Great wine is made in the vineyard is an oft-repeated mantra, but winemakers are increasingly taking it very seriously, with time spent in the shed being well eclipsed by time spent walking the rows and tirelessly working in the vineyard to balance vines and soil. From buying land to leasing vineyards or individual blocks, there are many paths to becoming a vigneron, but the aim is the same – crafting wines more reflective of place, the season and of sensitive farming practices.
Just like buying a house, the dream of young makers to buy or plant their own vineyard isn’t getting any easier. But that dream is often seen as a critical one in taking the next step as a producer, to make wine that is truly built from the ground up, to make wine that truly reflects place. And with an even greater emphasis now being placed on the importance of regenerative, holistic farming and the true primacy of site, that imperative has never been more pressing.
“It made a huge difference for me in understanding the vines and what a variety can do, to understand what is going on in the block and what I can and can’t do with the fruit.”
The reality is there are different ways to farm grapes, from going all in and buying land, to managing a few rows or blocks on a handshake agreement, to working with a sympathetic grower to fine-tune practices. Ben Ranken went the former route, buying an existing, and somewhat derelict, vineyard in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges in 2013. And though that has come with a huge amount of hard work – re-trellising, managing eutypa (a trunk disease), converting the site to organics, with biodynamics the end goal, as well as transitioning from irrigation to being dry grown – he wouldn’t do things any other way.
“We have complete control over our fruit and our wines are dictated by the terroir of our vineyard,” says Ranken. “My winemaking is also more in tune with the vineyard than ever before. When I was a winemaker for another company, 90 per cent of my energy was making wine, and 10 per cent talking to vineyard managers etc. Now, it’s 30 per cent winemaking and 70 per cent vineyard. Really knowing my vines, I’ve been able to adapt some winemaking subtleties, adjusting with the vineyard and seasonal variations with more finesse.”
Ranken notes that since ceasing irrigation his fruit better express the site, with a more natural regulation of yields depending on any given year’s conditions. The pinot noir now produces frugal yields of about 500 grams per vine, making what was already a structured expression of pinot, being grown on granite, somewhat more so, with the winemaking shadowing that evolution. “I quickly learnt that if you macerate the fruit too much then tannins become tough and hard, so I definitely don’t plunge and macerate the ferment much at all.”
For Max Marriott, the end goal is also to have vines of his own, but while that may have to wait, it hasn’t stopped his Tasmanian wine project having a firm vineyard-first ethos. And it’s something he takes very seriously, to the point where Anim simply never would have been launched without viticultural control, calling the label “almost a by-product” of their farming. “It’s all part of the same vision and narrative: special sites, the vines managed in such a way that the winemaking destination, style and endgame is always in mind,” he says.
“For example, many Tassie winemakers are having conversations about detail, nuance and tactility in pinot noir at the moment, and tannin is a big part of that discussion. By having control of how we do things in the vineyard, we can gear a canopy in such a way that the fruit is more even, acidity is preserved, and tannin is riper at lower sugar levels. That quest for physiological ripeness and harmony.”
Leading from the vineyard is no new thing for Marriott, with his formal education – he’s from Brisbane but studied in New Zealand – heavily skewed towards plant physiology and soil science, with close associations with organic/biodynamic icons Felton Road and Millton Vineyards further deepening that focus. Marriott stresses that the soil biology of a vineyard is as important as the geology and aspect, and the only way to positively impact this is to influence the farming to “allow the vineyard ecosystem flourish in a more natural way”.
“By having control of how we do things in the vineyard, we can gear a canopy in such a way that the fruit is more even, acidity is preserved, and tannin is riper at lower sugar levels. That quest for physiological ripeness and harmony.”
Koen Janssens of Bink Wines (and Yetti and the Kokonut) manages small parcels in the Clare and Barossa Valleys, as well as in McLaren Vale, and while he believes he will always source interesting parcels of fruit from like-minded growers to keep his wine offer “fun and diverse”, being able to both influence the viticulture of growers he works with and farm himself have had profound impacts on the wines he makes.
