Charles Simons manages the viticulture across the four Printhie vineyard sites in the Orange region of New South Wales. All are at high altitude, but the Wattleview Vineyard tops out as their highest, and is one of the country’s few viable plantings over 1,000 metres. Chardonnay, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc excel there, with the site responsible for Printhie’s flagship chardonnay – aptly named ‘Super Duper’ – as well as adding to wines in their Mountain and Topography ranges. Simons utilises technology to help guide his approach, which helps in the targeted direction of irrigation and disease management strategies, significantly reducing chemical, water and diesel use.
Jim and Ruth Swift first moved to the 500-hectare Printhie property, near Molong in the Orange region of New South Wales, in 1978, planting their first 12 hectares of vines in 1996. Those vines were supplemented over the years across four sites, while an onsite winery was built in 2004.
The Wattleview Vineyard is the highest of the Printhie sites, and one of the loftiest vineyards in the country. Situated at around 1,100 metres above sea level, was planted by Carolyn and David Gartrell in 2002 and is now exclusively managed by Printhie. Since ’02, vines were added in ’09 and ’10, while more chardonnay was grafted onto merlot in ’15. The other varieties are pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, with a total vineyard size of 8 hectares.
“I continue to strive every vintage to grow better grapes from our sites,” says Viticulturist Charles Simons. “Crop load is kept low to increase flavour profile and lower disease pressure later in the season. Canopy management is very important to me and therefore shoot thinning is done pre-flowering to allow for greater air movement during this critical stage and leaf plucking is done after to help with disease control. All canopy management activities are done by hand to ensure the highest quality.”
Simons notes that one of his biggest challenges is an ever-changing environment. “Each season is different. And with climate change, trying to prepare certain sites and vineyards is always a challenge. Water is key and therefore using our pressure chamber to test water potential in vines helps us manage this precious resource.”
With the pressure chamber, Simons is able to test the stem-water potential of the vines, helping to guide irrigation decisions, which ultimately reduces water use and prevents overwatering. A permanent mid-row sward of native cover crop has also been established, while “mulch is also used in drier parts of the vineyard to help retain moisture, minimise the requirement for irrigation and to balance areas of lighter, more free-draining soil”.
Simons is also consulting to and working with BioScout to refine the application of their technology to detect and manage disease pressure in the vineyard. Sensors placed around the site constantly sample the air, trapping spores, which are identified through a range of technologies in the monitoring devices. “This information is geo-tagged,” says Simons, “and weather data is also collected – temperature, humidity, moisture, wind speed and direction – to locate the disease hotspot area and correlate weather data to determine whether the disease collected is endemic or a serious threat.”
Once that data is loaded and analysed, Simons can direct any actions to treat sections of the vineyards that may be at threat. There are multiple efficiencies at play with this system, with the ability to target actions before disease becomes a problem and only where it is a factor, significantly minimising vineyard inputs. It also allows for precise treatment given the ability to accurately identify the spores that are present, as well as having the knock-on benefit of reducing tractor passes, which alleviates issues with soil compaction and reduces diesel use.
“The ethos of the viticulturist is that the more footsteps, as opposed to tractor tracks, in the vineyard the better,” says Simons. “Some of our premium vines will be touched by a human five to six times per year. We aim to do the right thing once, at the right time. Technology helps us achieve this. But ultimately, it’s the pairing of technology with an experienced viticulturist. During these challenging last few years, with bushfires and drought, our vines have showed amazing strength and great growth. Vine nutrients have been improved with better care of the soil and getting our carbon levels up. This helps with water retention and root growth.”
This confluence of experience and emerging technology is key for Simons, with an ongoing quest to streamline and refine operations to “be smarter at what we do in the vineyards and trying to always improve the six key areas of sustainability at Printhie: water, waste, pests and disease, climate change, people and soil.” Additionally, Simons says they hold regular field days to share knowledge and help improve practices, as well as hosting regular wine tastings so that the team is familiar with current styles across the world of wine.
Simons notes that beyond the larger threats of a warming world, the impact on the wines is a key issue that he manages in the vineyard. “Climate change is a massive factor for all involved in the wine sector, not just from drought effects and bushfires but from wines becoming too high in alcohol.
“Careful land and soil management helps to maintain a balanced environment. It increases resilience to climate change, assists with reducing erosion, increases water retention and nutrient availability, reduces pest and disease risk and plays an increasingly well-understood role in the sequestration of atmospheric carbon. In the long run, it’s up to us to maintain the land and to protect the industry for generations to come.”