Barossa Valley, Tough Times

Tough times in the Barossa Valley are having positive effects on the way the grapes are grown. Grapegrowers and winemakers are taking the opportunity to re-focus on quality. “It’s only in the down-turns that you can get grapegrowers to change their ways,” says Andrew Wigan, chief winemaker of Peter Lehmann Wines (tastings). “In the good times when they’re growing 15 tonnes to the hectare and getting $2,000 a tonne for it, and everyone wants their grapes, they won’t listen to any talk of change. Why should they? If you say ‘I don’t want your fruit unless you do this and this and this in your vineyard’, they’ll just say ‘I’ll go to Yalumba (tastings) or Foster’s (tastings) or St Hallett (tastings), they’ll take my grapes.’ And off they go.”

So now Australian wine is in a deep slump, with a big oversupply and probably 30 to 40% of the country’s vines need to be grubbed up. And we probably have yet to see the bottom of the slump. It seems improbable, but the Barossa Valley is showing signs that it’s embracing much-needed change.

At a time when their grapes are worth a lot less, many growers are biting the bullet, and cutting back their crop levels. After all, if nobody really wants their grapes at any price, what have they got to lose? They might as well do what the winery viticulturists are telling them, and change their viticulture to low yields, and try to lift their quality.

No-one can be in any doubt as to the gravity of the situation. The media is full of it. It’s all they talk about down the pub. Everyone knows they have to lift their game if they intend to stay in it.

I travelled around some Barossa and Eden Valley vineyards during the vintage with Wigan and Nigel Blieschke, viticulturist for Peter Lehmann Wines.

“This is a mess,” says Wigan as he lifts a limp shoot from a riesling vine. “This is an unbalanced vineyard. Too much crop, it’s nowhere near ripe and the vineyard is running out of steam.” In other words, it’s near the end of the season, the weather is cooling off, and the grapes will probably never ripen to Wigan’s satisfaction.

Blieschke says: “The rows run north-south, which is a problem here, because the west side of the vine has unshaded bunches which get sunburnt in the hot afternoon sun, while the east side is very shaded.”

In another vineyard, he points to the double-cordon trellising system and shakes his head. “This is terrible. Too much crop, too many buds have been left at pruning time, the fruit is crowded and not well distributed along the trellis wire, it doesn’t ripen evenly and you have all the problems under the sun.”

A cordon is where the vine’s trunk is trained into two permanent, lateral arms that run in opposite directions along the wire. The shoots, which are pruned off every winter and renewed every year, spring from the cordon. A double cordon vine has two cordons, or four arms: one cordon about 30cm above the other. Its purpose is basically to grow more grapes. Not a quality initiative.

Blieschke is talking to growers like this one and strongly recommending they change their trellising. “Get the chainsaw out and chop off the top cordon,” he says with a dismissive wave of the hand. “Bring it back to one cordon on a single wire, and use the top wire as a catch wire. (As the vine shoots grow, the tendrils catch the top wire, helping to hold the vine upright. Then, the leaves are evenly spread and the bunches bathe in dappled sunlight. Nice.)

In one vineyard Wigan says sadly: “Last year, the riesling from this vineyard went into Wigan (the Peter Lehmann reserve riesling named after him). But not this year.

All is not lost, however. In the last vineyard we visit, we have a hallelujah moment. This Eden Valley shiraz is excellent. The vines are in balance, they look good, the fruit looks and tastes good, and it’s ripe and nearly ready to harvest. After walking the length of one row, tasting berries and snipping bunches to take back to the winery for testing, Wigan announces: “I think I’m going to upgrade this to premium.” Blieschke agrees enthusiastically.

This grower took Blieschke’s advice last year, and cut his vines back to a single spur-pruned cordon. The yield may be lower but the quality is higher.

It looks simple, and neat. “We are into the KISS principle,” says Blieschke. “Keep it simple, stupid. Too many vineyards have complicated trellising systems. They mostly result in bigger crops of less-good fruit – and they cost more to maintain.” So why would anyone do that? It’s a no-brainer.

Of course, dig back into the history and you find the reason growers installed these big, complicated trellises was that they were told by some expert that they could grow more tonnage – without loss of quality. It’s the way to go, they were told, and the extra money you’ll make will more than pay for the wires and posts. Only problem is, it’s not what’s required today, and it’s even less likely to be in the future.

“Quality is the only way forward for the Barossa,” says Wigan.

Growers are also being encouraged to use less water and less fertiliser. “It’s pretty easy to persuade people,” says Blieschke. “Water and fertiliser both cost money, and they just increase yields of grapes which we don’t want anyway.”

Peter Lehmann’s standard $10-$15 Barossa semillon (tastings) used to be a huge seller. They used to crush nearly 3,000 tonnes of semillon a year; now it’s about a third of that. Sales have nose-dived in the last few years, and the New Zealand sauvignon blanc phenomenon is blamed.

The price of semillon grapes to the grower has fallen commensurately. Top semillon is worth about $550 a tonne this year compared to $900 a few years ago. And it’s not just semillon, says Wigan: all white varieties have been affected by the ‘savnami’. You can imagine what it does to a Barossa grapegrower’s bank balance. They want to see that $900 pay-check again. Now some of them are starting to understand the profligate days are behind them, and they’ll need to change their ways to even sell their grapes, let alone get a good price for them.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 1 April 2010.

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