“It made a huge difference for me in understanding the vines and what a variety can do, to understand what is going on in the block and what I can and can’t do with the fruit,” says Janssens. “There are a couple of blocks now that I’m trying to get the lease on. I’ve worked with the previous vineyard manager, changed the pruning with him to encourage more fruit set on logical sap flow to give the vine more directed energy, which has resulted in better and balanced fruit set with functional and open canopies. I also use more mechanical farming, such as discing and knifing weeds, instead of spraying chemicals. And the soil has really seen a surge in green that keeps the moisture for longer.”
Not far from Ranken’s vineyard, Renata Morello and Oliver Rapson also bought an established site in 2013, but their path to being vignerons was a somewhat different one. While Ranken had followed a career in wine, Morello and Rapson came via successful careers in medical research/public health and digital media, respectively. While Rapson was part way through a viticulture course when they bought the 12-hectare property, neither have studied winemaking, or indeed had made a wine before.
And while this may seem like a courageous leap that verged on the foolhardy, the approach for them was key, never entertaining the idea of making wine from contract fruit. “The vineyard is everything to us,” says Rapson. “Having a good handle on growing the fruit will ultimately result in fruit showing up at vintage in perfect condition, and the better the fruit is, the less you need to do in the winery. We pride ourselves in being quite minimalist winemakers, but this can only really be done if you manage and look after the vineyard with keen attention to detail.”
“We have five pinot clones, and we pick them all separately, because they all have different attributes: some have thicker skin, some more pulp, some bigger seeds etc. Having that knowledge really helps in developing wine style and technique. We also now prune and shoot-thin our vines to achieve a certain kilo output per vine, targeting varieties and clones individually.”
Rapson also notes that having their own winery really helps their processes, but it’s a luxury that not all emerging makers can afford. And while being able to pick and process their fruit within a few hours is an advantage, he stresses that it is the familiarity of the site and vines on a micro level that is by far the biggest gain.
“Managing your own site really allows for better understanding of clonal characteristics and traits, and how the wine needs to be handled,” says Rapson. “For example, we have five pinot clones, and we pick them all separately, because they all have different attributes: some have thicker skin, some more pulp, some bigger seeds etc. Having that knowledge really helps in developing wine style and technique. We also now prune and shoot-thin our vines to achieve a certain kilo output per vine, targeting varieties and clones individually.”
Marriott believes that the future direction for Australian wine will inevitably see the lines between viticulturists and winemakers blurring further, with more and more opting for a holistic approach. “I think if young winemakers are going to be serious about their wines, about understanding sites and the effects of farming on fruit expression, then they need to be invested in the vineyard,” he says. “Whether this is farming as we do, or simply being more hands on, walking the rows and having a dialogue with the vineyard team – both have their place. It’s incredibly liberating and exciting to farm your own fruit. Yes, you’re more exposed to weather and environmental events, so there is more risk, but the reward is also greater”
This is all about racy drive and subtle texture, with delicate notes of white peach, nectarine and a little grapefruit pith against an overt sense of minerality and the coolness of where it is grown. Those flavours persist on the palate, with some nutty oak notes making a gentle statement, the acid coiling through a long and very classic finish. This will unfurl over many years.
A very aromatic nose of wild plum accented with star anise, cassia, dried mint and rosy florals, along with some granitic mineral notes. This is mid-weight and vibrant, but with brooding notes of licoricey amaro herbs complexing the forward approachability and giving the wine plenty of detail. The tannins are both fine and grippy, with a layering of skin and stems providing a subtle but complex structural framework.
Intense nose of white nectarine and yellow citrus, with cracked nut, stone fruit kernel, nougat and subtle matchstick notes. This is amply flavoured but ultra-composed as well, with deep intensity, gentle texture and the distinct presence of quality oak, but it’s also racy and linear with a strong mineral presence. A wine of flavour, detail and insistent, thrumming drive.
