Pinot trophy wine a close call

Name: Mark Smith

Setting up a new vineyard - or expanding an existing one - is an exhilarating time for any dyed-in-the-wool Pinotphile intent on living the dream of growing and making worldclass Pinot Noir.

Even so, cool climate viticulture isn't without its risks, admits Melbourne clinical psychologist Dr Peter Parker. When he and his psychotherapist wife, Georgina, finally decided to take on new careers as part-time vignerons on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula back in 1998, they sought the best advice available on how to establish their small vineyard at Merricks Creek on the lower slopes of the region's gently rolling hillsides.

Even mentors like Gary Farr (by Farr), Lindsay McCall (Paringa Estate) and Nat Young (Main Ridge) couldn't have foreseen the deluge that was to follow the breaking of a prolonged drought in these parts.

'We lost about a third of our plantings,' Peter Parker mused.

'Whole rows died because the place was so wet. In fact, for a while we referred to our vines as 'death rows.' When the ground dried out, we put in a whole lot of aggie drains - every third row has one - and we re-planted where it was needed.
Since then, we've never looked back,' he said.

That said, the self-confessed Pinot tragic considers himself lucky to have a willing partner who's shouldered as much of the vineyard yakka as her husband. Georgina says the pair have spent the past nine years juggling their various professional roles with the myriad other tasks that go hand-in-hand with parenting and grapegrowing.

Suggest to either of them that they've made rods for their own backs and they'll reply with a quip about needing them. Then they'll point out the backache-inducing rows that make up the close-planted portion of their 2ha Pinot Noir vineyard. Indeed, to describe these midgets as simply close-planted fails to do justice to their remarkable evolution on the site.

'When you look at Burgundy, their rows of Pinot are normally 1m by 1m,' Peter Parker explains. 'These are half a metre by 1m, with the bottom wire somewhere about 150mm-180mm off the ground. To work them, you have to sit on your bum and slide from vine to vine. They're my mania, I'm afraid. Once we decided to give them a try, I went to Burgundy and measured up the new plantings at Domaine de la Roman e-Conti. They were 600mm apart, with 1m between rows. We put these at 500mm because our original plantings were 1m apart, and it was easy to convert part of the vineyard to a close-planting by simply adding a rootling between existing vines. We put another seven rows in conversion in 2006.

'In fact, I'd like to extend the plantings even further, but have them 2m apart. The current dimensions are a bit of a bugger because we're not able to get a tractor in there. If I could afford a $100,000 French over-the-vine enjambeur then I'd go for more vines at 500mm, though I'd worry if an outbreak of powdery was on the way and spare parts were on the other side of the world,' he said.

During the process of conversion, longer-established vines are brought back to earth with the aid of a pair of loppers and a season devoted to developing healthy new crowns. It's not without drawbacks. The vineyard's most recent additions have not been as quick to establish themselves as the previous inter-plantings. The owners attribute that to the extensive network of older vine roots out-competing those of their neighbouring interlopers.

Watering these alternately-spaced newcomers has been a matter of relying on the region's 730mm annual rainfall, with occasional dollops being applied via a watering can during prolonged dry spells. Drip irrigation, installed to get the site's
first vines up at the end of the 1990s, has been avoided during much of this decade.

And while the narrow spacings of the property's most recent plantings clearly pay homage to the Old World, Peter says it's New World viticulture and tireless attention to the canopy that prevents these close-planted rows from becoming a tangled mess on the site's thin layer of grey loam over 'Merricks Mud' clay.

Vines across the entire 2ha site are managed according to a standard vertical shoot positioning (VSP) arrangement. Vineyard pruning techniques, meanwhile, are still evolving, with cane-pruning the preferred option in most years, but giving way to spur pruning in 2007, thanks to the damage wrought on last season's canes by a Christmas Day hailstorm.

'Nat White at Main Ridge was our winemaking consultant in our first few years, and he said he found that he got less vigour from spur pruning. That was what prompted me to try it after we'd traditionally done all cane pruning, Peter Parker explained. We're basically hand pruning to about 14-16 buds per cordon to try to keep our yields under 2t/ac (4.5t/ha), which we're starting to get quite regularly now. We sometimes fi nd the internode spacings are quite large, and by the time we've been ferocious in shoot-thinning, yields come in just under 2t/ac.

'We normally start the year with everything looking wonderful, but as the season progresses the vines on our close-planted site slowly turn into triffids. They've calmed down a lot compared with what they were. They were almost impossible to handle during the first 10 years. There was just so much work to do,' Peter Parker said.

The full article can be found in the November/December issue of Australian Viticulture.

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