Friday, October 30, 2009

Piazza Della Valle

James has been photographing the 'Piazza Della Valle' - Town Square in the valley project. The Piazza is a community designed meeting place for the heart of McLaren Vale. Viva Vale.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Why McLaren Vale for vineyards?

The technical reasons behind the hype.

This week I have been doing some volunteer work developing some grape growing information for the McLaren Vale Visitors Centre. This Visitors Centre is staffed by volunteers who represent the region and help face the hundreds of tourists who visit McLaren Vale each day. We all recognise the value of these volunteers and the work they do on the regions behalf. It is important they are armed with information to help guide the visitors to our region.

View from Stump Hill Road looking south east over the town of McLaren Vale.
One of the interesting questions they are often asked by tourist is ‘Why is McLaren Vale good for grape growing?’

McLaren Vale has come a long way in the last ten years. From relative obscurity the region has risen to be recognised as a producer of some of the world’s best red wine.

McLaren Vale; Tree n Vine.
Why is McLaren Vale one of the new world’s best wine regions? You often hear quotes about how the quality of our wines is helped by the regions climate. This got me thinking how many people realise just how special the McLaren Vale region is? Unless we all realise how special it is there is a risk, as farming goes through some hard times, that productive and wonderful land will be chopped up for housing.

McLaren Vale wines are distinguished by their ripeness, elegance, structure, power and complexity.

This is because McLaren Vale is an ideal location. The Mediterranean climate of warm, dry days and cool nights during the growing season assists in development of intense flavour and colour in our wines. Good winter rainfall satisfies the water requirement of the vines until late in the season when some top up is made with subterranean water from our well regulated aquifer, or alternatively from recycled water.

During summer our climate is often shielded from extremely hot weather by the Gulf of St Vincent and the Mt Lofty Ranges. If it rained more in summer or if the region was hit by frosts or heat waves our grape growing would be less reliable.

The grape growers of McLaren Vale have a particular way of speaking about their produce. An old-time McLaren Vale grape grower calls their red wine making fruit- ‘my black grapes’. Modern testing techniques have shown they are right! McLaren Vale Shiraz produces some of the highest colour scores in grapes ever recorded. The grapes are not soft red like other regions. When they are ripe they leave a purple stain.

Blewitt Springs, north east of McLaren Vale.

The reason is simple - small berry size. Smaller berries have a higher skin: pulp ratio. Berry skin contains flavournols (Anti-sunburn in grapes, 'flavour' in wine), Anthocynins (colour) and other complex molecules that add to wine complexity. Grape pulp contains sugar and water. Therefore the more skin to pulp the more complex the wine. Think the circumference of a circle to the area. The bigger the circle the greater the internal area.

Berry size in McLaren Vale is controlled by the vigour and nutrient status of the vine at certain specific times in the vines growth. Regulated Deficient Irrigation (RDI) is a technique to keep berry size small but not overly reduce the final yield. RDI involves placing a moderate water stress on the vines for a period after flowering has finished. This can occur naturally, and is the reason that McLaren and Barossa have been historically been areas for fortified port and table wine. The dry weather in McVale helps because low summer rainfall gives us much better control of soil moisture, the same in the Barossa, in the Coonawarra although it gets much more rainfall, the soil is shallow and runs out of water at about the right time.

While McLaren Vale is best known for producing outstanding Shiraz, the region’s ideal climate and diverse vineyard sites- ‘terrior’ lends itself to ideal grape growing conditions for producing a number of varieties which we are only just exploring.

We make world class Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon and McLaren Vale grape growers are utilising the region’s diverse range of climates and soils has led to experimentation with emerging varieties such as the fresh whites Fiano, Savagnin, Marsanne and the strong red Tempranillo.

It would be a shame not to continue to work on our natural advantages and protect our wonderful farming land for the future.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The art of social media.

In 2004 I started an elaborate hobby. My hobby has become my job. Your hobby or passion could become yours. Social media can allow you to create a business from your kitchen table. It is ideal for artists, musicians and small family businesses.

I starting making wine and fortunately it proved to be good. It allowed me to continue the next year. Each release sold well and in turn I was able to reinvest each year and grow a little business. Over time I managed to drag my whole family into the wine industry. Fast forward to today and together we now run a cellar door with the full complications and workload that entails.

One of the most important things that has allowed this to happen is the new phenomenon of social media. Along the way it has help my business grow. It has become so important that social media I am not sure I would have a chance in the tough world that is wine.

Let me explain.

The burn around social media often centers on the technologies like Facebook, blogs, Twitter, etc. etc. But it isn’t all about gadgets. The power of social media is that it's about the relationships it builds and supports, not the technologies. I have been able to talk to customers all over the world from my living room. With my computer I have gained peers and supporter from all sorts of places, I can talk to them and they can talk to me at anytime.

You might think that I spend all day chatting about the weather, but in reality I am able to build awareness about my wines on no budget at all. I can find out what is happening in big markets of Sydney and Melbourne without leaving my home in Adelaide.
Usefully many wine journalist and media are online too. I don’t have to have a large marketing budget or conduct awareness campaigns. In just a few simple messages I can let them know what I am up to.

In my industry a well run marketing awareness campaign, whether it be a wine neck tag offering a prize, a celebrity endorsement, or a new cute koala label – or whatever – can do incredibly well for the wine producer. It is also very expensive and I can guarantee this, at the end of the day the wine producer (through market intelligence etc) may know who buys their wine, but I guarantee they don’t know them personally!

