Viticulturist Michael Lane and winemaker Peter Fraser have worked hand in glove at McLaren Vale’s Yangarra Estate for over 20 years, steering the wines to ever-greater heights through a program that puts vineyard front and centre. Fraser is one of this country’s most skilled makers – no argument – but the long-term quality goals the pair had for the estate were always built on reinvigorating their soil and returning a natural harmony to the site. Today, Lane meticulously manages nearly 90 hectares of vines to A-grade biodynamic standards, working across a suite of Southern Rhône varieties, with grenache taking the lead. Yangarra also supplies grapes to a who’s who of McLaren Vale’s finest makers.
Yangarra Estate now has just over 88 hectares under vine. The first plantings date back to 1946, with additions in ’98 and ’99. After the purchase of the site by Jackson Family Wines, further plantings in 2009 and ’16 expanded the range to cover the key varieties of the Southern Rhône – bourboulenc, clairette, grenache blanc, piquepoul, roussanne, viognier, carignan, cinsault, counoise, grenache, mourvèdre and shiraz – with other climate-apt Mediterranean varieties in the pipeline.
New vines are also planted on a 300° north-west angle to generally maximise sunlight on the fruit zone but provide shade during the hottest parts of the day, a simple enough solution that is one part of a strategy to manage increasingly hot seasons.
The property extends over almost double the area under vine, with 170 hectares of land, which Lane has been managing organically and biodynamically since 2008, with A-grade certification granted in 2012 (ACO). Yangarra have also been certified with Sustainable Winegrowing Australia (SWA) since 2013 (then SAW, a McLaren Vale initiative that was adapted and adopted nationally).
“Biodynamics is a tool that we use,” says Lane. “Certification allows us to build trust with our customers. We take a very practical approach to our farming based on technical know-how, ideas from permaculture and biological farming that we believe produces the best out of our site. Our philosophy is to encourage biological diversity within the soil, which promotes symbiotic pathways to facilitate the uptake by our vines of the soil’s native minerals. We believe this results in wines that best showcase their unique sense of place.”
Lane maintains a permanent interrow grass sward to control weeds, with those grasses and any under-vine weed growth partly managed by rotational winter grazing of sheep. Beehives are employed to aid with flowering both of vines and to encourage biodiversity, and a significant onsite program sees 1,000 cubic metres of compost and organic matter – including grape marc – applied to the vineyard each year.
Lane is also focused on working on restoring waterways and native populations to return some natural harmony to the site, including propagating native Christmas bush and tea tree along with other indigenous species for future plantings. “Being a biodynamic producer, sustainability is the cornerstone to the way we farm,” he says, “but we continue to work towards improving and enhancing the biodiversity, including flora and fauna… and further develop our existing natural corridors and water courses. This will work to improve our already growing biodiversity, attracting beneficial insects and animals.”
Microbat boxes have also been built to aid in controlling insect populations. This not only provides sanctuary to a native species whose habitat is threatened, but being voracious consumers, they’re able to consume half their body weight in insects. It’s a creative way of solving two problems, one localised, and one that has larger implications. Lane is also trialling drones – to discourage birds as the grapes ripen – as well as attracting predatory birds to act as natural deterrents.
“We have 40 individual blocks, each managed with a specific management program to deliver the desired outcome for each variety and each block.”
Lane also notes that Yangarra’s philosophy extends to being an active contributor to local and broader community. “We established an indigenous traineeship in viticulture and winemaking,” he says. “We have initiated an internal education program for our winery interns and staff to give them a better holistic understanding of our farming practices in the hope they continue to practice them throughout their career, and we support our local community through donations and sourcing local where possible.”
Yangarra is also a significant supplier of high-end grapes to some of the Vale’s best producers. “We are very fortunate to work with many talented winemakers who purchase grapes, for the most part, for their single vineyard wines,” he says. “These winemakers include Thistledown, Aphelion, Brash Higgins, Harrison, Samuel’s Gorge, Alpha Box & Dice, Adelina, Coates, Sandman and Vanguardist. We are very receptive to their ideas and innovation around canopy management, irrigation and picking dates.”
Lane notes that both the makers who by their fruit and the broader winegrowing community are important sounding boards, that each site is necessarily different to another. “The transfer of information and ideas throughout the community is invaluable to wineries of all shapes and sizes, and we enjoy contributing to and learning from this community. However, what may work on one site doesn’t necessarily work on others, so much of the process of developing knowledge and what is right for our specific land is trial and error.”
That process is perhaps best exemplified by the nuanced approach that they take across their site. “We have 40 individual blocks, each managed with a specific management program to deliver the desired outcome for each variety and each block,” says Lane. This targeted approach will see pruning, leaf plucking, shoot and bunch thinning and naturally picking vary from one block to the next. “This allows every block to reach its highest potential.”
As Yangarra is an old vineyard, Lane is engaged in updating infrastructure elements, including the removal of treated pine posts to be replaced with metal ones. New vines are also planted on a 300° north-west angle to generally maximise sunlight on the fruit zone but provide shade during the hottest parts of the day, a simple enough solution that is one part of a strategy to manage increasingly hot seasons.
“Climate change has already had an impact on the way we farm our Vineyard,” Lane says. “Our cultural practices have been modified to suit the changes in climate with a greater focus on the varietal selection, our planting orientation and water management.”
Lane puts down much of the success of Yangarra’s wines to the symbiotic relationship he and Fraser have, as well as the latitude the Jackson family have given them to pursue vineyard best practices. “I’m proud to have been involved in the shaping of Yangarra Estate vineyard over the past 20 years,” says Lane, “Having worked with Peter Fraser for the past 20 years, we have developed a unique working relationship with an extensive mutual understanding of what is required of us to live up to the expectation of the wines we want to produce.
“We feel our site and the cultural practices in the vineyard reflect a true sense of place, with a common thread throughout all the wines. We see specific characters such as a sanguine/iodide note through nearly all our wines, which we link to the ferrous nature of our underlying geology. In our time working with Yangarra, it has been the last five years that we are truly starting to see these characteristics become more and more pronounced. It’s a culmination of a lot of one percenters, adjustments to our techniques and attention to detail.”