Welcome to The Love of Wine Part Three. These stories draw on some of the more unlikely experiences that I’ve enjoyed during my working life in wine. In this edition, I offer a little insight into the most exciting time of year in the winery – harvest!
It was a particularly delightful beer that afternoon. We’d been processing fruit all day, and early cloud had given way to a fierce afternoon sun. It didn’t help that the humidity was through the roof. Moisture in the atmosphere, moisture on the ground. So much for that El Nino.
After dinner I checked the BOM radar one last time. Promised myself no more before bed. An arm of green pixels moved over the map on my screen. Pockets of yellow and red swirled in and out amongst the mass. The system was making its way across the state. A cool front from down south was drawing in warm, moist northern air as it marched up the coast. Talk of storms. Potentially severe.
We were harvesting that night, by machine. Any more than half an inch of rain and the harvester wouldn’t be able to get through the vineyard. I tried not to think about it as I lay in bed. When sleep finally came for me, it was to the distant rumbling of thunder.
The alarm rang out at 5.30. As consciousness returned I realised that I hadn’t woken to heavy rain in the night. Lucky.
The fruit was already on the deck when we arrived at the winery. Picking bins laid out across the crush pad, contents still hidden under their lids. A peak inside and a taste. Looks good. Clean, bright, and surprisingly cool given the humidity. This is a top block of Semillon, and it looks like we might have nailed the timing. Won’t know for sure until much later, but the early signs are good.
Crushed and pressed without drama. Now settling under cooling in tank for the next couple of days. The juice looks great – luminous green, just how we like it. Another tick.
Two days later, the effects of gravity, temperature, and a pectolytic enzyme, along with a gentle fining, have worked a treat. The juice sparkles in the glass, almost wine-like in its clarity. We’ll rack it off heavy solids, and settle again overnight. Purity and precision demands super clean juice, and this second polishing is where we find that extra one percent.
At a balmy 35 degrees, we bring the yeast out of their dehydrated stasis. Within minutes, cells are multiplying and frothing in their few litres of warm, life-giving water. Over the next hour, they’re introduced to small amounts of juice – the same as they’ll soon be fermenting. Lowering the temperature, giving them a feed, acclimatising – preparing for the big swim. The happy cultures rise in buckets like souffles.
Walking through the winery once the whites are bubbling away is a feast for the senses. The air is both heavy and heady. If you bring your face close to the cool façade of one of the stainless steel tanks, you can actually see the shimmer of carbon dioxide as it spills over the edge like a lava flow. Rising above this blanket of gas is an endless variety of esters – a fruit bowl of sorts. With a winery full of fermenting Semillon, it’s like holding a ripe lime to your nose. And a taste of the hazy, fizzy juice; it’s just like sucking on a sherbet lolly.
We’re also on the lookout for warning signs. A whiff of hydrogen sulphide, or rotten egg gas as it known, is an indication of yeast under stress. This usually means the fermentation is running too hot or too cool, and we adjust the temperature accordingly. Other times, its nutrition they need, and we are quick to offer a feed of diammonium phosphate – a rich source of amino acids – to support their immense metabolisms. Multiple times a day, for weeks on end, we fuss about the ferments – carefully guiding them to their conclusion without incident.
At this time of year, it’s hard not to feel at least some sense of awe at the magical process we are lucky to part of.
Every tank, barrel, and puncheon contains within it a galaxy of possibility – a unique biological cosmos contained within the universe of the winery. Every grape, every population of yeast, and every season is different to the one before it, so no two wines can ever be the same. It’s exploring this endless canvas of creative space that has drawn me back with undying passion for over twenty years. That, and the opportunity to hone my craft just a little bit further with every wine we shape.
The reds are next. We’re walking through a block of gnarly old Shiraz that wraps around the foothills of Pokolbin Mountain. Stopping to taste the ripening berries, snipping bunches to test back at the winery. Yields look good – this block was spared the tricky flowering and Christmas hailstorms. Sweetness suggests its probably a week off. Rolling the seeds in my hand I can see they are still a touch green, in line with the chalky texture of the tannin in my mouth.
Despite the baking sun, we take our time here. After fifty years, most of the thickly trunked vines have twisted and warped around on themselves – like something Dali might have painted. It seems impossible that they produce such perfectly formed and endlessly youthful bunches of Shiraz.
There’s a reverence blocks like this command. We don’t talk about it, just let the feeling take us.
I stop to admire a vine that has literally pulled itself apart through the middle, yet still manages to keep it’s fruit laden arms wrapped on the trellis wire. Such stoicism speaks to the long, hot, and hard history of winemaking in the Hunter. My mind turns to the past. Time stretching even beyond the long life of these vines. I think of those now legendary winemakers who first saw the potential of this place. Names like Tyrrell, O’Shea, and Tulloch, along with those who followed; Stockhausen, Lake, and Evans. Through vision, passion, and the dogged pursuit of their craft, the iconic wines they made shaped the region for generations to follow.
At Gundog we are known for pushing the style envelope; an innovator, keen to experiment and evolve process and technique. On the surface, our approach may not speak to a legacy like that left by those legends of the past. But that would be to ignore the sometimes radical departure from convention that those very winemakers championed. O’Shea with his blending of Shiraz and Pinot Noir, or perhaps Stockhausen’s Germanic winemaking approach to Semillon – Hunter River Riesling as it was known then. I indulge the thought of my children sometime in the future, perhaps now my age, opening an old bottle of Wild Semillon. I wonder if the same sense of admiration will arise. Will they consider their dad a pioneer too?
Back at the winery, the chemistry of our Shiraz sample confirms my instincts. About a week to go. A flush of excitement at the thought of working with this fruit again. I try not to get too caught up in the prospect of getting a chance to craft another of our own ‘Hunter Burgundies.’ There’s still days to go. And during that time we’ve got to get through a heatwave, along with the possibility of heavy rain as a tropical cyclone breaks down in the north.
I’ve always said that I’m not a gambling man, but perhaps I am. There’s definitely something exhilarating about feeling the odds stack up before the grapes are picked. And then the addictive rush that comes from beating those long odds and turning out a cracking wine.
This is the only way I’ve known it, and I am grateful for every vintage I’ve had a chance to turn my hand to.
P.S. If this story lands with you or sparks any memories of your own unlikely wine experiences, please feel free to send me an email – I’d love to hear from you!
You can read previous editions of The Love of Wine on the News & Events page of our website, here.