Well get this… the world is changing, and if you produce anything and you are not actively attempting to know your customer personally, through the tools that are now available, then you could be in trouble.

My tips to any small family business.

- Be yourself and be genuine.

- Go ahead and create profiles of yourself or your passion on all the social networks. This will give you contacts in an up-to-date list for when you have a new album out or news about your gigs.

- Take time to talk to other similar businesses or those with interest you find.

- Create a blog with an RSS feed for people to receive updates on your art directly, and create a homepage on the web you can direct traffic to through social networks.

- Take lots of photos of what you are doing. People are interested in what it takes to put that show, or art work, or wine together.

- Build a list of trade publications, blogs etc. who might cover what you make or are involved with. When you have news, organize it into a clean document for them with images and samples, and present it to them in a personal, direct manner. Publications are always looking for new stories and people to write on, you’d be surprised how responsive they’ll be for an excited, up-and-comer who is pitching them in a respectful manner.

The social media revolution is just starting and it has been a total revelation to me. I’ve not only helped keep my family business going, I have met some incredible people and they have become my friends. And yes, sometimes we do talk about the weather, but you would be surprised how interested people can be in that!

James Hook makes Lazy Ballerina in McLaren Vale. He is a wine blogger and photographer on and tweets on

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Does McLaren Vale have an organic future?

Could the McLaren Vale region be one big sustainable food basket? James Hook argues the answer has to be yes.

If McLaren Vale has a future as a farming region it must embrace sustainable farming. It needs to produce products that attract premium prices to be financially sustainable. It needs to act as a steward for the region and protect the area from the perils of urbanization. The widespread adoption sustainable, high quality farming taking the best from organic and/or biodynamic techniques will maintain the vitality of the region and give McLaren Vale producers a sustained competitive advantage in their winemaking. This will allow higher prices for grapes which increases the value of the land, which decreases the pressure to put in housing.
I feel the way to do this is to adopt sustainable farming accreditation and policing for the whole district, as an industry and as a community to challenge ourselves, set an example and reap the benefits.

Reduced demand, lower wine grape prices and diminishing profit margins mean production of high quality fruit in McLaren Vale has become vital for winegrowers. For ill or good the strength and growth in the wine industry has greatly contributed to the region. The future of the grape growing and winemaking and the future of the area are intertwined. At present there is an oversupply of C grade fruit in the region, fruit that is made into wine in the $10-15 dollar per bottle range. There is high demand for A grade fruit which produces wine above $25 per bottle. It is at these quality levels that the majority of viticultural businesses need to be producing to be profitable. Conventional agriculture has not given us that with much of our fruit falling below the top grades.

What we describe as conventional agriculture is a recent trend. With the appearance of cheap mineral fertilisers and pesticides in the early 1950s, farmers quickly abandoned traditional or organic methods of farming and became heavily dependent on both agrochemicals and labour-saving machinery. Farmers discontinued organic methods not because they did not work but because they could not compete with the new type of agriculture.
Accepted practice viewed organic farming as inefficient. The race was to grow the most, not to grow in the most sustainable way. Grape growers received similar prices whether they grew 5 tonnes to the hectare or 15 tonnes. The emphasis was big is better. In spite of this, organic farming was pioneered because many local growers looked for ways to reduce the amount of fertilisers and pesticides they were using.

Enter the modern concept of sustainable farming. Not a return to the past, rather a marriage of scientific advances with traditional practices.

In the McLaren Vale wine industry, Battle of Bosworth, Rino and Greta Ozzella at Grancari Estate and many others certified their vineyard organic. Unsung growers like the late Modestino Piombo developed a successful vineyard at Sellicks Hill with little more than a dodge plow and wettable sulphur. Recently Paxton viticulture have successfully converted significant amounts of vineyard to BioDynamics, an organic system with soil as the key factor in farming, and sustainability as the goal. Gemtree wines and the Leask family also have wide scale

Following the lead of these pioneers elements of the organic and biodynamic philosophy have been starting catch on with mainstream grape growers.

The pioneers were concerned, above all else, about the soil beneath their feet.
Organic and Biodynamic philosophy is centred on practices designed to improve the richness and stability of the soil by restoring its organic matter and avoiding synthetic chemicals.

Not surprisingly this commitment to soil balance also has a flow on effect to wine quality. Many of the characteristics of a well maintained organic or biodynamic vineyard have the same traits of vineyards that achieve A grade results. This is particularly the case with McLaren Vale staples Shiraz and Grenache. They have moderate vigour, develop open canopies, catch a good deal of sunlight, have thicker skins, are not over fertilised and have balanced soil.

McLaren Vale has many advantages that make sustainable wine production a reality. The area has creek lines and roadsides that can be re-vegetated to offset farming energy demands and electrical power can be generated from shed and winery roof space. McLaren Vale’s soils are perfect for farming and we have a ready supply of organic fertilisers from Adelaide’s waste and animal farming nearby.

Currently 40% of the grape growers water needs are filled by reclaimed water from Adelaide with plans ahead to increase this, and the balance of water comes from underground sources which are carefully monitored to make sure are healthy.

Pastures grow well in between our vine rows stopping soil erosion. Mechanical weeding or new plant based herbicides can control weeds where they are not needed.

McLaren Vale has relatively low risk of disease affecting yield and quality. Powdery Mildew is a slow creeping disease that is limited by sunlight. Open canopies that let sunlight into the fruit zone inhibit its growth naturally; these same open canopies have the advantage of suiting A grade red wine production. Organically registered products like sulphur are effective in controlling the disease.

