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Significant variations in an Iconic Coonawarra vineyard lead to radical solutions
ACCORDING TO JAMES Freckleton, there's an old notion that vineyard managers run vineyards, winemakers make wine, and marketing and sales staff look after brands.
The up-and-coming young vineyard manager at Yalumba is adamant that this is an approach that all stakeholders in the progressive wine world will need to move beyond, if they are to remain relevant in the modern commercial environment.
Driving quality is his passion, as he so clearly outlined through a fascinating case study at the recent ASVO conference in Mildura, Victoria. The theme of the ASVO conference was 'Objective measures of grape and wine quality'.
Freckleton shared his team's discovery of the benefits of ironing out vineyard variability, and used the company's Menzies vineyard as a prime example of this success.
'The Menzies brand was established in 1987 and in 1994 we bought the vineyards where that fruit was coming from. We have only got two very small sites in Coonawarra,' Freckleton said.
The huge variability within the Menzies vineyard was something they were aware of from the beginning, although the team probably didn't appreciate just how variable it was until plant cell density maps highlighted the magnitude of the problem.
'The maps tell you exactly where the variation is,' Freckleton said.
'It is far more pronounced in those older blocks that were planted in 1975 compared with the younger plantings, though we certainly see variation in them as well.
'In past years, management of such variability was not a huge factor - but then we decided to get on top of it. And that's probably where the change flows from.'
The Yalumba team looked at creating new performance criteria and decided to measure themselves as part of a tangible effort to improve the quality of their company's wine by starting in the vineyard and involving essential personnel in key processes.
Facing the challenges
Challenges included an irrigation valving system that was very inconsistent, with over-irrigated and under-irrigated sections.
'We had a minimal amount of soil moisture monitoring equipment and what we did have was difficult to interpret, multiple people were coming up with different ideas on what that data was telling us,' Freckleton said.
'There was no 'in house' grape laboratory. Samples were travelling 400km and our winemakers were working with information that was often a week old.
'On-ground vineyard staff integration was fairly minimal. We were probably being somewhat precious with our information sharing with staff, and our training needed to be ramped up.'
Quality variability was unacceptable - with very high variations in yield and canopy - so there was a significant challenge to make every post a winner.
On the positive side, Yalumba had Cabernet Sauvignon vines - iconic for the region - growing in Terra Rossa over limestone. They had an adequate supply of good quality water from the local aquifer.
'Quality from the vineyard was good, despite little intervention and, although we weren't achieving that consistently, it gave us confidence that we should be able to have an impact,' Freckleton said.
'We had significant block data, and clonal and rootstock combinations were extensive as a result of a direct relationship with our Yalumba Nursery, although we weren't fully maximising our resource,' he said.
'Most importantly, we had a vineyard, winemaking and marketing team that recognised the potential, established a team and allowed us to collectively try to achieve the goal of improving our quality.
'We decided we wanted to measure ourselves, in a way which is probably fairly subjective.
'We looked at the major wine show performances - these were Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart, Brisbane and Sydney. We had entered those wine shows with the same frequency since 1990, so we thought we could see how we were going with gold, silvers and trophies. We also looked at our brand growth as we thought it was very important that we were looking at enhancing our profitability and maximising the resources we had at our disposal.'
Plant cell density (PCD) maps were used to assess the substantial difference in vigour.
'We could see that but we were probably surprised at the extent of the variability in those vineyards,' Freckleton said.
'That led to us to look at how we were actually taking our samples, and how effective those samples were,' he said.
'Twenty per cent of our samples were taken from high-vigour sites, 45% from low-vigour sites and 35% from medium-vigour sites.'
High Baumè variation
'The Baumè variation between each of the sites ranged from 12.6 to 15.5 - a variation of nearly 3°Baumè across that block - so the problem was that we were highly likely to achieve a result that was going to be misleading.
'There were picking variations, we split harvested the different sections and the low-vigour parcel was downgraded in the winery in our vintage classification, because it didn't stylistically meet our brand objectives.
'The higher-vigour parcel met our brand objectives without compromise - I think the reason for that is that there was a very wide range of Baumès represented in the low-vigour, section, while in the high-vigour section there was not much over about a Baumè difference between the sampling locations.
'If we had that same vigour again we would split it into three parcels - high, medium and low. Probably the low-vigour section would have been at its optimum at about two weeks earlier in that case.'
Based on the PCD maps, the team made immediate improvements (Band-Aid solutions) to reduce variability - extra drippers, in-line taps, and blanked-off drip lines - plus improved pruning techniques, but probably by far the biggest influence was straw mulch.
'We only applied it to the low-vigour sections and it cost in the order of $3000 per hectare to do that,' Freckleton said.
'But as you only need to reapply about every three to four years and the fact that it actually doubled the yield in those areas whilst actually improving the quality, that $1000 a year investment was pretty insignificant.'
Establishing onsite laboratory
'Other key improvements included onsite analysis. We set up our own little lab to measure pH, TA and Baume.
'The luxury of this is that we can go and take samples whenever we want. If we've got a rainfall event or a heat event that we figure may influence our grape quality in some respect, we can just go and take a sample and see how we're getting on.
'Then we can make an informed decision that we didn't have the ability to do previously.
'Obviously the lab is very important in how we schedule our fruit as well.
'We installed a variable speed drive pump - a simple fix to a significant problem of over- and under-irrigating. A lot of that was due to the fact that we needed to put on about 6ha of water to run our pump to its capacity, so we needed a pump that could ramp down and water our smaller valves as well.
