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Place of Changing Winds, Macedon Ranges Remi Jacquemain & Robert Walters

Top Vineyards

Robert Walters is no stranger to great wine, being an importer and distributor of some of the most revered wines of the world. Walters’ passion for Burgundy runs particularly deep, with an exhaustive search for an ideal home site for pinot noir and chardonnay leading him to the Macedon Ranges in 2012. There he planted Place of Changing Winds, a genuinely unique vineyard for this country, with some of the highest density plantings anywhere in the world. Organically certified and requiring exhaustive manual work – coordinated by vineyard manager Remi Jacquemain – the site is testing the possibilities of perfection while paying respect to the land and its bushland surrounds.

Bibendum Wine Co. has been a leading importer and wholesaler for over 15 years, with Robert Walters steering his company to represent some of the key makers of France, Germany and Spain, as well as plenty of local leading lights. Restlessly inquisitive, Walters had long searched for his own special patch to make wine without compromise, finally settling on a quartz-laced site in the hamlet of Bullengarook in the Macedon Ranges.

The 3.1-hectare vineyard was first planted in 2012/13, with small additions and adjustments made over the years. The site is focused on pinot noir – with a smattering of interplanted gamay in one block – and chardonnay, including a brace of different clones of each.

Astonishingly, those 3-odd hectares support almost 44,000 vines. At a density of over 14,000 vines per hectare, which makes it one of the most densely planted sites anywhere in the world, a true rarity. But an average density doesn’t do justice to the lengths gone to in the pursuit of discovery.

Walters is convinced that high-density plantings are key to making great pinot noir and chardonnay, but he was also keenly aware that copying something that works elsewhere is no guarantee of success. And, perhaps more importantly, without testing the extremes, he knew the survey would be inadequate.

With blocks laid out at 12,000, 14,500, 20,000, 25,000 and a staggering 33,000 vines per hectare, the vineyard is set up to make great wine, but it is also designed to test what will work best. For Walters, that’s all part of the learning process to understand their site.

With blocks laid out at 12,000, 14,500, 20,000, 25,000 and a staggering 33,000 vines per hectare, the vineyard is set up to make great wine, but it is also designed to test what will work best. For Walters, that’s all part of the learning process to understand their site.

“Everything we do is part of a continuously evolving system designed to maximise quality and expression of place,” he says. “We go to great extremes of cost, time and effort in the name of quality and uniqueness, and we are lucky enough to be plugged into a very wide network of growers, winemakers and agronomists, across the globe, that are all pushing boundaries.”

Walters also researched historic texts dating back to the 17th century to inform some of their vineyard architecture. “We have designed and planted a plot of vines that reflects various elements that were associated with quality pinot noir and chardonnay in ancient times, but that have largely been lost,” he says. “This block is bush vine on stakes, obviously unusual for pinot, co-planted with various clones and a little gamay. It is planted at two high densities: 10,000 and 25,000 vines per hectare. In this latter section, named Dom Denise after a 17th century monk, 100 per cent of the work is done by hand, with no tractor.”

That pursuit of extreme quality began with selecting the optimal site on the margins of viability for much viticulture, but in the prime corridor for high-quality pinot noir and chardonnay. The next key for Walters was to convert that site to organic management and to become certified. For him, that is the starting point, with no room for ambiguity, but it goes beyond that, too.

“How the vineyard fits into its natural environment is a key benchmark for us,” says Walters. “It should support and enhance the local ecosystem, the biota, flora and fauna as much as possible. This is what we strive for and are working towards, balancing quality all the way. …This is not only good for the environment but also encourages wines that deeply reflect where they are grown.”

The site, though, has brought its fair share of challenges, with frost and downy mildew persistent challenges. Fans and misting systems have been installed to manage frost issues, while the high-density plantings have made combating disease a highly manual affair, with copper and sulphur sprays administered via their compact Niko tractor and backpack sprayers. This also allows for a very targeted application, avoiding the issues that can be associated with blanket spraying.

“We are constantly looking at new practice and equipment to assist us in our goals,” says Walters. “Currently, we are reviewing our tractor, gaining a deeper understanding of our geology, a new insect bank, some drainage, and a new compost program that will give us greater control over this input. We want a vineyard that lasts a century, not one that we have to start replanting in 25 years. …We want a vineyard that is set up to consistently deliver quality for the long term.”

“How the vineyard fits into its natural environment is a key benchmark for us,” says Walters. “It should support and enhance the local ecosystem, the biota, flora and fauna as much as possible. This is what we strive for and are working towards, balancing quality all the way. …This is not only good for the environment but also encourages wines that deeply reflect where they are grown.”

Place of Changing Winds is still young as a venture, and the site a cool one, so the heat impact of climate change is not so easy to judge. “But, like everyone else,” Walters notes, “we’re seeing more and more erratic weather. It’s still early days for us but we are trying to do what we can. …moving towards being carbon neutral, caring for our forest. We are planting a lot of trees, establishing significant hedgerows or insect banks throughout the vineyard and around the vineyard, with the idea of connecting the forest with the vines… We are currently talking with council around establishing wildlife sanctuaries, and we are also planning out a wetlands area, as well as planting native flora that is struggling in the area.”

The pursuit of wine quality, the success of the business and broader environmental and educational goals are inextricably linked at Place of Changing Winds. “Economic sustainability is driven by quality and distinctiveness, because the way we farm aims to maximise place and quality,” says Walters. “Also because our system is organic and labour intensive, and we hardly use contractors, we hire a lot of passionate trade and viti students, supporting and training them and increasing knowledge in general.”

That vineyard-first approach also sees the significance of the winemaking very much pushed out of the spotlight. “We don’t have a winemaker,” Walters declares. “Everyone here spends between 90 to 100 per cent of their time in the vines. That’s not to disparage winemakers… We take winemaking seriously. We use a consultant, Dave Macintosh, a very talented winemaker, and our manager, Remi Jacquemain is also a qualified winemaker, and he manages the cellar. But Remi is also a grower first. It’s the basis of what we do. If we get that right, then the winemaking is far simpler and easier.”

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