Standing in amongst the gnarled bush vine grenache of the Wait Vineyard in Blewitt Springs, you can be forgiven for thinking that modern consumer behaviours seem like a long way away. Yet, it’s here in the McLaren Vale hills that the face of Australian wine is quietly evolving.
For decades, the industry has been dominated by the ‘cult of the winemaker’, with growers, vineyards and terroir playing second fiddle to the success of a label (and the name behind it). But now a connection with a vineyard is more relevant than ever – mirroring a focus on provenance and the ‘conscious consumerism’ movement. Vineyards are brands in their own right and attention is falling on those who tend them.
“People want to know where a product comes from,” says Robyn Smith, who runs the McLaren Vale property that her great grandfather first purchased back in 1926.
“I think that applies across a lot of farming, whether it’s wine or anything – even sheep. People want to know where a lamb chop is from”.
This move to increased transparency has seen the Wait Vineyard plot credited on wines, including Wirra Wirra’s Absconder Grenache, the Dodgy Bros Juxtaposed Old Vine Shiraz and the Jericho Grenache.
“Getting your name on the label is pretty cool!” quips Smith.
It’s more than just Wait Vineyard. The high quality of grower fruit – especially grenache – from neighbouring properties is changing production in the area.
“Blewitt Springs was never anywhere”, says Smith. “But in the last 10 years, we have noticed that it has become a [noteworthy] place, not just somewhere in McLaren Vale”.
What’s also changed is who’s buying Wait Vineyard fruit. Historically it would have been snapped up by big companies, but now it’s primarily boutique producers:
“We have lots of small parcels, which works fine for those guys who might take a portion, like half a tonne,” she says. “I would much prefer to deal with the smaller guys, much better than just a visit from another grower liaison. With them, you know where they are at, and they tend to trust us. We probably get on better with our winemakers than ever before”.
Peter Bolte takes Wait Vineyard fruit, with partners Peter Sommerville and Dr Wes Pearson, to release wines under the Dodgy Brothers label. But Bolte is also a consultant viticulturist and grape broker, working with makers and growers from around McLaren Vale. He’s seen demand increase for premium fruit from these top grower vineyards – especially grenache.
“There is certainly a lot of competition between the smaller producers looking for any quality of grenache, but particularly the high-quality old vine material,” he says.
“Grenache is without a doubt going to be the hero for McLaren Vale well into the future and will hopefully go some way towards replacing shiraz as the identifying variety of the region.”
However, clouds dot the horizon.
“The biggest single issue in the Vale will be the impact the Chinese tariffs will have on the industry for many years to come,” he says.
“I suspect demand, and hence prices for premium B grade fruit, in particular, will plummet over the next few years, and as a fruit broker, I expect to be bombarded with desperate growers trying to find buyers for their fruit. This, after many years of having almost no excess fruit available in the region”.
The key for the best growers is to focus on uncompromising quality; you only need to look over the border to the Malakoff Vineyard in the Pyrenees to see this.
A finalist in the inaugural Young Gun of Wine Australian Top Vineyards in 2020, this 20-year-old vineyard has gained a particular reputation as one of Victoria’s key grower sources for nebbiolo and fine cool-climate shiraz.
Like Wait, the name Malakoff is now prominent on labels. Some 27 different producers take grapes from the vineyard, including Brown Brothers, Latta Vino, Willow Creek, SubRosa, Lethbridge, Fletcher, Vino Intrepido and Ben Haines.
The critical issue for owner Robert John, who runs the property with son Cameron and daughter-in-law Steph, is about meeting demand.
“The biggest challenge at the moment is to ensure that we can meet our supply requests in line with the winery orders”, says John.
“You have to make sure that when it comes to the end of the harvest and our last picks, that you haven’t run out of fruit or have fruit leftover.”
To ensure that everyone is catered for, John has an exacting system of fruit estimations, where volume is calculated per vine and extrapolated over the whole vineyard. This precise system of measurement is especially vital for the vineyard’s revered nebbiolo.
Whether it’s building an insulated storage shed to ensure that picked grapes are kept in optimum conditions or the grafting over of shiraz for more nebbiolo, tempranillo and sangiovese, there’s a sense of restless progression that surrounds Malakoff, too, and it translates into the reputation of the fruit.
“We have no plans to establish a winery ourselves, and we have a philosophy that it’s best to do one thing really well, and in our case it’s growing grapes, and letting our winemakers make the wine”, John explains.
One producer who has used Malakoff fruit with great success is Young Gun Of Wine finalist James Scarcebrook, with his label Vino Intrepido, which is focused on Italian varieties.
Interestingly, he ended up with Malakoff fruit almost by accident.
“In the 2017 vintage, only my second, I had lost my sangiovese mid-vintage and needed to find a replacement. I almost got some from the Grampians, but then the vineyard manager suggested I contact Robert John about some nebbiolo from the Pyrenees,” he explains.
“It probably wasn’t until after I had bottled the wine that it occurred to me that it was the famed Malakoff Vineyard!”
Scarcebrook belongs to a growing class of newer producers who don’t own vineyards and rely on grower fruit. For them, it’s impossible to ignore the quality draw of vineyards like Malakoff.
For Scarcebrook and others, the connection between fruit and site is key.
“I’ll always visit the vineyard to get a sense of the place and how the grower is working, and I think about my experiences visiting regions in Italy and what style of wine the particular site might be suited to”, he says.
“This vintage, for the first time, I made wine from a vineyard where the grower approached me, which I think means I’m doing something right”.
It’s impossible to underestimate the value of that relationship between grower and winemaker. It’s an age-old dance, often characterised unfairly as a farmer selling off fruit to wealthy wineries, when the reality for top growers like John and Smith is more of a mutually beneficial relationship hinged on respect.
At Oakridge in the Yarra Valley, growers are treated almost like family.
“Everyone here in the Valley seems to be related”, says Oakridge winemaker David Bicknell.
“We’ve all worked together, studied together, it’s pretty tight. So we tend to have mature relationships between winemakers and growers as it’s ultimately a small place”
While Bicknell has been moving to control more and more vineyard resources through purchases and long-term leases, he is very aware of the need to support growers.
“When times get tough, we will go over and above to take every berry from our growers. In years such as 2020 or 2011, it’s out of everyone’s hands. We can’t control the weather. If you want to keep the growers in business, you do the same thing”.
Oakridge’s Local Vineyard Series wines have notably been a celebration of Yarra Valley growers. Still, it is arguably the Willowlake Vineyard releases that have gained the most interest – so much so that it has now made Willowlake a named vineyard in itself.
“Willowlake is an interesting one as we feel like we put them on the map,” he says.
Planted at Gladysdale in the Upper Yarra, this 40-year-old plot is known for its premium pinot noir and chardonnay, and forms part of a protected area of the Yarra known for consistent quality.
“It’s a vineyard that performs even when the conditions are against it. It’s metronomic in what it does,” notes Bicknell.
There are some politics around such a prized site, however.
“We’ve tried to take all the Willowlake fruit, but the owner wants to mitigate risk by having a number of clients. Plus, why would I shaft friends who also use that fruit by pushing for more?”
No matter which region, there will always be tensions over coveted fruit from named vineyards (particularly between the old guard and the young guns).
Ultimately, it counts for little, as Bicknell explains: “We can complain about guys blowing in and just taking fruit. But in the end, you are going to get judged by what’s in the bottle, and that’s all that matters.”