Downy Mildew is a rare occurrence in the district with the last significant outbreak in 1992. Downy Mildew needs wet summers where significant rain occurs in November and December. Wet summers are infrequent. When the next wet summer comes with increased knowledge about the disease, I believe with the correct timing, grape growers can use copper as an emergency measure to limit Downy’s effects and still meet organic requirements. Botrytis is a hit and miss problem. A grade red varieties with tough skins will always fair better than those which are pumped up and weak skinned. Nature is clever like that.

The pioneers have showed the district how. The opportunity is here to make the region the centre of sustainable grape growing. Organic practices use cheap and locally available resources. Vineyards are being successfully farmed avoiding factors over which farmers have little control: mineral fertilisers and synthetic pesticides.

I feel adopting organic practices on a wide scale represents an effective way to reduce the oversupply of C grade fruit and promote more fruit into the A grade. Is organic certification, or whole hearted Biodynamics in its pure form the solution, maybe not? However the concept of widespread semi-organics by adopting organic techniques to increase soil health, decrease the use of unnecessary farm inputs and push towards sustainability is attainable and attractive.

I am not suggesting we change the world, just look at what is happening in the region and see where we fit into it. We have made a reasonable start, now is the time to keep striving.

McLaren Vale’s prototype sustainable farming system – Generational Farming - will be launched October.

It has been put together with the voluntary time of Jock Harvey (Chalk Hill Viticulture), Kym Davey (Shingleback Wines), David Hansen (Fosters), Fiona Wood (Terraces Vineyard Management), Tony Hoare (Hoare Consulting) and Derek Cameron and James Hook (DJ’s Growers).

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dr AC Kelly 19th Century Hero - History of McLaren Vale - Part 2

Dr AC Kelly - The original winehero.
To quote Dr A C Kelly from Winegrowing in Australia published in 1867 -

'The time has come when the winegrowers of this colony must bestir themselves and boldly face the difficulties before them. They must be prepared to take their stand on the ground already occupied by the experienced winegrowers of Europe.

'All have a direct interest in each other's success, for according to the quality of wine produced for export will be our status as a winegrowing country.

'No petty jealousies need stand in the way of that friendly rivalry to produce the best wine which ought to be the endeavour of each winegrower.'

Now is here was a pioneer...

Alexander Charles Kelly (1811-1877), winegrower and medical practitioner, was born on 5 June 1811 at Leith, Scotland, son of John Kelly, agent of the British Linen Co.'s Bank, and his wife Margaret, née Porteus. Alexander was educated in France and Scotland, and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh (M.D., 1832). After practicing briefly in Scotland, he became a surgeon aboard the East India Co. ship Kellie Castle; he kept a vividly written and illustrated journal of the voyage from England to Bengal in 1833.

Later, Kelly visited Canada, where he became interested in the problems of popular education, then returned to Scotland and practiced medicine at or near Dunbar. Perhaps inspired by his brother Thomas Bell Kelly, who had migrated to South Australia in 1839, he followed, arriving in the Baboo on 11 March 1840. Kelly was enrolled as the twelfth name in the medical register of South Australia and set up at Port Adelaide. In June 1842 he was made resident dispenser at Adelaide Hospital. He bought 80 acres (32.4 ha) of land west of Morphett Vale, south of Adelaide; the official title was dated 21 August 1843, although he probably occupied the land earlier. Here he built his home, Trinity, and planted his first vineyard, about 1845.

On 1 November 1854 Kelly married Annie Frances Worthington, in the Church of Scotland, Morphett Vale. He drew on the writings of French and other European authorities, which he translated and commented on, for his first book, The Vine in Australia (Melbourne, 1861); it introduced wine chemistry and modern science to Australian winegrowers and was so popular that it was reprinted next year. His Wine-Growing in Australia (Adelaide, 1867) followed. Kelly's two influential books did much to establish Australian technical expertise in viniculture.

In November 1862 he and five of Adelaide's businessmen—(Sir) Thomas and Alexander Lang Elder, (Sir) Samuel Davenport, Robert Barr Smith and (Sir) Edward Stirling—formed the Tintara Vineyard Co., with Kelly as manager. Next year he sold Trinity to concentrate on clearing the 213 acres (86.3 ha) of heavily-timbered country near McLaren Vale which the trustees had bought in December 1862, and on planting vines, building cellars and, eventually, making mainly table wine. In 1871 Tintara shareholders sent him to London to search for new markets. The difficulties of an English market more accustomed to the strong, coarse wines of Spain and Portugal, financial depression in the colony and intercolonial tariffs that disadvantaged South Australian wines contributed to the demise of the company. In September 1877 it was announced that Thomas Hardy had purchased the vineyard, with 27,000 gallons (122,742 litres) of wine. The land was not transferred to Hardy until June 1878.

In 1868 Kelly had given articulate evidence before a parliamentary select committee on education reflecting his long-standing interest in the subject. A photographic portrait of him later in life showed a clear, kindly, open face with silvery hair and a full white beard. In 1876 he retired to his home at Norwood, where he died of bronchitis on 9 October 1877. He was buried in Clayton Chapel cemetery, Kensington, survived by his wife, three daughters and two sons, one of whom (John) was involved in the wine industry. An obituarist noted Kelly's 'obliging disposition . . . his kindness to people in straitened circumstances . . . high character, benevolence, and kindly genial manner'.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

McLaren Facts - Winemaking Behind the Scenes.