'We installed moisture monitoring sites in every one of our irrigation valves and we needed a system that five people could interpret and all come up with the same conclusion.
'The data we were working from before was really difficult to interpret.'
The team wanted something that was simple, clear and concise and supervisors needed the confidence to act on the information.
'We needed to establish a closer liaison with our winemaking team. We are trying to ensure iconic wine, a $40-plus product, so we needed a routine we could all stick to, to ensure that we were all there to make sure we were making the right decisions,' Freckleton said.
Weekly winemaker visits
'We established a routine for weekly visits - much like sampling, we provided the winemakers with up-to-date data and were always organised when they were down here,' he said.
'We involved more key vineyard staff in the process, this gets back to what I was talking about earlier where we were probably being a little precious with information sharing with our staff, so now it involves a vineyard manager the viticulturist. Where possible, our supervisors come around with us when we're looking at the fruit because essentially, they are the ones who are going to be implementing what we decide to do anyway.
'Tasting the grapes together and learning what was influencing the decisions is something that builds up over the years. Just by asking a lot of questions and having the ability to taste the fruit with the winemakers, I learned a hell of a lot.
'Obviously we're building up a lot of knowledge, we are learning what it is that is influencing the winemaker's decisions by tasting the fruit with them.
'It's important to ensure you're going to be scheduling the grapes at the right time and picking your blocks at the optimum.
'You need to understand the winery's capacity and limitations, so having up-to-date data, you can see a real lineal effect of how your blocks are progressing and when they should be ready. Obviously, the winemakers being down once a week were making an informed decision of when those blocks should be picked.'
The way forward for the Yalumba team is in how they are redeveloping their vineyards. The latest project involves drilling down to limestone, to ascertain depths and make sure there is a direct correlation between soil depth and vine vigour, since this will influence irrigation designs. Using
10m x 10m or 100m² soil sampling grids - standard soil samples were 75m x 75m, or 5625 m² - gives an intensive look into those grids and the team discovered a direct correlation.
This work led to PCD maps with irrigation overlays that will influence future valve design.
'One key thing the winemakers really put to us is that we had a great clonal and rootstock resource but essentially those volumes weren't really matching vat sizes, so what we decided to do, in conjunction with our nursery manager, was plant numerous well-performing clones at our disposal through the Yalumba Nursery in eight-tonne lots and evaluate them long term,' Freckleton said.
'So we can marry that up and make commercial-size lots - and not compromising by having to make some sort of fruit salad of clones.
'We have also planted two new French clones in another site that we will be extensively evaluating as well.
'This will obviously drive what we do in the future - the other advantage of having multiple clones and rootstocks is that it doesn't cost any more to plant, but it gives the winemaker the opportunity to build complexity into his or her wines, so we've got multiple clones and rootstock combinations. Some stand up ahead of others in given seasons.
'Our future direction comes back to our planning process and involving all the key stakeholders from the vineyard to the sales and marketing team.
'Defining pre-existing and future volume requirements is key to knowing what our target products will be in that given season. Working through annual promotional activities with our sales and marketing team, reviewing each block to determine specifications - this is where we are at now.
'We need clear and concise boundaries for everyone to work within.
'Vineyard tasks are organised for every individual block, including canopy management, maximum and minimum yields, pruning criteria, trial work, irrigation management, pest and disease strategy, logistics and wine quality feedback. We try to hold these meetings as close as possible to our classification tastings, so the feedback is current.'
The iconic Menzies label
The team's vision was focused strongly on a quality product - Menzies Cabernet.
Yalumba winemaker Peter Gambetta looks for structured depth and tannin in the fruit for the Menzies label, rather than primary fruit.
'We are looking for ripeness but not the jammier fruit characters - we want savoury structure,' he said.
'We've been making Menzies since 1987, and have been taking fruit from the Coonawarra since the 1960s.
'Terra Rossa makes a lot of difference - it's fantastic!
'Getting regular information and samples once a week is helpful. As we get close to vintage we sample twice a week. The onsite lab makes a difference for an isolated vineyard that is 400km from the Yalumba winery at Angaston,' Gambetta said.
Once the machine harvested fruit parcels arrive, destemming and crushing occurs and then winemakers use 8-tonne fermenters.
'We inoculate with active dry culture or cultured yeast as we are crushing,' Gambetta said.
'A rigorous fermentation scheme uses two systems of cap management - either floating cap (8t) or headed down (16t), with submerged caps pumped over as well.
'The floating caps are pumped over or pulse air is used with a blast of nitrogen that triggers the spontaneous release of carbon dioxide that breaks the cap.
'Ferment is conducted at 28-30°C during the first 5-6° drop in Baumè and then we ferment at conventional temperatures.
'Some parcels receive skin contact up to five to seven days after primary fermentation. Then all wines are pressed and transferred to oak hogsheads for malolactic fermentation. With Menzies we use around 40% new French and a portion of first-use American oak.
'Having our own cooperage is fantastic - we build our own barrels with varying fire regimes,' Gambetta said.
Back in the vineyard, Freckleton concluded that communication between all stakeholders - no matter where they fit in the supply chain - is critically important.
'Stakeholders must be provided with the knowledge and the opportunity to add value to the enterprise,' he said.
'Collaboration, investigation, integration and review are the hallmarks for wine quality and brand sustainability.
'The key point is that stakeholders are probably going to have the knowledge, but they have to be provided with the opportunity to further improve quality in the vineyard.'
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