Alkina is a relatively new project on an old farm. First planted to vines by Les Kalleske in 1955 in the Barossa subregion of Greenock, the site boasts stone buildings dating back to the 1850s. When Argentinian vigneron Alejandro Bulgheroni bought the property in 2015, he planted new vines and embarked on a process of examining the site’s geology in microscopic detail over a five-year project. With general manager Amelia Nolan and vineyard manager Johnny Schuster both overseeing the certified biodynamic vineyard, the ongoing quest is to grow terroir-reflective fruit from Barossa heritage varieties and elaborate them with simple and transparent winemaking, both as blends of blocks and micro-parcels called ‘Polygons’.
Beginning with 10 hectares of vines, there are now 43 hectares under vine on the 60-hectare property, with shiraz, grenache, mataro and semillon the principal varieties across 37 blocks. The newer plantings were made in 2017, sticking to the regional heritage varieties, and 40 hectares of the site were certified biodynamic (NASAA) in 2018, with the remainder in conversion. The viticulture is managed by Johnny Schuster and Amelia Nolan.
The Alkina Polygon Project was conducted with the aid of eminent Italian winemaker Alberto Antonini and Chilean terroir specialist Dr Pedro Parra. Over 160 pits were dug to analyse the variations in soil across the site and the data was combined with electromagnetic conductivity scanning of the vineyard to build a detailed terroir map of key sections of the vineyard. With an average size of around 0.3 hectares, the ‘Polygons’ became terroir-specific micro-parcels, with some bottled as flagship releases and others blended back to build complexity in a blend.
“Below the topsoil, our terroir is comprised mostly of schist and clay with varying iron and quartzite content, along with smaller areas of chalky, sedimentary limestone/calcrete and others of wind-blown limestone. Since the 2018 vintage, we have been vinifying these Polygons separately and the results have shown us extraordinary differences in wine flavour and structure from one Polygon to the next.”
“Each of these tiny plots of vines has been mapped from a geology point of view, and then picked, vinified and matured separately. For example, Polygon 3 – which is 0.3 hectare of grenache on sedimentary limestone – is elegant, lifted, delicate and red-fruited, with fine mouth-coating tannins. Just next door, Polygon 5 – which is 0.3 hectare of grenache on schist, with some clay and iron – is more powerful, darker fruited and wilder with more structured tannins.”
“Below the topsoil, our terroir is comprised mostly of schist and clay with varying iron and quartzite content, along with smaller areas of chalky, sedimentary limestone/calcrete and others of wind-blown limestone,” says Nolan. “Since the 2018 vintage, we have been vinifying these Polygons separately and the results have shown us extraordinary differences in wine flavour and structure from one Polygon to the next.”
At Alkina, they liken this process of mapping to a sped-up version of what is learnt over several generations of vignerons farming different plots. And it is through sympathetic viticulture that those properties can shine in the glass. “Farming the vineyard organically also ensures that the roots of our old vines are ‘plugged into’ the earth, to the geology,” says Nolan. “Healthy mycorrhizal fungal networks assist the vine roots in absorbing distinct minerals and trace elements from degraded rock in the fractures. This, we believe, plays an important part in yielding the unique fruit characters from the different Polygons.”
Nolan says that individual sections are all highly individual with more or less rock, different kinds of rock, higher or lower clay content and the like. “This is some of the oldest vine-growing country in the world (600-700 million years), so the variation under the surface is immense,” she says. “We tailor our approach, management and winemaking to our patch and its attributes… but that is not to say it is any more special than any other vine growing place. It is just completely distinctive, and our job is to let it speak through the wines.”
And while many are experimenting with alternative varieties in ever-warming regions, Alkina is committed to the traditional grapes of the Barossa. “We are in a warm region, so the changing climate is incredibly important,” says Nolan. “With lengthy history in the region, we still think that heritage Barossa varieties like grenache and shiraz are well suited to the climate, but we do modify our management of the vineyard based on the season. Both varieties tend towards sweetness in our climate, so we pick earlier and use more whole bunch during fermentation to cut through that sweetness and help produce balanced wines with texture and savouriness.”
The Greenock Creek runs through the property, which acts as a nature corridor of flora and fauna. To enhance and preserve this, an extensive native planting program has been implemented to increase biodiversity and reduce erosion, while 2,500 native plants have also been planted around the dam.
These plantings have in turn, along with cover crops, seen a significant increase in beneficial insects and simply a general diversity of insects, rather than a few dominant pest species. A 2018 insect survey recorded over 11,000 species, which was used to understand the balance between those doing damage and those doing good. There are also 20 ‘bee hotels’ that are designed to encourage native bee population growth.
The long-term plan will be to have a permanent midrow sward made up of native plants and grasses, but at present they are planting seasonal cover crops. Those crops are then rolled, rather than slashed, providing a cooling effect on the soil and helping to retain moisture, then breaking down to add organic matter back to the soil. Once the soil has recovered from decades of conventional farming, the permanent sward can be planted.
Along with the biodynamic farming, the midrow sward has improved the water-holding capacity of the soil, which in turn has reduced any reliance on irrigation. While they do still water, the aim is to get the vine roots to reach deeper, so one or two deep soaks during the growing season helps to push water deeper into the soil rather than just wetting the surface. “Results in our winery show us that when our vine roots are active at depth and taking up moisture from the fractures of the bedrock, we make more complex wines with greater tannin structure, concentration and energy,” says Nolan.
To bolster the economic sustainability of Alkina, the old buildings on the property have been renovated into luxury accommodation, complete with access to a wine cellar that consists of the Alkina and Alejandro Bulgheroni Family Vineyards wines, as well as rarities from Barolo, Burgundy, Champagne, Priorat etc. The 1850 stables have been converted into a tasting room, which focuses not just on the Alkina story and wines, but it has a broader mission as a platform for educating tasters about regenerative practices. Interestingly, most of the renovation work was completed by the onsite team, with minimal outside contractors. It’s a neat encapsulation of the attitude at Alkina, of working together and crafting from the ground up.
Alkina are also engaging with the Ngadjuri people, who they acknowledge as the traditional custodians of the land. That process is just beginning, but Nolan notes that they’ve begun the journey by meeting with and learning from elder Aunty Pat Waria-Read on the farm. “We seek to honour the land’s indigenous history, to learn from the Ngadjuri people’s spiritual relationship with Country and to farm sensitively and in harmony with nature,” says Nolan.
The term ‘winemaker’ is not heard much at Alkina, though Nolan oversees both growing and making in her general manager role. It is the primacy of the vineyard that is consistently stressed. “Everything is about this vineyard, this country, this land and its long history. The vineyard is the star,” she says. While some large-format oak is used, it is all old wood. Nolan sees the imprint of oak as taking away from the expression of terroir, as does over-ripeness and heavy-handed extractive processes. Qvevri, concrete fermenters, concrete eggs and Italian clay amphora are the vessels of choice for Nolan.
“The way we understand and farm our micro-terroirs is entirely about communicating their unique characters and detail in the glass,” says Nolan. “Each of these tiny plots of vines has been mapped from a geology point of view, and then picked, vinified and matured separately. For example, Polygon 3 – which is 0.3 hectare of grenache on sedimentary limestone – is elegant, lifted, delicate and red-fruited, with fine mouth-coating tannins. Just next door, Polygon 5 – which is 0.3 hectare of grenache on schist, with some clay and iron – is more powerful, darker fruited and wilder with more structured tannins. We use mainly unlined concrete and clay vessels in the winery, avoiding new oak at all costs, so that the detail and natural beauty of each plot of vines can shine through in the glass.”