We throw open the winery doors to expose the barrels to the clean air and gentle warmth, the first sunlight they have seen since the end of vintage. Nervous tastings follow, this is the first real chance to see how the previous vintage has performed, and there are careful notes written about flavours, and keen analysis of those expensive new oak barrels we chose so carefully.
So often we wonder what on earth we were so worried about at vintage; the wines are looking bright and vibrant, and they just need that quick racking and more time to develop in the barrel.
The vines are a sea of electric green, and we haunt the vineyard every spare moment we have, thinning and de-suckering the vines as they progress through budburst. The first to come away are the Burgundian varieties, exposing their tender shoots to the cool nights, then follow the Rhône vines.
The cover crops are slashed and ploughed to enrich the soil, and the whole vineyard smells of fresh earth, a powerful, primitive scent. The shoots spring away as the season gets into full gear, and we spend our days training the vines and moving the trellis wires that support them against strong, cleansing northern winds.
Flowering begins and we pray for calm weather; it’s a time to stand back and leave nature in control, and maybe get some fellow winemakers together for another barrel tasting and a good argument. With luck, the fruit has set and we are on the way to vintage!
The harbingers of vintage have arrived, an advanced guard of currawongs and crows that show up each morning, have a taste of the berries, and make a note of when to return for the ripe fruit. We have two resident families of magpies (nicknamed the Capulets and Montagues) and the summer birds drive them crazy. The pies are here all year round and are very territorial about their vineyards.
The vines grow like triffids at the start of summer, then slow down at the turn of the New Year and start feeding sugar into the grape bunches, and suddenly veraison is upon us. Once the berries colour and soften, the birds can strip whole rows in a day, so we panic to get the nets onto the rows, roping in fellow vignerons with the promise of helping with their own nets.
Any wet summer days are spent racking the previous year’s barrels, and completing bottling of the vintage before that, so the winery smells of sweet wet oak and spilled wine. There is a brief rest period after the nets are on and before vintage starts, so it’s the time to check all the vintage gear, service the vehicles and take a deep breath before the marathon of winemaking and cleaning commences.
Summer ends with daily checks of the sugar levels of each parcel of grapes, much thoughtful chewing of grapes and stems, and last-minute decisions about ripeness and picking dates. We watch the weather forecasts carefully, and check the nets every day for intruders.
When we cross paths with other winemakers while collecting the mail or buying bread, we compare Baumé numbers and thoughts on phenolic ripeness, and everyone asks, “Have you started picking yet? I hear Fred down the hill is underway”.
And suddenly the game is afoot. Chardonnay is always the first to ripen, and one of the chardonnay clones in particular is the signal variety that tells us vintage is on. The search for pickers begins, and we line up a team for 7am, so we are picking as soon as it gets light enough to see, and avoid as much of the heat of the day as possible.
My poor wife comes out and helps pick before heading in to get ready for her office job, which makes a hell of a day for her, but such is farm life at vintage. Pickers are the soul of vintage, and we love their conversation, banter and ability to just get on with the job, no matter the weather or number of stinging insects.
By 10am the pickers are done, we’ve had a cuppa and the dirty work begins in earnest. The grapes are picked into small tubs, which are collected on a trailer and loaded into the winery. They are crushed, destemmed and pressed, accompanied by endless tasting of the grapes and juice. “Do you get pineapple, guava and gooseberry?”; “No, I was thinking lemon/lime, maybe a bit of honeysuckle.” Juice is tasted, the numbers are analysed for pH, TA and Baumé, and we get to see how accurate our sampling was before picking.
By late afternoon we are back out taking off nets, putting out picking tubs and getting the winery set for the next picking day. And so it continues until the last of the shiraz is picked, three or four weeks later. Autumn ends with a winery full of filled barrels, and a very tired team of winemakers. We grab a quick holiday at the beach to wash away the stress of vintage, and thank the wine gods for every barrel that is put to bed and beginning its long journey to finished wine.
All the wines are resting, and the vineyard is bare of leaves, so the pruning begins. It is the most wonderful, meditative process; shaping the vines for a productive coming season, and setting the crop level based on vigour. The vineyard is beautiful in winter with gleaming frost to start the day, and a great variety of bird and animal life to keep us company.
Last year we had an echidna follow us along the rows while pruning, and come right up to our boots for a sniff. We hope he returns this year. Flame and scarlet robins flit between the wires, while the Montagues and Capulets continue their wars, and make sure the mudlarks aren’t getting a foothold in their territory.
And such is a year in the life of a vigneron. It’s not an easy life, but no life worth living is easy.