Colin Kay, Kay Brothers Amery, SA

Name: Colin Kay and Sam

The more things change the more they stay the same

There's not much winemaker and viticulturist Colin Kay has not seen in his time at South Australian family winery Kay Brothers Amery. A visit to the 117-year-old business is a real history lesson. Diaries, displayed in the cellar door, recall what happened 100 years ago to the day. The day I visited, 25 July 2007, the 1907 diary entry included details of ploughing, filling hogsheads, tying rods in the block and fencing.

Rainfall levels have been recorded every day since establishment in 1890. But Kay is very much focused on the now and seeks to continually improve business. He has recently returned from the United States where, with winemaker Tim Whitrow, he zig-zagged across the country to meet distributors and potential buyers.

'These days you really have to make these trips, especially to the US where they love to see you and are genuinely happy that you have made the effort,' Kay said.

Kay says that his years of experience could provide a business edge, but more importantly he is an information resource for other people to tap into.

And, he says, this is one of the reasons the Australian wine industry will continue to be strong and provide growth - the sharing of information within regions and across the country.

'Of course you need to compete with other wineries, but it is important to remember that Australia is also in competition, especially with countries like Chile and South Africa,' Kay said. He says while those countries are continually improving, Australia's technology, research and development, education, information sharing and peak industry body infrastructure holds it in good stead to remain successful.

But there are challenges. The present value of the Aussie dollar, water, and the environment to name a few. While climate change seems to be the hottest topic around, Kay says his records provide interesting analysis, at least of his vineyard.

'Despite last year's drought, the last decade was the wettest decade in the past 115 years,' he said. 'So (in regard to climate change) I'm not able to say if anything is happening yet. Ok, we had an early vintage this year but not the earliest. Climate change may be happening but we are not seeing any indication of that, locally at least.'

The driest year on record in McLaren Vale is 1914.

A tour of the winery highlights the old fermentation techniques that Kay says still do the best job today. The concrete open fermenters are about to be replaced with the more up-to-date stainless steel version and old, cracking underground tanks have all been replaced with stainless steel storage. Kay points to easier biological control as one of the major shifts in fermentation and wine storage technology.

'Cracks in tanks are obviously biologically dangerous,' he said.

Kay Brothers Amery is a winery that was originally set up to make big, bold full body reds with intense colour for export to the United Kingdom. Alcohol content of about 15% was not uncommon. So why the debate about whether or not today's Australian reds are too big and fruity when nothing much seems to have changed in that regard?

'The alcohol content was very similar back then but they did transfer the wine in hogsheads across the equator,' Kay said. 'In the UK the primary importers bottled some of that of wine as Colonial Burgundy. But often it was used to ginger up stuff from across the Channel.'

So while Australia has been making big reds for some time Kay points to the use of barrel storage in 1980s as one reason for alcohols remaining high.

'Wine was spending a year or two in the barrel, so if you have something that goes into a barrel at about 14%, you will lose more than 2% per annum through evaporation,' he said. 'This is 5% reduction in volume over two years, which is mainly water and therefore a one twentieth increase in alcohol.' Kay also points to heavier cropping, where grapes stay on the vine longer to reach flavour ripeness. In regard to yields, the average in the 1960s was about one tonne an acre according to Kay, compared with about an average of more than three in the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale.

Yields are higher because of the introduction if irrigation and vineyard management. And he says this is a good thing in terms of quality.

'Generally the high yield years and the high quality years,' Kay said. 'Now you have to ask yourself why. When you look at the rainfall records if there was two or three years good rainfall it provided a plant that was healthy and primed up.' This is now Kay's aim every year, to provide the plant with enough spring and summer moisture to ensure good bunch numbers, a healthy vine and quality fruit.

Away from the vineyard and once the wine is safely in the bottle Kay has decided to bottle all of his wines under screwcap. 'Why would you willingly send out a product that has a chance of failure?,' he said in reference to using cork. Kay now uses Stelvin as he thinks the permeability rates provided by that particular closure mirror that of the perfect cork.

Colin Kay on closures

If we are putting out a product knowingly, even with just the cork taint issue, what other industry in the world uses a packaging component that spoils 5% of its product?

Colin Kay on an industry code of conduct

You have to let the market forces operate to some extent. Last vintage the market forces started to lift prices again. Now with all the good will in the world if people see the price is high, others will say 'well I want some of that too'. There has to be a sense of realism.

Colin Kay on McLaren Vale regionality

Within McLaren Vale there are quite distinct differences but to name sub-regions within the region would be confusing from a marketing point of view.

Colin Kay on large wineries

What they are doing is mass market, mass market, mass market. They are getting Brand Australia out there and telling people 'Australia make wine' and doing a good job at it.

The full article can be found in the September issue of Grapegrower & Winemaker. To subscribe visit

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