Perched high in the granitic cool of Victoria’s Macedon Ranges, Cobaw Ridge is a certified biodynamic vineyard specialising in varietal bottlings of chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah and lagrein, as well as a syrah rosé that is often touted as one of the best in the land. Alan Cooper has always farmed sympathetically, but it is since the conversion to organics, then biodynamics that he believes the vine resilience, fruit quality, depth of flavour and expression of site has dramatically improved.
When Alan and Nelly Cooper first planted their Cobaw Ridge vineyard in 1985, they were amongst a small group that were testing the grape-growing potential of the lofty cool of the Macedon Ranges. In a region that is regarded as the coldest on the mainland, that viticulture was always going to be a marginal prospect, and especially with fledgling vines and somewhat cooler weather patterns than the last two decades.
“So many people questioned the long-term viability of the Macedon Ranges in those early days,” says Alan Cooper, reflecting on how far they’ve come over the last 36 years. “But now we are, I think, very much in the box seat to continue serious cool climate winemaking,”
There was a decent focus on sparkling wine from some of the pioneers that preceded the Coopers, but their gaze became fixed on table wine, with chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet and shiraz planted to the granitic soils in the natural amphitheatre of their site that sits at over 600 metres elevation. Alan Cooper is a fifth-generation farmer, and while they established the vineyard with an eye to organics, juggling city work while managing the vines meant that minimal herbicides were used, but never pesticides.
“At the end of the day what we strive for is flavour that could only come from here!”
With the house built and the vineyard established, city life was relegated to the past and that path to organics was fulfilled. They officially started transitioning in 2005, becoming certified in 2009, with biodynamic certification confirmed in 2011. “We have really forged our own path locally being the first certified organic-biodynamic producer in the Macedon Ranges,” says Cooper. “Nice to think that a lot of others are now becoming likeminded also.”
The site now consists of 5 hectares of vines, with various less-successful clones and varieties (cabernet was an early victim) over the years, including vermentino, yielding to the vine mix of chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah and lagrein. That last variety, which is a key red grape in Italy’s Alpine region of Alto Adige, was grafted in 1993, being the first to trial it in Australia. Lagrein has proven a great success, with their version seen by many as the benchmark for this country.
With a fully equipped winery, right down to a small bottling line, the Cobaw Ridge operation is very much an inhouse one, with a solar system recently installed to service the power needs of the winery, cellar door and new accommodation facility as well as the Cooper’s home. That new accommodation is part of a future-proofing plan, says Cooper, “to allow for a secondary non-wine related income stream to assist with our long-term viability.”
In the vineyard, biodynamics is pivotal to the success over the years, with Cooper also noting that being as transparent as possible through official certification is critical, as it gives the end consumer confidence in the integrity of the operation. “The number one thing is that we have embraced being organic – biodynamic, fully certified now for ten years,” he says. “We prefer to walk the walk, rather than talk the talk.”
The Cobaw site has a north facing aspect that, combined with the nature of the amphitheatre and the granitic soils, creates a unique mesoclimate that generates very distinctive fruit and wine. “Over the years it has always been purely about ‘here’,” says Cooper. “True terroir if you like. Altitude of 615 metres plus, so true cool climate plays a huge part in what we do. It’s a sunny north-facing warm site in a cool region but still gives superb high acidity.”
Circling back to biodynamic farming, Cooper believes that the viticultural methods have made both the vines and the fruit more resilient. “The vines now seem to be a whole lot more self-sufficient,” he says, “close to zero irrigation in our super-free-draining soils must mean the vines have worked a long way down to sustain themselves. Thicker leaves and berry skins all lead to less disease pressure and more resultant flavour in the wines. We are growing more flavour!”
Cooper employs some irrigation but typically only for establishing young vines through a drip system, with most vines on the property also on own roots. Vineyard operations are extensively manual and as sympathetic as possible. “Being aware of the fragile nature of our soils and treading as lightly as possible in all our vineyard operations is a given,” says Cooper. “This year I am really looking forward to the native grasses to stop growing, so I can get on top of things. Hopefully my new wangle fangled under-vine machinery works as well as it does on YouTube!”
Over 35 years of low-impact farming, a decade of biodynamics and more than 15 years of strict organics, Cooper believes his site has never been healthier and the wines have never been better as a result. “The vineyard delivers all the necessary requisites for great winemaking, so no need for any additions to the wine except a bit of SO2,” he says. “So, with nil agro-artefacts in the fruit and zero additions in the wine, it all leads to purity of flavour. At the end of the day what we strive for is flavour that could only come from here!”