Hot town: McLaren Vale’s consistent warm summer climate and coastal proximity areis ideally suited to super premium winegrape production.
Seaview: McLaren Vale is one of the few areas in the world where grapes are grown so close to the ocean. Many of the best vineyards have a view to the Gulf of St Vincent.

Trad is rad: McLaren Vale has strong traditions. Our winemaking history dates back to 1838- with vines still in production from Dr AC Kelly’s original farm ‘Upper Tintara’ - section 605- hundred of the township of McLaren Vale. Old vines in McLaren Vale are responsible for wines that regularly win top awards around the world.

Big time: McLaren Vale is one of the top three producing regions in South Australia with 6,523 hectares of vines planted. Wine and tourism are the biggest employers in the area.

Black grape: The grapegrowers of McLaren Vale have a particular way of speaking about their produce. An old-time McLaren Vale grapegrower calls their red wine making fruit- ‘my black grapes’. Modern testing techniques have shown they are right! McLaren Vale produces some of the highest colour scores in grapes ever recorded. The grapes are not soft red like other regions when ripe they leave a purple stain.

Crush: The area has one major grape variety, Shiraz with 3,218 hectares planted. Other major varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon with 1,288 ha planted and, Chardonnay with 722 ha planted and Grenache with 402 ha - much of this as dry-grown bush vines.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Young but not in a hurry

Article in the Australian - 15/8/2009 -

If you want to taste the youthful enthusiasm pulsing through McLaren Vale's wine community right now, visit Justin McNamee at Samuel's Gorge.

This wonderfully quirky cellar-door hideout is in a converted 1850s barn on a sheer ridgetop overlooking the Onkaparinga River. With a low-walled garden, stone floors, ancient olive presses and tiny rooms stuffed with barrels of red wine, it’s a cross between a remote Sardinian shepherd’s hut and a Burgundian cellar. Like a wild-haired alchemist-philosopher, McNamee dispenses shots of energy and wisdom from behind a huge, chunky espresso machine plonked on the tasting counter.

“In the last few years all we've read about and heard about is the doom and gloom of the wine industry," he says, knocking back another short black. But that's not what I see in McLaren Vale. Here, there’s an explosion of young people saying, ‘Times are tough, but what can we do to change things around?’ And then just doing it. It’s f..king brilliant, I reckon.”

“Doing it” means, first, drought-proofing the region: as with almost 50 per cent of the vineyards in the Vale, the grapes at Samuel’s Gorge are irrigated with reclaimed wastewater. “Doing it” means throwing away the chemicals: close to a quarter of all the region’s vineyards are now farmed using organic and biodynamic methods. “Doing it” means both embracing the region’s traditions (McNamee’s grenache and shiraz are fermented in big old slate vats rescued from an overgrown paddock) and exploring new grapes such as tempranillo.

“It’s all about getting good grainy texture in the wines to counter McLaren Vale’s natural juiciness,” he says. “There’s been a lot of apathetic winemaking here in the past, during the boom times, because we get the sunshine, we get the sweet fruit. But mid-palate opulence is easy. Complexity’s the hard part.”

McNamee is building that complexity by carefully blending grapes from the Vale’s many distinct terroirs – “tar flavours from the seaside vines, spice from our own south-facing hillside vines, chunky fruit from the black, black clays” – and building structure through extended skin and lees contact. “I take my time,” he says. “It’s the Slow Food philosophy applied to wine. No rush.”

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A terrible waste of ink...

PR guff in the format of news. This article appeared in the Daily Wine News of 6/8/2009.

I have never been to Shoalhaven. Based on the misleading, misinformed information below, I never will. My comments are in bold italics below.

Shoalhaven Wineries lead the way in use of social media and harvest technologies

Shoalhaven wineries are leading the way in the use of social media in Australia to attract new visitors to wineries and investing heavily in new equipment in their ongoing quest to develop high quality, market leading wines.
Rajarshi Ray, owner of the dual branded Silos Estate and Wileys Creek wineries commented "We were the first winery in Australia to develop a Twitter presence, and this has attracted a whole new range of people – local and overseas — finding out about us and the South Coast region.

There have been many on Twitter who question this. They believe that Silos Estate was not the first to use this technology. 
Additionally Silos Estates only have 21 followers on Twitter and you do not follow anyone else. This would lead to questions on the validity of their social media credentials.

He added, "Earlier this year, we preceded this by being amongst the first wineries in Australia to have a Facebook and Skype presence. These tools allow us to engage with customers and visitors alike in an ongoing conversation about our wineries — and the wine region as a whole."
For context Silos Estates have 21 followers. Why is this news? Teusner Wines has 20x more followers, and would have a greater claim to be a proponent of using social media.

Further down the coast, Louise Cole, owner of Cambewarra Estate pointed to the use of mechanical harvesters for their picking season as key to the improvement in their wine quality in recent years. "Not only has the cost of labour been reduced, but most importantly the crushing can now be done on site before we send to our winemaker as picking is so much faster. This makes a dramatic difference to the quality of the end product," she said.

It has been so successful other winemaking regions are now using our equipment to make a similar level of improvement in their wines" she added.  

Machine harvesters have been used since the 1970's. That technology is older than I am. If you have just discovered it - congratulations, but please don't be offended if I tell you that this is irrelevent to the rank and file wine industry.