2015 Wilimee ‘Five Years Underwater’ Macedon Ranges Pinot Noir $120
This is darkly fruited and savoury, with a real lean on small-berried fruit flavours and granitic minerality, with crushed autumn leaves, dried laurel leaves, a brush of bracken and a core of rugged tannin – a classic signature of the Wilimee site. This is a savoury wine, with fruit wound up tightly in a grippy structure, but with flavours fanning out through a long finish.
More riesling than chardonnay, this co-fermented blend lifts from the glass like a super-smart and racy chardonnay, with subtle matchstick accents against white peach and stone fruit kernel, then the zip of riesling kicks in with apple and citrus notes, some lime pith. The palate is equal part texture and race, with each variety contributing their best qualities, while meshing seamlessly as one.
(Pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo, gewürztraminer, muscat.) A pale red, with a light haze to it, this lifts with vibrant aromatics of macerated cherries, yellow plum, just-ripe strawberries, cracked pepper, gravelly minerals, graphite and cut herbs. This is light and aromatic, with a gently spicy kick from a little whole bunch, drinking at an elegant pinot noir weight, but with a broader range of flavours, with sour and tangy notes sitting against gently ripe forest berries, veering on textural white for palate feel, with skinsy tannins pulling things into line. This takes a light chill well.
Dark flavours cast in a fresh light, with plum skin, hot bitumen, dried black cherries and tart blackberries brightly lifting from the glass. There’s mid-weight poise here that is a pleasing foil to the tarry mineral elements, with gentle spice and an agreeably tart sour-fruited palate shaking what could be a big powerful expression into something intense but elegant and poised, capturing all the flavour, but partnering it with drive, freshness and a good dose of bracing tannin.
2020 Bink ‘Crossroads’ Barossa Valley Chardonnay $30
Deep hazy yellow gold to look at, this is loaded with savoury flavour – nutty sherry notes with gentle hits of olive brine, against tart golden apples, lemon pith and sourdough notes. This is bright and lively in the mouth, with those savoury elements giving this line and drive, with a pithy textural feel and firm mineral dryness, closing with gentle sherry-like sea spray notes.
There’s a brooding quality here, a darkly savoury and spicy feeling, with tar and anise notes set against plum and dark forest berries. Mid-weight, savoury, earthy, with a little impact of oak, almost an Italian accent, with intense fruit never looking sweet, accented with dried flowers and warmed spices. This carries dry and long, with an insistent grip tightening through the back palate.
2018 Sholto ‘Rouge Clair’ Canberra District Cabernet Sauvignon $30
(Cabernet sauvignon, malbec, petit verdot.) There’s a good lift of classic cabernet character here, with dark berries and classic leafy lift, but this is quite a bit brighter, with such vibrantly focused fruit flavours. There’s cedar, dried mint, currants and barnyardy flashes, giving it a more serious side, but the buoyant drinkability takes the day, albeit accompanied with a good amount of richness and fruit intensity, fine but grippy tannins rolling through the finish.
The Barossa is arguably Australia’s most revered wine region. It is the home of powerful red wines, established names making established styles, but there are also makers finding new meaning in the territory. The Barossa has been fertile ground for YGOW finalists, producing four Young Guns, Matt Gant (First Drop, 2007), Pete Schell (Spinifex, 2008), Abel Gibson (Ruggabellus, 2012) and Fraser McKinley (Sami-Odi, 2014). This year’s Top 50 includes Jonathan Ross (Micro Wines) and Steve Crawford (Frederick Stevenson).
Wine is subject to fashion like anything else, with grapes and methods falling in and out of favour, sometimes quickly, sometimes over decades. Precious ancient vines can even be removed to plant more profitable grapes – or other crops – erasing irreplaceable history. But some of those marginalised grapes are given new breath by today’s makers. The 2021 Young Gun Top 50 features Wines by Jean-Paul, Sigurd and Black & Ginger who are all championing varieties that have almost been pushed to oblivion, either in their regions or globally. Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.
Tempranillo is unarguably Spain’s most recognisable variety. In Australia, it has made a modest but meaningful mark, but with limited genetic vine material, the potential for the grape is exponentially bigger, and with new clones now online, a Deep Dive into Australian tempranillo is called for.