Rob Mann of Swinney – our 2020 Vineyard of the Year – to find out more about this unique viticulture practice, what varieties it is suited to, and how it contributed to their Farvie Grenache becoming a cult wine in just two vintages.
When Matt Swinney planted grenache at his 160-hectare Frankland River family vineyard in the late 1990s, people thought he was bonkers. “They said, ‘Why they hell are you planting grenache? It’s never gonna ripen,’” Swinney recalls.
To be fair, Frankland River, in the north-west corner of Western Australia’s sprawling Great Southern region, is not known for grapes that thrive in the hot zones of southern France and Spain. Although it is inland, cooling sea breezes carry across the WA subregion, moderating the warm days and keeping the nights cool. Its Mediterranean climate is perfect for the rich cabernet and peppery shiraz – to name just two of nearly 20 grape varieties – that Swinney grows on contract for its roster of 30-odd winemaking clients, including the likes of Penfolds and Brave New Wine.
And yet, 20 years on, not only was Swinney named Young Gun of Wine’s inaugural Vineyard of the Year in 2020, its Farvie Grenache has knocked the socks of some of the best wine writers in the biz. Commenting on the debut 2018 vintage, which stunned the critics, UK wine scribe Jancis Robinson called it “not like any other Grenache or Garnacha I have come across” and her compatriot Matthew Jukes claimed “it is a near perfect wine”, while Australia’s Nick Ryan wrote, “this wine drew global attention to sleepy Frankland River”.
“They said, ‘Why they hell are you planting grenache? It’s never gonna ripen.’”
What’s the secret? The Farvie is grown on bush-trained vines, also an anomaly for the region. “I’d travelled to Spain and France to see how [grenache and mourvèdre] did on bush vines,” explains Swinney, who runs the family vineyard with sister Janelle, “and I thought, if we’re going to do these varieties in Frankland River, this is how we have to grow them.”
Planted in the early 2000s, Swinney’s bush vines are young by world standards. Grenache is a variety that is particularly suited to growing erect or free-standing, as opposed to, say, shiraz, which requires the support of a trellis system. Free-standing grape-growing is a traditional technique commonly seen in the warm areas of southern Europe, and for a peasant farmer it makes perfectly good sense as you don’t need to buy stakes to support the vines. Free-standing bush vines can look something like rose bushes, in contrast to the more familiar verdant veil of grapevines growing on a trellis. The drawback is that you can’t machine-harvest a bush vine. In Australia, bush vines are most commonly seen – if that can be said – in old vineyards in South Australia, such as Cirillo Estate in the Barossa Valley, where vines planted in the 1850s survive to this day.
“Bush vines definitely are a long-term proposition,” Swinney concedes. However, the fruit they produce is on a different level to trellis-grown grapes from the same clones, in the same ironstone gravel soils, and using the same dry-farming methods the vineyard adopts to grow fruit under contract and for their house label. “I’m not saying you can’t make great grenache on a trellis. It’s just that grenache performs so well as bush vines,” he adds.
Winemaker Rob Mann explains, “A bush vine is growing in three dimensions, and a VSP [vertical shoot positioning, where the shoots are trained upwards along wires] vine is growing in two dimensions. With bush vines, there’s air and breathing space. It’s a bit like being on a rotisserie, rather than in a frying pan.”
The grenache Mann plucks from those bush vines – which comprise about 1 per cent of the vineyard’s total production – redefines ‘hand picked’. Multiple passes are made during the growing season to make sure each bunch, and each grape, is ripening at an optimal level. In the winery, they sort berry by berry, looking for perfectly uniform ripeness and tannins. Understandably, production is super small, with only a couple of hundred cases released each year.
“It’s an expensive way to grow grapes, but when given the right attention, it really gives even ripeness and more suppleness and freshness. I want to nail the perfect tannin ripeness,” Mann says, referencing the challenging task of working with nature to achieve just the right sugar and acid levels, flavour ripeness and skin pigmentation in the grapes. “That’s the key for me, to have a wine that supports the structure and fruit weight.”
Mann joined the Swinney team in 2018 as their bush-vine grenache was hitting its stride, and his inaugural vintage was also the first Farvie vintage. Their third release, the 2020 Farvie Grenache, will be released in March 2022, along with its sibling, the Farvie Syrah. A quick heads-up, though: those bottles are by allocation only.
To further prove the naysayers wrong, the team at Swinney has plans for bush vine expansion. Next year they’ll be converting their mencia – a drought-tolerant Spanish native, which they’ve been growing on a VSP trellis system for the past five or so years – to the free-standing method, joining their grenache, mourvèdre and tempranillo bush vines.
“Now we’ve seen how it [mencia] performs,’ Swinney says, “we’re confident that we like it, so we’re looking to take the next step and plant it as a bush vine.”
After a year-round search and selection process by judges – Nick Stock, Rory Kent, Philip Rich, Josh Elias, last year’s Young Gun of Wine, Fraser McKinley, with short-listing contribution from Mike Bennie – the top twelve finalists of the 2015 Young Gun of Wine Awards have been determined. Here they are: Adrian Rodda, A. Rodda Wines (Beechworth, Victoria)…
With over 6,000 grape growers, picking the top vineyards in Australia is no easy task. Inundated with entries, the judges narrowed the field to the 50 that best exemplified the values and criteria of these awards.