Smallfry – Vine Vale Vineyard, Barossa Valley Wayne Ahrens & Suzi Hilder

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Suzi Hilder and Wayne Ahrens’ Smallfry Wines is centred around their Barossa vineyard in Vine Vale. With a slew of vines over 100 years old, as well as climate-apt newer plantings, the pair grow grenache, shiraz, semillon, riesling, mataro, tempranillo, trousseau, marsanne, roussanne, cabernet sauvignon, cinsault, pedro ximènez and bonvedro. Their 18 hectares under vine has been certified organic/biodynamic since 2011, and they practice regenerative agriculture, encouraging species diversity of plants, animals and microfauna/flora. As well as making their own natural wines under the Smallfry imprint, the pair sell grapes to some leading makers, including Frederick Stevenson, Les Fruits, Ad Lib, Rasa and Sierra Reid.

“Our site within Vine Vale benefits from the gully breezes from Menglers Hill which moderates summer heat and has the signature terra rosa clay as the underlying feature which moderates summer moisture,” says Ahrens, describing the viticulture nuance of their site to others in the broader region.

“Our unique place deserves recognition,” says Ahrens. “Venerable age meets modern needs. Our old vine semillon and pedro were considered a waste of space 15 years ago, and to keep them in the ground we made a verjuice product that we sold at the local farmer’s market. Now, those vines provide the fruit for our most popular wine, ‘Tangerine Dream’, and their future is assured. This sort of story is what will make Australian wine relevant again overseas.”

When Suzi Hilder and Wayne Ahrens bought their property in the sandy soils of Barossa Valley’s Vine Vale, they didn’t just buy a vineyard, they bought a piece of history. And with it came a responsibility that the pair took very seriously.

Above: Wayne Ahrens and Suzi Hilder amongst their pedro ximènez vines. Opposite: digging out white grape skins from the ferment after an extended contact period in order to make their that make their ‘Tangerine Dream’ product.

“Our special site was nurtured by a cantankerous, rigid individual over a long period, which meant the winds of change did not affect our site and much that has been lost elsewhere has been retained,” says Ahrens. “There is an honest stoicism about the place that came from the human element and that we feel honour bound to respect. Historically, many would have argued that our site is best suited to growing carrots, but the combination of old vines and light soils mean that we are in the box seat to produce lighter weighted complex styles.”

The site is blessed with a venerable collection of bush vines of mostly indeterminate age, though many are well over a century old. “The vineyard was owned by the Schliebs family and has passed to us based on a we-won’t-change-it handshake,” says Ahrens. “It retains the feel of the traditional Barossa ‘gardens’, with random fruit trees interplanted amongst the bush vines. It really is quite old and contains a diversity of ancestor vine varieties: semillon, shiraz, grenache, mataro, trousseau, tinta amarela, pedro xinémez, cabernet sauvignon…”

“The vineyard was owned by the Schliebs family and has passed to us based on a we-won't-change-it handshake,” says Ahrens. “It retains the feel of the traditional Barossa ‘gardens’, with random fruit trees interplanted amongst the bush vines. It really is quite old and contains a diversity of ancestor vine varieties: semillon, shiraz, grenache, mataro, trousseau, tinta amarela, pedro xinémez, cabernet sauvignon…”
Opposite: grenache. Above: old vine mataro.

Both being seasoned viticulturists, Hilder and Ahrens certainly knew what they were getting into. Their desire was to make wine from the ground up – vineyard first, as it should be. Ahrens is also a fifth-generation Barossa resident, so he knew just how important that history was, but it wasn’t as simple as carrying on like nothing had changed.

With 52 consecutive vintages behind them, the last custodian of the old Schliebs vineyard was leaving behind a vineyard that was weathering a vastly different environment to when he had first pruned and picked it in the mid-20th century. “At my first Rootstock,” says Ahrens. “Alice Feiring suggested that if we needed to irrigate then perhaps we were growing in the wrong place, which in itself was fair. Our situation was that we had 150-year-old vines dying from drought and to give them a drink seemed a kindness.”

For Hilder and Ahrens, survival was important, but so too was building a future. Those old vines needed to be able to survive and flourish with as little intervention as possible, and the vineyard needed to find a natural balance so that their site was not just a museum, but a thriving and sustainable natural system. “That it is now still in production and thriving is due in a large part to our ownership,” says Ahrens. “The place was very degraded and in a low productivity spiral by the time we bought it.”

That degraded state was due to the previous owner no longer being able to effectively manage the site, but also due to a lack of adaption to shifting weather patterns. “Climate change is huge,” Ahrens exclaims. “As multi-generational farmers, we have a take on things that most people don’t. Our dries are drier, our wets are wetter, our hots are hotter, and our colds are colder…. We have suffered severe frost in what was a hitherto safe vineyard.”

