Big rewards in fine detail

Phillip Jones is the first to admit that he is extremely fortunate to enjoy ownership of some of the country's most revered Pinot Noir vineyards.
Although, you might not have heard that being spoken aloud as the man behind Gippsland's iconic Bass Phillip Wines navigated his way through the unbelievably wet summer of 2011. Indeed, you can imagine there was a fair bit of cursing and cussing as he tried coping with the incessant demands imposed on him by the season's dreaded combination of high rainfall and high humidity. Grappling with the forces of nature as you manage vineyards with planting densities as high as 17,000 vines per hectare certainly has a way of taking its toll.
'During the summer of 2011, I was onboard the tractor until 9.30pm or 10pm almost every day,' Jones says as he reflects on the toughest season he has faced since he first planted vines in south Gippsland way back in 1979.
'I ended up with around 83% of a normal crop that vintage, which was quite an achievement for a vineyard run without the use of systemic chemicals. You have to be prepared to work hard if you want to be the best player in the Pinot Noir game. You can't afford to compromise on anything in this business,' Jones said.
Working hard and avoiding compromises have been the hallmarks of Jones's entire career in cool climate viticulture. Far from beginning as a mere flight of fancy, the foundations of his Bass Phillip venture took more than five years of meticulous research and planning. Oddly enough, Pinot Noir was not his first choice of grape variety.
'Having got into wine and spent a bit of time living and working overseas, I'd become a big fan of red Bordeaux wines,' he explains.
'I knew I could never afford to emulate any of the region's First Growths, so I set myself the task of producing Australia's Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou. I ended up visiting the property, and later spent countless hours trying to find out all that I could about its climate and viticulture. I wound up working my way through the archives at the Melbourne University library, where I discovered there was data from Bordeaux dating back to the 1870s. The amount of detail there was incredible!
'So, off I went then, armed with my maps and my compass trying to find places around Victoria that were likely to provide me with the best matches for the 100-plus years of climate data I had obtained from my Bordeaux research. Eventually, I ended up at Leongatha South. There, I planted seven acres with varieties that were in exactly the same proportions as they were in the vineyard at Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou. I also happened to plant three rows of Pinot Noir and five rows of Chardonnay,' Jones said.
It wasn't long before Jones began to realise his dream of emulating Bordeaux was on the verge of failure. Cabernet Sauvignon, he believed, was absolutely incompatible with his site, both in terms of its rampant viticultural habits and its reluctance to ripen anytime before May in the district's cool to mild climate.
'We had problems with fungal disease, particularly with mildews, and the weeds here grew like trees,' Jones recalls.
'Pinot Noir, meanwhile, just stood up and asserted itself right from the very beginning. After four or five years, I ended up pulling out the Cabernet family and converted to Pinot.'
An engineer by training and, therefore, analytical in thinking deeply about issues, Jones is convinced he made the right decision in committing himself to Pinot Noir production. As a confirmed climate change sceptic, he has no fears about having to go back to Bordeaux varieties at anytime in the future.
Jones has spent more than 30 years refining his theories on what makes Pinot Noir frequently produce such extraordinary wines from the four sites he owns and operates around his home base at Leongatha. In the eyes of some producers, the resulting views mark him as an obsessive lunatic, a viticultural heretic who took 12 years to release his first commercial wines from his adventures with Pinot Noir. Others see in him a curious mixture of terroir-driven dogma and 'dog with a bone' determination to pull off seemingly impossible feats of viticultural brilliance.
Jones certainly has little time for anyone wanting to tell him how to run his vineyards properly. He says experiences have proven to him that it's not possible to adopt a 'one size fits all' approach to viticulture in his part of the world. Working organically since the early 1990s - and biodynamically since 2006 - Jones sees significant differences in the various growing habits, fruit composition, and wine quality that evolve across his four sites, despite them all being separated from one another by no more than 20 kilometres.
Some of the differences can be attributed to different soil types. Only some. On several locations, they are deeply ferrous soils, with traces of buckshot very much in evidence. Travel a little further north and you find silty components entering the picture. Travel south and there's mudstone to contend with, which Jones believes produces wines that can be rather abrupt in terms of their finish.
Be that as it may, there is no escaping the high levels of humidity you find persisting around Leongatha during the district's growing and ripening seasons. Jones readily muses that fungal diseases were invented in his part of the world. But when pushed to explain his need to continue to press on there with his endeavours, Jones says that humidity is indeed a double-edged sword that works in favour of thin-skinned Pinot Noir. It enables the variety to retain its delicate, if not decidedly fragile characteristic aromas and flavours. Provide it with warmer and/or drier environments and Pinot Noir loses those extremely volatile elements during the processes of transpiration.
'A lot of the methods that we have developed here over the years are pretty well home-grown,' Jones explains.
'Essentially, they're what we've found happen to work best in the conditions. The extreme vigour you find throughout central and south Gippsland has pushed us in the direction of near to ultra-close plantings, from 8000 or 9000 vines per hectare to 17,000 vines per hectare. In fact, if we could afford to purchase a vine-straddling tractor from Europe, we'd put many of them even closer together.'
While Jones might be willing to admit there are advantages to be found in working with high humidity, he is no fan of irrigation. You don't find it in Burgundy or Champagne, he contends, because it works to obscure individual vineyard terroir. It is far better to plant on soils that are highly water retentive and manage your viticulture accordingly. If you aspire to produce the best or the ultimate expressions of Pinot Noir, you also keep your vines low to the ground - no more than knee high - because it's down at ground level that you find vineyard humidity at its highest.
Jones's reflections on traditional winegrowing practices in Burgundy have helped him to formulate quite strident views on several other key issues of modern-day viticulture: clonal selections and vineyard yields. So far as Jones is concerned, the two are inextricably linked.
'Clones were originally a great interest of mine, and I started off with 10 different clones as one of my responses to five different soil types,' he recalls. 'I ended up making a close study of their effects and realised that after about 12-15 years, clonal selections don't matter a bean… so long as your cropping levels are below a certain level, and that certain clones are discarded because their behaviour is extreme.
'If you're seeking small-berried but highly fruitful vines for the highest possible quality wine, you could say some clones are more suited than others, but that can vary from site to site. I often have people ring me up and ask what clones they should plant. My advice to them is don't ask me, ask your neighbours.
'I mean, of the 12 clones that we use in our four vineyards, I would probably only replant about half a dozen of them on new sites nearby. Having done that myself a few times, I've also found out that one of our clones - D2V6 - simply refused to grow on a new site I established just 10 kilometres away from its home.
'What matters most is that the best expressions of Pinot Noir can only be achieved at cropping levels less than three-quarters of a kilogram per vine. Translated into typical Australian vine densities, that would mean something less than 0.6 tonnes per acre. Working with Pinot Noir isn't for the faint-hearted if you're serious about what you're doing. I think we've probably achieved our best results at about 300g or less per vine,' Jones said.

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