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Wine

An organic matter

There is little doubt the organics movement is sweeping the world, particularly in relation to food. The reasons for this are simple – the belief that organic food not only tastes better, but is better for you and for the environment given it is sustainably farmed. When it comes to the wine world, the same fervent push of the organic movement is no less forceful, it’s just taken longer to catch on.

Mark Davidson, Managing Director and Chief Winemaker of Australia’s largest organic wine producer, Tamburlaine Organic Wines, reckons he knows why – a lack of understanding of organics in wine production, and a difficulty in breaking down long held practices in viticulture.

While conventional viticulture uses chemical fertilizers annually to maintain grape yields, and pesticides to indiscriminately kill bugs, organic farming only uses natural biodegradable inputs and treats bugs with a range of beneficial biodiversity such as companion plants and good bugs.

“At its heart, organic viticulture is about improving the health of soils naturally,” says Mark. “It’s about restoring organic matter, which is the home for moisture and microbiology in soils – that’s what makes soils and vines healthy.”

Conventional to contemporary

While Mark is a flag bearer for organic farming, he hasn’t always been. When he first started in winemaking at Tamburlaine in the Hunter Valley in the mid 80s, he too used conventional farming.

“I came in fairly naively, thinking the chemical providers to the wine industry must have identified what works and what doesn’t. But they didn’t always work and every time they didn’t, there was an excuse,” explains Mark.

“We have some challenging soils in the Hunter and I’d made 14 years of chemical applications to improve soils, but without much effect. So what was the alternative? That’s when I started thinking organics.

“After a long period of vineyard observation and trials, in 2002 we took the first steps toward organic certification for some of our Hunter Valley blocks. This meant a full management program which replaced synthetic chemicals, improved soil organic matter and simulated the vines’ natural defences.”

It was hard work. While there was some limited information on organic farming, hardly any of it was in relation to the wine industry, so Mark’s work into organic viticulture was pioneering. And viewed as somewhat risky.

“People thought I had lost it,” he says. “But it actually reminds me of the period when Australia changed to screw caps. Winemakers around the world thought we were mad. Nowadays, science and quality of wines aged under stelvin have proven we were right to ditch cork. I am confident it will be the same with organic winemaking. When you step back, it is really sound contemporary thinking.”

Scientifically sound

The other challenge to convincing people about organic wines is that it’s not just a bunch of hippies growing grapes and trying to make them into wine without any winemaking knowledge.  

“Twenty years ago, what had been produced in the name of organics was not necessarily good stuff,” Mark says. “But that has got nothing to do with what we do today in terms of contemporary organics farming. There is a whole lot of background science to this – it is not just some ethereal feel good philosophy.

“Science has moved quickly in our direction in providing biodegradable certified organic products for vineyards and wineries. So now there are many more tools at our disposal to make top class wine.

“I know that, so does Vanya Cullen (from Cullen Wines) in West Australia, Chester Osborn (d’Arenberg), Prue Henschke and various professionals around the country, and the world, are moving this way.

“We’re all enthused not only about the outcomes, but how practically and effectively we can farm using contemporary organic systems because science is providing improved solutions.

“So we’ve got the answers now that we didn’t have 10 years ago, to prove what we know benefits the vines without using inputs that are potentially destructive to soil. As far as sustainable viticulture goes, we now have the answers.”

Better wines

With 14 hectares of vines in the Hunter certified organic and 200 hectares recently certified in the Orange wine region, Tamburlaine’s award-winning wines are proof that organic winemaking is not only viable, but is the way of the future. Ultimately, consumers will decide by buying wines they love. But if you ask Mark two questions about his experience with organic winemaking at Tamburlaine Organic Wines, it is convincing.

Are the soils better, now?

“Yes, more organic matter and better pH –  they’re the two measureables.”

Are the wines better?

“Absolutely. The wines we are making are better than ever. And, they are of consistent quality, and that’s really important.”