Sometimes there is an anger in me. I feel this 'news story' is Nero fiddling while Rome burns. There is real news out there.

Reply from Silos Estate:

Dear James,

We hope this e-mail finds you well.

We were doing some work this evening and came across your blog... and your notes. Certainly not our intention to mislead, but we were advised fairly early in the piece that we were the first winery to go for Twitter. We set up a Facebook page almost a year and a half ago, but were not sure about the technology... and indeed what it meant so we never discussed it. We were asked by several wine commentators to encourage other wineries to look at the use of socal technology... hence the comments in the press release.

The harvester comments are interesting and valid, but remember for small winery regions like the Shoalhaven... this does represent a big advance, as most of the time they are sending it offsite uncrushed and creating quality problems during transport. At a total regional crush of less than 500 tonnes at present, for wineries like Cambewarra this is a big advance (we only do 20 tonnes and it’s all hand picked but processed on site).

We wish you success with this years vintage (we have already had bud burst!) and look forward to reading more of your comments (for good or bad!) in future.

Your Hosts,

Sophie and Rajarshi

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Twitter wineries

Did you know the five wineries with most followers on Twitter are:

Great to see Teusner's so high on the list.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Horrible March of the Wine Aphid... Phylloxera

The Great French Wine Blight - The French countryside is dotted with Phylloxera crosses. Since nothing else appeared to stop its inexorable march, some viticulteurs turned to religion in a desperate attempt to rid the vines of this plague.

History Repeats?

There is a secret risk that could destroy the most valuable asset we have. There is a pest that can destroy old vines on their own roots. By historical accident the old vineyards in McLaren Vale, the Barossa, the Clare and Eden Valleys and Coonawarra have become the great survivors of this hidden plague.

These old vines have helped these wine regions continues to produce wines that are some of the best in the world. Wine producers like Wendouree, Henschke, Teusner, Kay Brothers and hundreds of grape growers are guardians of priceless old vines. These vines are now threatened.

The risk comes from a little aphid that only lives on the roots of grapevines, Phylloxera.

"THE PHYLLOXERA, A TRUE GOURMET, FINDS OUT THE BEST VINEYARDS AND ATTACHES ITSELF TO THE BEST WINES." Cartoon from Punch, September 6, 1890, by Edward Linley Sambourne (January 4, 1844–August 3, 1910).
The threat has always been with us (the Phylloxera aphid arrived in Australia circa 1877) but since it remained, against the odds, confined to the North Eastern Victoria and Nagambie areas for so long, it has dropped off many wine growers radars. Maybe it's the recent increase in plantings which has reduced the distance between vineyards, or maybe people became too casual with the protocols after getting away with living with the threat for so long but something has changed and Phylloxera has now quickly become a more immediate threat to all own rooted vineyards in Australia.

Phylloxera represents a clear and present danger to Australian vineyards now. For how serious this could be we only need to look back to history to show us how.

Phylloxera was thought to have arrived into Europe sometime around 1858, or 1860. It was introduced from North America. It can hardly be seen with the naked eye. There had been trade in grape stock between the two continents for over two hundred years previous, but no one had notice the grape aphid.

It is likely Phylloxera only became a problem in France after the invention of steamships. This new technology allowed a fast journey across the Atlantic ocean, allowing the Phylloxera to survive the trip. An increase in fast travel and between the continents made its introduction inevitable.

The French initially did not know what Phylloxera was doing to there vines, they just saw the effect, a sudden vine death which they likened to consumption. In 1863 the first cases had turned up in the old region of Languedoc.

They called it wine blight. This wine blight caused the entire course of French industry to change and is estimated to have cost double the repatriations the French had to supply Prussia after their losing war of 1870.

Such was Phylloxera speed and consequence as it spread through France and the rest of Europe it was likened to the black plague.
For many this might seem like an ancient history lesson, irrelevant with the pressures of a recession and environmental concerns like droughts and fires, but the parallels between the past and present seem obvious to me.

I am scared of a repeat. 

Around Australia phylloxera is clearly being mobilised. Previously confined to North Eastern Victoria Phylloxera is on the march. As mentioned Phylloxera was first detected in Australia in 1877, in Geelong, and was responsible for the near destruction of the Victorian wine industry in the 1880s. Until fairly recently it was confined to small areas in central Victoria (Nagambie, Upton, Mooroopna) and northeast Victoria (Rutherglen, King Valley), in southeast New South Wales (Corowa) and in Camden and Cumberland near Sydney. However, there have been several detections in central Victoria in the past 10 years (Buckland Valley 2003, Ovens Valley 2003, Murchison 2006, Yarra Valley 2006, Mansfield 2010).

1.   RED: Phylloxera Infested Zone (PIZ) known to have phylloxera
2.   GREEN: Phylloxera Exclusion Zone (PEZ) known to be free from phylloxera
3.   CREAM: Phylloxera Risk Zone (PRZ) phylloxera status unknown (but never detected)

South Australia now faces the imminent arrive of the blight. While their is a slight risk an increase in travel and tourism between our wine regions seeing Phylloxera breaking out of its containment in Victoria the main risk come from the wine industry itself. 

Recent changes to quarantine regulations are making it easier to transport grapevine material and machinery material from any PEZ (green zone in the map above) to any other PEZ. While this may seem well and good many of the Victorian PEZ regions have only recently been declared Phylloxera free. This has been the result of survey work conducted by the Victoria Department of Primary Industry (DPI).

