The Hunter Valley’s Somerset Vineyard has been responsible for some landmark wines, from back in the days of Maurice O’Shea in the first half of the 20th century, then later for Lindeman’s at its peak in the 60s, 70s and 80s, as well as supplying fruit to Len Evans as he reshaped the Australian wine landscape. Today, Angus Vinden tends nearly 20 hectares of vines dedicated to his family’s eponymous label, with the Hunter stalwarts of shiraz and semillon leading the way, though he also makes some more left-field offerings under the Headcase imprint from varieties like tempranillo and gewürztraminer. Vinden has recently begun the conversion to organic practices.
The Somerset Vineyard, in Pokolbin, is a place of significant history, a site that was first planted to vines in the 1890s. It even supplied fruit to the Great Maurice O’Shea at Mount Pleasant before the vines were unceremoniously ripped from the earth during WWII. The break in production was relatively small, though, with vines again planted, starting in 1965. Those new vines, on that old site, once again were the material for some famous wines, such as many of the Lindeman’s Bin offerings, as well as some of Len Evans’ most acclaimed wines at Rothbury Estate.
“I am planting a multitude of new blocks and varieties to make sure we are ready for the future. Recently, I’ve planted gamay, pinot noir, pinot meunier, grenache, cinsault, mourvèdre and new clones of tempranillo and chardonnay.”
The site is comprised of red volcanic soil over limestone, with vines being planted over the decades to now occupy about 20 hectares. The varietal mix now comprises semillon, verdelho, chardonnay, chenin blanc, gewürztraminer, fiano, shiraz and tempranillo. Angus Vinden farms the Somerset Vineyard along with the family’s home block of about 5 hectares, with all fruit destined for the Vinden wines, which he also makes.
Cutting his teeth at Somerset alongside fifth-generation Hunter grape-grower Glen Howard, Vinden has since evolved his farming to establish his own version of best-practice viticulture. “I want to ensure that our property is in a better condition than when I first took it over,” he says. “We farm our vineyards organically with a view to biodynamics eventually – converting the vineyards to organic has been my most proud achievement to date.”
This organic conversion was implemented about a year ago, with certification a long-term goal, and is one of many adjustments Vinden has made to make his operation more sustainable, with many of them buffering against the impact of a warming climate. “In the Hunter, harvest is continually getting earlier and with increasing heatwaves. Looking after the soil so the vines are increasingly resilient is paramount. We’ve just had four years of extreme drought, to seeing rainfall become more sporadic, so we have to be agile and proactive when it comes to combating climate change.”
Both out of a desire for diversity in his winemaking and to buffer against these issues, Vinden has planted a raft of grape varieties across Somerset and his home vineyard. “I am planting a multitude of new blocks and varieties to make sure we are ready for the future. Recently, I’ve planted gamay, pinot noir, pinot meunier, grenache, cinsault, mourvèdre and new clones of tempranillo and chardonnay.”
Vinden’s transition to organic methods has naturally seen him eliminate synthetic herbicides, pesticides, insecticides and fungicides, with only copper, sulphur and biological sprays employed. Cover crops are planted to increase organic matter in the soil, as well as to act as insectary plantings to encourage beneficial insects that prey on less-beneficial ones, with under-vine mowers employed in lieu of herbicides.
“It is more expensive to spray and work the soil intensively than it is to manage cover crops,” he says, noting they also maintain native bushland as a “wildlife corridor” and to encourage biodiversity. “For me, it is important to make sure that we can grow things in less of a monoculture.”
Weaker vines are being removed and replaced with massal selections from more robustly resilient plants, strengthening the overall productivity and health of the vineyard. Additionally, underperforming blocks are being reassessed to be replanted with more suitable varieties or clones, or in some instances on rootstocks that will better use water resources, enabling the vines to better handle drought and heat. Rainwater is collected for the sections of the vineyard on drip irrigation, while most of the vines are dry grown.
And while Vinden is fine-tuning everything from management to grape varieties at Somerset, he stresses that the site “has shown resilience through time” and is an amazing place to grow grapes, with “fine sandy loam soils offering elegant whites, and fine granular volcanic soil that produces beautiful medium-bodied reds”. Those words shadow very classic Hunter wine profiles, but he stresses that he’s “someone who looks to both the past and future for inspiration,” making classic single vineyard shiraz and semillon from Somerset, as well as a skin-contact gewürztraminer, amongst a raft of other innovative wines.
Jettisoning a career in architecture some years back, Vinden has taken on the role of growing and managing the family business in all its aspects, which is no small task. “As a vigneron and winemaker managing 60 acres of vines across two properties, plus our cellar door is open seven days a week, I’m up at 5am most days and can easily work until 7pm or later. I recognise it’s so important to have some downtime, but it it’s pretty hard when you’re looking after 60,000 vines.”
That workload says a lot about Vinden, and it perhaps says even more when you consider his devotion to farming in an exhaustively manual and restorative way, a rod he has made for his own back, but one that he sees as critical to both manage the land responsibly for the long term and to make the best wine possible.
“Three-Michelin-Star chef Dominique Crenn sums it up pretty well,” says Vinden, “’We’re not the rock stars; we’re not the celebrity. The farmer is the rock star. The farmer is taking care of the land.’ Which translates just as well to vignerons, as we’re all farmers at the end of the day. Making great wine starts in the vineyard, first and foremost. If you invest your energy in treating the soil and the vines with the due diligence and care that it deserves, you’ll be rewarded with great fruit that can be used to make great wine.”