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Fingerprints on history: The McWilliam’s story
At the heart of the history of McWilliam’s Wines is a culture of innovation that’s not only ingrained in the company, but has rippled out through the wider industry. Taste aside, why is wine so special? Is it because it’s the accumulation of much more than just simple liquid in a glass? Is it just where it came from and who made it? Or is it the sum total of its many essential components? However elusive the answer to that question is, one thing is clear; when it comes to wine, history will always have a significant impact on the future. Few families that have shaped the Australian wine landscape like the McWilliam family. The pioneering spirit that built the past has translated through six generations and has shaped a wine business that has innovation, drive and legacy stitched into its DNA.
Samuel’s Fate The first steps of the McWilliam’s path were taken by Samuel McWilliam when he set foot on Australian soil from Northern Ireland in 1857. At that time, wine in Australia was well on its way, but it was all about fortified wine, and as there was no electricity or refrigeration, it was a tough and labour intensive way to survive. However tough, wine became the future for the McWilliam family when Samuel travelled up the Murray River with his wife Martha and family and settled in Corowa. He called his property ‘Sunnyside’ and his neighbours just happened to be another famous Australian pioneering wine family, the Lindemans.  “The family’s fate was sealed,” describes Samuel’s great-great-grandson, Jeff McWilliam. “Samuel took what learnings he could from his neighbours and set about making fortified wines on his vineyard.” Second Gen Pioneers Around this time, the fortified industry was under threat, with phylloxera decimating Victorian vineyards. Two of Samuel’s sons, John James (JJ) and Thomas had the foresight to move from Corowa with the intention of establishing disease-free vineyards. Just before the turn of the century, the brothers established ‘Mark View’ a vineyard and property in Junee, just north of Wagga. A few years later, Samuel passed away and his three daughters, Eliza, Rose May and Mary, returned to make wine at Sunnyside, becoming among Australia’s first female winemakers, further cementing the family’s passion for wine.
JJ and Sons Blaze the Trail In 1913, JJ and one of his four sons, Jack, took 50,000 of their vine cuttings and headed to Griffith and became the first in the region to plant and establish grapes. This move solidified the McWilliam name as true pioneers and innovators, as such, the Riverina is now an undisputed wine powerhouse, growing 15% of Australia’s total production.   When asked in a newspaper interview why he’d chosen this region, JJ said, “The Riverina offers all a man has ever dreamed of – sunshine, great soils and water.”  Here’s the thing, when JJ and Jack arrived in Griffith, it was pre-irrigation, yet the father and son team was so determined that this was the future of Australian wine, they spent months carting water to quench their nursery vineyard. 
Growth and Innovation. As the McWilliam family grew and set deeper roots in NSW, the business evolved and the innovative nature of the family flourished. JJ and Jack toiled away establishing their vineyards and building the winery, which was completed in 1917.  The winery became known as Hanwood and remains today as the family’ primary production facility and is still the beating heart of McWilliam’s. Hanwood was built next to a planned railway, so the wine could be easily transported to Sydney, but after the state failed to follow through on construction, Jack’s brother Doug decided to build another winery at Yenda, where the railway was eventually built. With a direct route to the Sydney market, further innovation was around the corner. “With the growth of production came the need to sell more wine. Jack and Doug’s brother, Keith believed the family needed to build their brand, so Keith, a bit of a self-taught marketer, decided to take on the job,” says Jeff. “He worked with wine merchants, opened our Sydney cellars, he had trucks with our name on the side, going over the top to build the brand and promote what is now packaged, branded wine.” Keith also opened wine bars in Sydney close to the city and transport hubs. “People tell me they remember the wine bar at Strathfield station,” says Jeff. “They actually got off the train, changed to another train and had a port or a sherry on the way through.” Jack’s youngest brother Glen also contributed to the family’s innovation by designing and building ‘The McWilliam’s Drainer’, wine equipment that separates the juice from the skins and is still used today in wineries all over Australia. Glen’s many achievements include bringing new table wine varieties to the region and making Australia’s first botrytis wine in 1958, a style that is now synonymous with Australia’s identity.
Investing in the industry  At the turn of the 20th century the Australian wine engine was fuelled by fortified wines, but there were small pockets of table wines being made. One was in the Hunter Valley. At Mount Pleasant, winemaker Maurice O’Shea was crafting distinctive wines that Keith McWilliam saw great potential in. As Maurice had little means of selling his wines, and needed finances to continue, Keith invested in Mount Pleasant. Maurice O’Shea went on to produce some of Australia’s greatest table wines, inspiring winemakers to this day. McWilliam’s maintains O’Shea’s legacy by making wines that carry his name and in 1990 initiated the Maurice O’Shea Award. Presented to an individual or group that has made a significant contribution to the industry, it is regarded as the most prestigious award in Australian wine. It is a rare thing that a company will actively reward and promote its competitors. But the O’Shea Award openly reflects McWilliam’s commitment to an industry they have helped shape for over 100 years.  Events + McWilliam’s Dinner Series McWilliam’s, in partnership with Selector, is hosting a series of special dinners reflecting its iconic history and the wines creating its future. Canberra in October, then Brisbane in November with more cities to follow. Visit wineselectors.com.au/events for more info.
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Meet Bruce Tyrrell from Tyrrell's Wines