For whose benefit is this change? Why the need to bring grapes and machinery direct from interstate, from regions which sit right alongside known Phylloxera Infested Zones (Red zones), into the heart of SA?

I have heard it suggested that large winegrowing companies will benefit moving grapes and machinery around the country, by making small savings in convenience, cost & paperwork. Victorian harvester companies moving machinery into SA will also benefit. The Victorian DPI will justify the millions of dollars spent on Phylloxera surveys. Australian Vine Improvement Association assists its nursery interests in selling material freely. 

It is not popular for me to say this, but I agree. 

Michelton, Vic (c) Phylloxera; Grape Industry Board of South Australia.
If phylloxera arrives from Victoria in my lifetime, I want to say that I did everything I could to highlight the risk of changing the rules  to place SA at greater risk.

I fear that as financial pressure is put on wine businesses corners are being cut. Vineyard hygiene is being cut back. This short term financial distraction could let a long term destruction slip through into South Australia.

An introduction of the aphid would cause a modern upset that would could rival the original for economic catastrophe. The original outbreak saw 40% of French vineyards devastated over a 15 year period, from the late 1850s to the mid 1870s. The French economy was badly hit by the blight; many businesses were lost, and wages in the wine industry were cut to less than half. Farmers were ruined.

Waves of immigrants moved to California and Algiers to start farming anew.

Remember that the rapid spread of the pest was in an era where the only fast travel between wine regions was by train, or river barge. It is notable that the spread of Phylloxera initially followed the main river valley of the Rhone from Languedoc to the centre of France.

Ironically in Tuscany the railways were blamed for the scourge. They called the railway a devils tool and thought it unnatural because it laid long tracks of iron into the soil. The Tuscan grape growers ripped up several miles of track in fear.

After a start in the Rhone Valley, the disease spread across the French Alps and across the Pyrenees. Bordeaux was also breached and by 1884 over a million hectares of French vineyards were dead or dying. As the plague spread, church bells were rung in alarm, anti-pest syndicates were formed, and a burn-or-perish approach was regretfully adopted.

It was not until 1868 that the French biologist Jules- Emile Planchon and two colleagues, chanced upon a group of Phylloxera sucking from the roots of a plant that a theory on the blight's cause by the Phylloxera was formed.

Once the cause of the problem was discovered, there was no apparent solution. A large cash prize was offered for a cure and many off-the-wall ideas were tested, but the prize was never awarded.

Removing and burning infested vines was only marginally effective in slowing the spread.

The only option to keep the wine industry going was suggested by two french wine growers, Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille, who both felt if European vines could be combined, by means of grafting, with the Phylloxera-resistant American vines, then the problem might be solved.

The process was colloquially termed "reconstitution" by French wine growers.

If Phylloxera came to McLaren Vale today, this remains the only solution. Our vineyards would have to be pulled up and replanted as grafted vines. Classic vineyards like Hill of Grace in the Eden Valley would have to be reconstituted because they will die from Phylloxera eating the vines roots.

A more recent lesson in the destructive abilities of Phylloxera is occurring now. Attempts in the 1960s by the viticulturists of the University of California to replace older rootstocks with the ominously named AxR1 rootstock. AxR1 performed wonderfully for a while, but a new strain of Phylloxera overcame its resistance. California experienced its own rapid outbreak, only now satellite and DNA technology was available to track the spread of infection, and Californian vineyards are now in the process of replanting at an estimated cost of between half a billion and a billion dollars.

While we do have the advantage, in modern times, in that we now know what causes the death of vines and how Phylloxera can be detected, you cannot put the gene back in the bottle. South Australia's hundred year old vineyards could be chewed up like their French forebears.

It would be introduced accidentally by a tourists boot or more likely a dirty tractor tire. It would take a few years to be noticed. We might have an advanced technology like satellite imagery to track its progress, but we would stand little better chance than out 19th Century compatriots of stopping a huge economic upheaval to an already stressed industry.

Like the steamships of old, the trucks on the highways could also bring with them a pest that can't be shaken - a ruinous aphid to claim the oldest remaining vines in the world.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Beginning - History of McLaren Vale - Part 1

Picking Grapes at Reynella in 1896 (c) SA Library

Reynella. They named a town after him He must have been pretty important in his day.

The story of Reynella is well known, as it should be, it is the first story in what compiled becomes the history 'McLaren Vale wine'. Of course at the start it was nothing so grand. There was no marketing, no parades and no wine shows, just one man, his wife and a section of land in the Hurtle Vale.

Even early in our wine history if you were into viticulture in South Australia you owed a debt to John Reynell. He was the first settler to fence his property, on of the first settlers to plant a vineyard and the first to dig a wine cellar. Most notably, in 1850, he took on a young man named Thomas Hardy to help him to tend to the vineyards. By the 1860's he had twenty odd vintages under his belt.

Reynell as a young man.
Fellow McLaren Vale wine pioneers Dr Alex C. Kelly and George Manning got their inspiration from John Reynell. The three regularly traded grape cuttings, wine and ideas.

Sir James Hardy, the great grandfather of Thomas Hardy, reflected in 1984, on the day that Thomas walked down John Reynell's driveway and asked for a job. He wondered what they would have thought about the wonders of 1980's wine technology.

Sir James said,"I wonder what they would have thought about what we are doing today..."

I would answer, they would have been amazed by our technology, but we should be equally amazed that they made grape growing work without it, in a hostile land, without anything more complicated than a horse, cart and hand tools. These were flesh and blood people. Creative, bold and daring.

