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Vine age versus vine balance – which is more important?

By Tony Hoare, Hoare Consulting. E:

There was a passionate discussion at the recent ASVO seminar in Mildura regarding the value of older vineyards compared with young vineyards. The discussion caused me to reflect on my own experiences in comparing vine age and vine balance.

Hunter Semillon – a lesson from Bruce Tyrrell

I have been fortunate to walk the rows of many of Australia’s iconic vineyards. The common feature of them all was that they were of a great age. The average age of most was 50 years with the oldest being more than 100 years young. Look at the Langtons classification of iconic wines and nearly all have a long history of being tied to individual vineyards that have lasted for generations.

I once asked Bruce Tyrrell if he was interested in a planting of Semillon I had just completed at Ablington Vineyard Estate, at Pokolbin, in the Lower Hunter. I had researched the best Hunter clones and the site I selected was over the creek from the famous Stevens Block, which I guessed would have the same soil as George Stevens’ magnificent vines.

Expecting Bruce to jump at the chance to expand his Semillon production with my new vineyard, I was told by Bruce that he might have a look at it in 20 years and see then how the fruit measured up. It was then that I appreciated even more the value of Vat 1 Semillon and how it could not be simply mass produced by following a viticultural formula. This was a valuable lesson as a wide-eyed viticultural graduate who believed site and clonal selection alone would deliver results.

Wirra Wirra — the Trott legacy

When I joined Wirra Wirra in 2002, they had some great old vines. Greg Trott and his cousin Roger had rebuilt the old Robert Strangways Wrigley ironstone winery in the 1960s and then acquired surrounding vineyards and planted some new blocks. Whilst the old blocks were a valuable asset, they presented me with many challenges.

The 30-year-old Riesling in the Nocowie vineyard was a very consistent-yielding block – between seven to 10 tonnes per hectare. The vines were spur pruned with supplementary canes for yield. The spur positions were succumbing to the effects of Eutypa lata (Dead Arm) and the canes allowed for the extra yield needed to make the block economically viable.

The fruit from this block went into the ‘Hand Picked’ Riesling which retailed for around $19 per bottle. It had a good following and sold out each vintage. The problem I had with managing the block was that it had to be hand-picked to comply with the label. The value of McLaren Vale Riesling at the time was such that the costs of hand picking were around 50% of the total running costs. Adding the extra costs of cane pruning the block was not viable for the fruit alone. The value adding in the winery, 30 years of history and a dedicated following for the style did allow the block to survive during my time at the company. Sadly, I was called in to graft the vines to Shiraz in 2008 when the vines had reached their use by date.

The full article appears in the September-October 2014 issue of the Wine & Viticulture Journal. To ensure your copy, visit www.winebiz.com.au/wvj/subscribe/

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