Tell us about your back ground: How did you come to work for Tyrrell’s Wines? I was born into it, so have been here all my life, from chasing cattle and being a bloody nuisance until my teens and then working in all parts of the winery and vineyard. No school or university holidays ever. How is the 2018 vintage shaping up? We’ve started harvest earlier than last year, and the berries are smaller from the dry winter, spring and early summer. First real flavours coming the week of the January 8 th  and there looks to be a smaller overall crop, but it’s a bit early for a quality call. It might be another 2007. What varietal is looking ‘the goods’ for Tyrrell’s wine lovers? Semillon still runs in our blood stream and with the range of top vineyards we now own or control, we have a style for most palates. There has been a big jump in our Chardonnays in the last 10 years, so they are also worth a look. Do you have a favourite wine to make? Semillon, because it is all about getting the soil, season and maturity right in the vineyard. It is the most naturally made wine. Can you recall the first wine you tried? We used to be given a bit of wine with water from about the age of six or seven years old. As we got older the water became less and so we were weaned into table wine from an early age. When did you fall in love with wine? After the third bottle of great Burgundy…but I fell in love with everything that night! Do you remember that moment? What happened? I don’t really remember, but had lots of lawyers’ letters accusing me of all sorts of things. What is your all-time favourite wine memory (other than a wine itself)? Standing in the vineyard at Romanee-Conti and being part of sharing a double magnum of 1865 Chateau Lafitte. What is your ultimate food and wine match? Aged Semillon and fresh seafood caught locally. Can you cook? If so, what is your ‘signature dish’? Not really when the specialty is vegemite on toast! What do you do to relax away from the winery? I love to go to the beach or more recently, playing with my grandson and undoing all his parents’ good work. What do you think is special about the Hunter Valley region? Nowhere else is like the Hunter. The conditions can be tough, but that builds character and initiative. The styles are fine and elegant, but have the ability to live in the bottle which is the hallmark of a great area.
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Diversity in Wine
Words by Michael Davey on 8 May 2018
Diversity is a word that sits well with Australian wine. The continent is large, with a vast range of soils and climates. We also have a wide range of cultures, which are most evident in the food we share, and the wine we drink.  In the 1990s, Australia was known for predictable, consistent, mass-market, well priced, flavoursome wines. Predictable and consistent are great when you turn on a tap, not when you open a bottle of wine. The past two decades have seen Australians embrace the new and the different. This change parallels Corrina Wright’s winemaking career. Fifteen years ago, she was responsible for producing 18 million bottles annually of Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay. Upon returning to her family’s McLaren Vale vineyard, Oliver’s Taranga Vineyard, the technical, hands-on discipline of Lindemans gave way to a low intervention, hands-off approach. At home, this sixth generation winegrower quickly made her mark, producing exemplary regional wines, particularly Shiraz . But rather than letting this define her, Corrina turned her hand to crafting a diverse selection of alternative varietals including Fiano , Vermentino , Mencia and Sagrantino . “We have ultimate freedom here to do whatever we want. We did our homework and planted heat and drought tolerant varieties, with high natural acidity.”  It was a fine old Barolo that piqued Garry Crittenden’s interest in Italian wines. He tasted widely, read up on Italian wine growing and making methods, then took a pioneering study trip to Piedmont in 1992. The following year, Garry launched his cleverly branded ‘i’ range of Italian varietals with a Great Western-grown Dolcetto. Meanwhile, Brown Brothers were growing a diverse selection of alternative varieties in their nursery vineyard. These were vinified in small, experimental batches in their ‘kindergarten’ winery, then trial marketed at their cellar door. The food-friendly Italian varietals did well at their restaurant, and the high demand flowed on to local growers. These included Fred Pizzini, who grew Nebbiolo , and his cousin Arnie Pizzini, who grew Barbera , both sources for Crittenden ’s ‘i’ wines. Garry’s studies led to him penning the influential book, Italian Wine Grape Varieties in Australia. This resource helped new growers of Italian wine varietals avoid planting the wrong grapes in the wrong areas. Garry encountered a lot of objections early on, but found the demand for Italian varietals was led by young, open-minded wine-lovers, and enthusiastic sommeliers.
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In the Vineyard There’s also great diversity amongst Australia’s wine regions and vineyards, and how they’re managed. Winemaker Vanya Cullen feels a strong connection to her family’s Margaret River vineyard, where she strives for constant improvement. While it’s always seen minimal chemical inputs, Cullen’s vineyard was certified organic in 2003, then biodynamic in 2005. This has coincided with an increase in vineyard health and fruit quality.  The soils are balanced and alive, allowing roots to plunge deeply to access nutrients. Vanya’s aim is to create a community of living systems and the whole Cullen team are on board. While scientifically trained, Vanya prefers to work with nature to grow quality fruit in a sustainable way. “The illusion is that you can’t farm without chemicals, but the reality is nature.” As well as being certified biodynamic, the naturally powered Cullen winery is certified carbon neutral. This requires great passion and commitment. All fruit is hand picked according to the biodynamic calendar, then hand sorted, pressed and transferred to barrel, or tank. The yeast is wild, and no artificial cooling, gasses or additions are used. Along with the Margaret River classics, Cullen produce the ‘natural’ Amber – a Sauvignon Blanc made with skin contact in the style of a red wine.  Diversity will continue to describe Australian wine, as long as there are brave winemakers wanting to experiment, and open-minded consumers willing to broaden their taste experiences.
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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