I think John would be amazed we remember him.

A pruning demonstration in Reynella in 1923 (c) SA Library.

The first vintage John Reynell produced was in 1842, in a time before yeast was discovered and he built the Old Cave cellar in 1845. This was his low tech version of temperature control.

The cellar survives in part of the grounds of Constellations Wines Australia Head Office.

John Reynell was born in Bristol, England, on February 9, 1809. After his father’s death when he was only 14, Reynell left England and worked in Egypt, America, Europe and Russia. He worked to better himself.

At age 29 he emigrated to South Australia, arriving in 1838. He had a shipboard romance and married fellow-passenger, Mary Lucas, in 1839.

Reynell's tough working life had given him a strong sense of resourcefulness. He was a capable, strong minded man, and with the support of his wife, he was an ideal pioneer.

John Reynell's own letters claim he was the first settler to enclose his entire 80-acre (32 ha) section of settlement land. A little later he had to cut his fences to allow for the alignment of a proposed road for the passage of a regular mail run to Encounter Bay which was established by the end of 1839.

The path that the mail route took became the 'Great South Road,' now Main South Road.

In 1841, Reynell began the planting of his vineyard with cuttings he had planted the year earlier at a temporary site on the banks of the Field River, now part of the suburb of Hallett Cove.

His first vineyard was called Stony Hill and he would have planted his vines as one year old rootlings. The next year he continued planting his farm establishing vineyards on his home farm which is now the winery site across the road.

By 1854 there was a demand for land for housing in the area and in February of that year, John Reynell drew up a Notice of Sale for a portion of his Reynella Farm for the establishment of the township of Reynella.

Reynell subdivided his farm and they named the town after his wine label.

By 1866 the town had a steam flour mill, hotel, post office, general store, school and chapel. However by the end of the Nineteenth Century as many farmers had moved to the Northern agricultural lands, Reynella was said to be "a village of the past, as several ruined houses along the road remain to testify.”

John Reynell died in 1873 and is buried at Christ Church, O’Halloran Hill. His sons, Walter and Carew Reynell, took over the wine production.

In the 1950s and 60s the town of Reynella became engulfed in urban expansion and has become largely a residential area. In a twist of fate, the company former Reynell employee Thomas Hardy created, Thomas Hardy and Sons, ended up purchasing the Reynella Winery in 1982.

Stony Hill Vineyard pictured in 2009 before it was subdivided into housing.
Ironically, today there a much debate today about plans to subdivide Reynell's original Stony Hill Vineyard, together with Reynella home block they have lasted into the modern age. The buildings are heritage listed, but Stony Hill has become separated.

The value of buildings can be measured, however old farming land less so. What value does the efforts of the Reynell's have? What value is the site where Thomas Hardy sweated in the summer sun, while John Reynell taught him how to weed using a horse drawn plough? On pure economics very little.

As a vineyard those original vines Reynell planted have long since gone. The Stony Hill vineyard has replacable stock, the oldest current vines date back to 1968. The vineyard no longer has significant value as a farm. Yet it remains as a link to a pioneer who we all owe so much. At the very least it is a living link to a man to took pride in his resourcefulness.

In today's wine world the name Reynella survives as the Chateau Reynella wine range and other similarly named products from Constellation Wines Australia.

More obtusely Geoff Merrill Wines also remembers those pioneering days as his Mt Hurtle Winery. Mt Hurtle was purchased by Mostyn Owen in 1897 and named after the original name for the wider Reynella area - Hurtle Vale. Geoff Merrill was the winemaker for Chateau Reynella during the 1980's and is a living link between the pioneering winemakers and the present age.


Burden, Rosemary – Wines & Wineries of the Southern Vales (Adelaide 1976)
Reynell, Lenore & Margaret Hopton – John Reynell of Reynella: A South Australian Pioneer (Adelaide 1988)
Hardy, Sir James - Age Newspaper, Oct 23 (Melbourne 1984)
White, Philip - (2009)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Winter weather - Winemaking Behind the Lens.

The Kuitpo region is a beautiful area, but it is cold at the moment. Many mornings have a frosty start which melts as the sun rises.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Top Wines Revisited...

In interesting re-visit, three years ago I wrote about the turning of the tide towards small producers in McLaren Vale. I picked my top eight Shiraz's from McLaren Vale that no one had ever heard of…

I mused that they were going to become regarded as some of Australia’s best.

Ambitiously I put Lazy Ballerina on the list. I will leave you, the reader to judge how Lazy has performed.

Of the others, with three years hindsight I can look at these predictions to see how they have gone.

Thomas Vineyard Estate -

This winery picked up a swag of awards for its 2004 wines, and this has continued with its later releases. Despite this it is still not a very well known wine, it is often confused with the wines of the late Wayne Thomas, but it has had strong reviews from Huon Hooke which has lead to distribution in the Eastern states.

2004 Shiraz accolades included;

Top 100 Blue-Gold Winner. 2007 Sydney International Wine Show
Gold Medal. 2006 Royal National Wine Show of Australia
Silver medal. Rated 13th best Shiraz - 2006 Visy Great Australian Shiraz Challenge
Gold medal. 2005 Commonwealth Bank McLaren Vale Wineshow
Silver medal. Rated 7th best Shiraz - 2007 Visy Great Australian Shiraz Challenge
Gold Medal/Outstanding Wine. 2007 Winewise Small Vinerons Awards
Bronze Medal. 2008 International Wine & Spirits Fair London

That is an impressive list. Very few wines would achieve these level of awards, let alone the first wine from a small semi-retired grapegrowers.

