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Selective science – from the vineyard to the winery
WINERY AND VINEYARD practices have changed dramatically since the early 1900s, when horse-drawn carts and kerosene-powered production areas were considered modern for their time.
Advances in science and technology, along with breakthroughs in research, have given winemakers and growers the ability to produce higher quality wines using a fraction of the time and labour.
For one McLaren Vale winery, science in viticulture and vinification has been embraced to the same extent as some traditional techniques.
That winery is none other than d'Arenberg, which, having marked 100 years of family ownership in 2012, is well positioned to reflect on some of these changes.
'It's amazing how rough and ready it was in those days. Winemaking was very much a hit or miss business, but it was pretty stable stuff,' says Francis (d'Arry) Osborn, managing director of d'Arenberg.
d'Arry started work on the farm at the ripe age of 16. It was the 1930s and times were tough. Yet, by the time he was 30, he had taken over full management of the property, known as Bundarra vineyards.
d'Arry says some of the most significant advances in science and technology occurred in the 1950s, starting with the introduction of power to the production area.
'Before that, we had our own kerosene lighting plant. Our fridge was powered through kerosene. It was very efficient and cheap, too,' he said.
In 1951, grid electricity was connected to the winery and electric generators replaced an old kerosene-run Delco generator.
d'Arry says the introduction of tools to measure sulphur in wine was also a significant scientific development for the wine industry.
'We were making white wines that were all cloudy and I was selling the wine to Emu Wine Company for overseas export and a mate of mine said, 'It's lactic! You've got to get some sulphur in there, quick, quick!'' d'Arry recalls.
'And of course a fella called Walter Ware - Wally Ware, we used to call him - came up with this sulphitometer.'
This was used to measure the amount of sulphur in the wine, ensuring there was enough to stop bacterial spoilage and prevent oxidation, but not so much it would affect the flavour and complexity of the wine.
Developments in yeast control and malolactic fermentation were also embraced by d'Arenberg, along with sophisticated refrigeration.
'Dr Bryce Rankine did important research on yeasts - he understood that getting a yeast culture going only lasted a week before a wild yeast would take over,' d'Arry said.
The vineyard was another area of fundamental change.
Horses were used until the late '50s to pull the burner - the incinerator on wheels they used to burn all the cuttings. This method was replaced in '61, when d'Arry bought a rotavator on a diesel tractor. Instead of burning the cuttings, the rotavator chopped them up.
Newer versions of harvesters, crushers and presses were also embraced for their efficiency and speed.
'In those days everything was handpicked, so the reds would come in heat of day whereas now you can machine pick and deliver in the cool of the night,' d'Arry said.
Machine harvesters were introduced from America to Australia in the '70s. According to d'Arry, the machines, in their infancy, would strip off all the leaves as well as the fruit.
'Today, the machines are very sophisticated. They're all run on hydraulics and you can speed all the various bits up and slow them down.'
d'Arry's son, Chester, started working in the vineyard when he was in primary school. After graduating from an Oenology degree at Roseworthy in '83, he became chief winemaker at d'Arenberg, where he incorporated new science and technology while remaining faithful to the tried and tested techniques.
Perhaps one of the most traditional methods d'Arenberg has stuck with is basket pressing.
Today, d'Arenberg have several basket presses, including one hydraulic Coq press that is more than 100 years old, eight handmade presses and a Bromley Tregonning press.
Chester believes basket pressing, although labour intensive, is more beneficial compared with modern machines, due to its gentle pressing action on the grapes. Using homemade science, d'Arenberg have also found a way to basket press their wines without allowing oxidation in the whites. This is achieved by using a large plastic bag which encases the whole basket - and some dry ice.
Staying true to his minimal intervention philosophy, Chester has also taken to using gentle crushers with rubber rollers, which he opens up to allow for whole-berry fermentation on the reds. Racking and fining are also generally excluded from the winemaking process.
'We gave up racking any reds in 2004. Maybe 0.5 of a percent we would rack if it's a slow ferment and it's a bit smelly,' Chester said.
Practices in irrigation and cultivation have also changed dramatically at d'Arenberg. According to d'Arry, about 124ML of bore water was used to irrigate 60 hectares in the '60s, whereas today d'Arenberg has about 120ha and only uses just 60ML to irrigate.
Irrigation methods have evolved from moveable sprinklers to drip irrigation in the late '80s. That all changed again in the '90s when Chester realised irrigation hadn't worked in his favour.
'I started reading quite a bit and it became pretty obvious - the more you irrigate the more dilution you get. So I came up with only irrigating in winter to imitate natural rainfall in drier years, or in early spring or late December after grape cell division and enlargement is complete.'
About 16 years ago, Chester also made the move to stop cultivation.
'Part of the reason was that you'd go to dig a hole in the middle of the vineyard and realise there wasn't a vine root. So there was no point in cultivating,' Chester recalls.
After three years of not cultivating, he said the soil had a greater volume and water-holding capacity, which allowed the vines to be less dependent on irrigation.
And if there's one piece of science advice that Chester completely disregards, it's to do with nitrogen.
'I see it as the evil monster,' he said.
'Every time you're adding nitrogen to the soil, it's charged particles. And every time it rains, they go through the soil and they drag out micronutrients with them that you'll never get back again. So you can actually really ruin a soil with the addition of excess nitrogen.
'So I say that fertiliser or water is like growing the vine hydroponically. You can grow tomatoes like that and they just taste like nothing, but you grow your own and they taste fantastic.'
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