Opposite and above: making bio-char, before and after. Biochar can improve soil structure and increase soil fertility by enhancing water retention, nutrient availability, and microbial activity. This can lead to healthier vines and improved grape quality. Biochar-amended soil has been shown to require less water than untreated soil, which can be especially beneficial in areas with limited water resources.

That commitment started with an immediate shift to organic and biodynamic methods, with the vineyard certified biodynamic since 2014 (ACO). Amongst other things, that approach has led to a positive shift away from a reliance on irrigation.

“As we have increased the organic matter,” says Ahrens, “and thus the water retention capacity of our soils, we have been able to reduce our water inputs substantially… For us, introducing soil moisture monitoring has made a huge difference as it validated our soil management practices. We have been able to reduce our input to 0.15 Mg per hectare each year, and through some extremely hard seasons.”

That process has not just been about diminishing the reliance on bore water that is becoming ever saltier, but also to genuinely regenerate the land into a living soil. “Our biggest focus is soil health and diversity,” says Ahrens. “The cover of soil is paramount but coupled with that of soil biota… Ensuring our practices advance the cause of the beneficial and retard the development of the taxing is what we do.

“One of the principles of regenerative agriculture is long rest, for us that means long rest from tractor traffic. We have an intense period during late winter, spring, early summer when we spray, mow, plough… but for the next eight months, we don’t have a tractor pass at all. This allows our soils to regenerate.”

With 18 hectares under vine, 40 per cent of plantings are well over 100 years old, with another 40 per cent 40–100 years old, while the rest are various ages under 40. And while nurturing the existing vines is critical, the pair have also been focusing on planting varieties that are uniquely suited to their site and the times.

“Climate change isn’t affecting the world uniformly,” says Ahrens. “Our job is to plant varieties that we think will cope better in our patch of dirt… We plant drought-resistant varieties – cinsault for me is going to be the saviour of the Barossa. We’re also planting varieties that are suitable to our needs. Interestingly, this doesn’t just mean heat- and drought-tolerant varieties; in our case, it also means including trousseau, which is neither but is ready early, so we can get some use out of our equipment before the main vintage starts.”

Ahrens highlights the cultural identity motivation to find adaptability for some of Barossa’s heritage varieties. “We see ourselves as part of ‘New Barossa’. We have a long a proud history here and sometimes the lessons of the past can be forgotten. The time when Barossa Riesling was celebrated around the nation is in our living memory. Clearly we are Mediterranean climate and are enjoying exploring warmer climate white varieties, but there is a capacity from continental varieties to cope very well with our climate – for example, riesling and chenin are doing well. Trousseau is also somewhat of a surprise: we had the old vines but our younger vines also are doing a remarkable job of coping outside of what some would think.”

With the pair keenly aware that a monoculture can be problematic, variety is also key. “Nature doesn’t farm without animals or a diversity of plants,” says Ahrens, “so for us to integrate diversity into our farm production will benefit our vines as well as our bottom line… We were selling broad beans to a retailer in the Adelaide Central Market grown as a cover crop in our young roussanne… We grow almonds, olives, prunes, apples, pears, quinces, vegetables. Diversity is strength.”

Opposite: cinsault grapes at harvest. Above: grenache bush vines on the sandy soils of sandy soils of Barossa Valley’s Vine Vale.

As well as providing the core for their own Smallfry Wines – which are made with natural principles – Hilder and Ahrens’ vineyard is used as a fruit source for some of South Australia’s most exciting labels. Frederick Stevenson, Les Fruits, Ad Lib and Rasa, amongst others, all work with fruit from the Smallfry site.

Beyond the environmental and wine quality gains, the pair are just as focused on social and community responsibilities and outcomes, with the mission statement: “give back as we had benefitted”. Ahrens notes they work on various community projects and contribute financially “to what we feel are worthy causes” such as Aboriginal Legal Aid and ACF. “From a social point of view, our involvement in the WWOOF-ing program has very fulfilling; we have homed, supported and educated many 100s of people from all over the world on our farm over the last decade and a half, many of them hospitality people who experienced their first vintage.”

“Our next challenge is to include a grazing regime in our management,” says Ahrens on their ever-growing future management plans. “I envisage a rotational regime with grazing being applied to a small section for a day then moved the next, using a small stature sheep. This should allow us to remove a tractor pass from our regime.”

And while the pair will never tire of finding new ways of improving their site, their tireless work to date has not only saved a great old vineyard, but it has transformed it into a model for a sustainable and vibrant future.

“I feel as though we are pioneers,” says Ahrens. “The majority of what we do is informed by our intuition and training. I don’t see any vineyards out there that look like ours.” Our farming contributes to flavour complexity, depth and breadth as well as acid retention, nutritional density, flavonoids etc. I am convinced that healthy soil grows healthy vines that produce balanced grapes that make the best-quality wine.”

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