A pro. Since 2004 Adam Hooper has picked up a Decanter World Wine Trophy Winner (2005 Shiraz Grenache) & McLaren Vale Best Boutique Trophy Winner (2005 Shiraz). Hooper’s winemaking is as cutting edge as anyone, anywhere and he continues to push the boundaries of winemaking as far as anyone in the industry is prepared to go.
Within two to three years I think La Curio will for fill the prediction of being one of Australia’s best.

2004 Shiraz accolades
Gold Australia Small Winemakers Show
Silver McLaren Vale Wine Show


Picked up some good reviews from Winestate in its initial year. Produced a promising follow up in 2005, but owners Jon and Claire Wright have since concentrated on grape production and no further wines have been produced. Fathen is on hold looking to re-emerge when the vintages are more favourable.

Paul Petagna.
Petagna with phone and pressure gauge.

Paul Petagna behind is behind Piombo and Sellicks Hill Wines. After the 2004 Piombo Paul became a darling of followers of the Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker and Dr Jay Miller, exporting to the US almost exclusively, making full flavoured wines and getting full flavoured scores.

Sounds ideal? Not quite. Paul’s wines were overpriced in the US – calling gouging – by an importer and with the downturn in the US economy the market couldn’t sustain this.

The upside of Global Financial turmoil is that more wines are now available at home, rather than produced and sold for export only.

With a focus on the domestic market you will hear a lot more about Paul’s activities.

Windrow Chellaston Close

A ‘micro’ wine enterprise – a single vineyard special with the wine made from fruit from a single Sellicks foothill block. Unfortunately the vineyard was sold in 2007 and that has curtailed the wine.

We will never know if this wine would have reached its potential.

Pertaringa Undercover -

The winery has been owned and operated for three decades by two of the McLaren Vale most well-known and respected viticulturists, Geoff Hardy and Ian Leask.

It has been a sleeper.

90/100 The Wine Advocate
Silver medal – Royal Melbourne Wine Show 2005 (Class 20)
Trophy Decanter Magazine.

Inkwell produces single vineyard wines. Dudley Brown and his wife Karen arrived in McLaren Vale from Newport Beach, California in 2003 and established Inkwell. They took a rundown vineyard and quickly pushed it into the vitcultural limelight.

Then they were thrown a curveball when, in a freaky coincidence, a UK based wine merchant started to produce an unrelated ‘Inkwell’ wine. Confusion about who had the name first delayed the release of the original McLaren Vale Inkwell for 18 months.

Inkwell is now starting to get some traction with Campbell Mattinson writing - "A name to watch - and we also notice that grapes grown on this vineyard made it into Chapel Hill's top flight 2007 Vicar Shiraz. All the signs here are good.”

Pertaringa has a wide distribition and has continued to go about the business of making high quality wine. Fathen and Windrow have become casualties of the wine industry and we don’t know what these wines could have done.

Of our truly small winery predictions list perhaps La Curio has the biggest profile amongst the cult wine fraternity.

Thomas Vineyard Estate
is the most awarded winery here and if this continues the Thomas's are set to get an increasing share of attention. To go the the next level may prove difficult but any distributors reading this should give them strong consideration. You can't get better quality and more awards from such a small producer.

Now free of overseas issues Petagna Wines and Inkwell are looking likely to do the same. Watch this space.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Big Red Wine Book.

Latest News...

Top 25 Shiraz of the Year - Big Red Wine Book by Campbell Mattinson and Gary Walsh

#1 Penfolds Grange 2004 / #5 Chapel Hill Vicar Shiraz / #14 Lazy Ballerina Reserve Shiraz

The review says - Mattinson sneaked a bottle of this into a tasting of elite shiraz, all to be judged by a panel of elite wine professionals. The wines ranged from $25 to $200 per bottle and the identity of each wine was masked. Many picked this wine as their favourite!

Because it is a small-run this will sell fast - at least, go to the website and get yourself on the mailing list.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Whatever happened to Balmoral Syrah?

I was looking at quoff wine and came across the following review of Balmoral Syrah 2002.

“What the heck happened? Who knows, not just with the 2002 Balmoral, but the whole product line and brand.

The wine has gone from being a top shelf, desirable icon to just another $20 wine in Dan Murphy's in 2007... No further releases since?


I was searching for this wine because I had a conversation with a Fosters Employee who did not know that the 2002 Balmoral, previously an McLaren Vale Icon, was discounted to $20.00 per wine in a 6 pack in 2007. They were insistent I was wrong, however I looked on the net and found this article from TORB is 2007

I am curious? Where did it go? Will it come back?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

McLaren Vale Yield Prediction

Based on the information we have at hand we can have an estimate of the total tonnage crushed in the McLaren Vale GI.

Some blocks have picked as high as 4 tonnes to the acre, 10 tonnes to the hectare, but more commonly they have been between 1.5 tonnes and to 2 tonnes to the hectare, 3.7 tonnes to 5 tonnes to the hectare.

Our estimate is 35,000 tonnes for the region, this is slightly up from vintage 2007 but down 25,000 tonnes from vintage 2008. The record crush for McLaren Vale was in 2004 at approximately 72,000 tonnes.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Winemaking at RedHeads Studio - Winemaking Behind the Lens.


Mitch Ramhanie works on the grape crush, while Chad Smith gets reddened up taking the ferment stats.