Cirillo Estate’s core vineyard is a museum piece, home to the world’s oldest productive grenache and semillon vines. Those vines, along with a smattering of shiraz and a few random mataro vines, were planted in 1848, with Vincent and Marco Cirillo – father and sun – the sole custodians for the last 50 years. Today, with sensitive viticulture that excludes synthetic herbicides and pesticides, and a blend of old-school practices and modern knowledge, Marco Cirillo is bent on preserving those vines in the best health possible for generations to come.
The Cirillo family’s winegrowing lineage stretches back some way, both here and in the old country, Italy, or more precisely the region of Calabria at the kicking end of the boot. The family traces back nine generations and some 350 years of grape growing and winemaking, which means that they already had a long tradition of tending vines when the ones they now curate were planted in 1848.
Those vines are in the Light Pass district of the Barossa Valley, firmly anchored in the deep sandy soils of Vine Vale. The 5.2 hectares of ‘Ancestor’ vines mostly consist of grenache, along with a hectare of semillon, which are thought to be the oldest productive vines of their type anywhere in the world. There’s also less than half a hectare of shiraz of the same age, with the first Cirillo wine from those vines, the 2010, to be released in 2021 – they tend not to rush things.
“It’s about leaving a sustainable vineyard. It’s the passing on of the oldest site in the word for grenache and semillon for the next generation in the best possible condition. It is healthy, and it’s remaining healthy by working the site with technology and old-school practices.”
There are also some younger vines on the property, with a hectare or so of shiraz planted almost 30 years ago, and some more a little later, while mataro was propogated in 2015 from cuttings taken from nine ancient vines scattered amongst the grenache.
Vincent Cirillo bought the old vineyard in 1970, with neglected, gnarled old vines not quite as desirable as they are now. Since then, the vineyard has only ever been pruned by father and son, with the grenache woven into basket-like whorls, a traditional practice they partly credit with the ongoing viability of the vines and the consistently high quality of the fruit. Before Vincent’s son Marco put the family name on a label, the fruit was sold to local royalty, such as Rockford, Peter Lehmann, St. Hallett and Torbreck.
As the current custodian, Marco Cirillo takes his responsibilities very seriously. “The bigger picture is not about me or my beliefs, when it comes to organics, biodynamics or a conventional approach,” he says, “it’s about leaving a sustainable vineyard. It’s the passing on of the oldest site in the word for grenache and semillon for the next generation in the best possible condition. It is healthy, and it’s remaining healthy by working the site with technology and old-school practices.”
This combination of tried and true methods paired with Cirillo’s more technical training have helped form practices that respond to a site that he has spent his entire life on. “I am the winemaker, so the environment helps shape my processes more than anything else. I make wine off this site, which I understand, and understanding the environment of that site is paramount.
“I believe that vineyards this old became legendary because they were cared for with light tilling and organic nutrients for nearly two centuries. The science is the soil and leaf testing so we can better understand what this vineyard and site needs for its future. We are using organics, with no chemical herbicides and no pesticides for the last two decades. We also try to duplicate rainfall throughout the year via drip irrigation if we are not receiving adequate rain.”
That process of irrigation is primarily focused on the winter and spring months, with Cirillo trying to “emulate seasons where possible”. Naturally, he has no control over the weather, but Cirillo’s aim is to approximate a more or less average rainfall, so that the vines are hydrated and ready for what the growing season brings, with only minimal inputs through summer when necessary.
“I try to mimic different parts of the seasons where I can control it, whether it be through watering or through turning soils,” Cirillo says. “I just try to do what I need to do in my vineyard. I am growing the wine-grapes for my own business, so for me, it’s more about viticulture than the winemaking.”
Cirillo notes that he rarely has pest issues, and that other issues are managed by minimal organic inputs. “Disease control is back to basic organics, with sulphur and copper, and working with our local agronomist, but environmental changes that are happening around us are obvious and extremely influential to the vineyard,” he notes, referencing climate change, “with water sustainability becoming an extreme focus in the coming years.”
Aside from the challenges, Cirillo believes that his vines are where he wants them to be as an asset for the next generation, and the one that follows. “I’m most happy about the vineyard’s health. There’s not much I wish I could do differently in the vineyard, to be honest. Its more about keeping the vines alive and healthy. Although, I would wish for more consistent growing seasons and to have more time!”