When the crop is picked and the leaves fall the relationship of the vine to its spatial environment is revealed. Every node is the point of attachment for at least one leaf. The leaves vary in size and tend to shade each other. The trellis design you see here is unique to Happs. From the dual renewal points, shoots naturally spread to the left and right. This spreads the foliage, puts more leaves out in the sun, reduces density, facilitates hand picking, filters and slows the wind, enables the fruit to dry swiftly after rain and guards against disease. The grapes are more deeply coloured, have less chlorophyll and there is a greater depth of desirable fruit flavours. A worker can actually walk down the row, inside the trellis, picking fruit from both sides. The white bands are a physical barrier to the South African garden weevil.

Our Viticulture
1. Vineyard practices

People who grow grapes rarely make wine. So, it’s very difficult for them to relate what is done in the vineyard to the character of the resulting wine. Unfortunately, many winemakers have little idea of what to do in the vineyard to produce fruit and that makes good wine. The best situation is to grow your own fruit, ferment, mature and bottle your own wine. If you have an observer with an experimental bent, are a risk taker and a seeker of wisdom this situation makes for fast learning. Some things cannot be taught in universities. Many an employee is risk averse. Excellence is more frequently accidental than by design.

You will find very little of what I write here in text books. I started life as a teacher and never got out of the habit of sharing my enthusiasm.

Location

Find the right place to grow the particular grape variety that you want to use to make wine. The right place will ripen that variety in the cool of autumn rather than in the heat of January or February. In Margaret River, the month of April provides ideal thermal conditions for ripening from the northern to the southern extent of the region. I have a rule of thumb that says that if you have to add acid to the juice you have lost flavour. If nights are too warm you will lose acid. One must seek an environment where night temperatures stay below 15°C.

Soil

Check the soil type. For great red wines it should be deep enough to sustain a mature plant over the growing season but it must be shallow enough so that the vine runs out of easily obtainable moisture in January. If the plant is to produce sufficient sugar to nourish fruit it should not be devoting substrate to shoot and leaf growth after the middle of January. If the flavours are to mature properly the vine must be senescing its leaves as the crop is picked. In that case the seeds will be hard, brown and mature and the pulp will be free of green flavours. Irrigation is a last resort to compensate for thin soils. For white wines, depending upon the wine style that is sought, green leaves at harvest will produce fresh green flavours and senescing leaves will make for more tannic, long lived wines that will improve in the bottle.

If you have to go into the vineyard to pull out leaves and trim the shoots there is an imbalance. Is the soil providing too much water? Is water being supplied by some other means?

Avoid cultivation. It dries out the surface soil where most of the soluble plant nutrient is located.

Vineyard Equipment

Whatever passes through the vineyard should have flotation type tyres rather than lugs to avoid soil compaction. Deep rooted plants like lupins, grown in the winter, can help to combat this. But the best policy is to avoid compaction by using small light tractors and wide tyres without lugs. Alternatively, you might as well grow your vines in pots.

Vineyards are for vines, not tractors. Semillon produces this spread of foliage  without irrigation.

Vineyards are for vines, not tractors. Semillon produces this spread of foliage without irrigation.

Trellis

The leaves are a solar array producing carbohydrate. Leaves and shoots should take advantage of the available horizontal space to intercept light. Some vineyards seem to be designed for the convenience of the farmer’s favourite tractor. They are sometimes trimmed like a box hedge. In our vineyard the inter-row space is occupied by shoots and leaves and it is difficult to see how a tractor might pass through. But, a small tractor can pass gently brushing the foliage as it moves along. Each leaf is a little factory busily producing goodies.

If each shoot has space, it is not difficult to find the fruit at picking time. Because the shoot has space, the berries are partly exposed to flecks of sunlight. White grapes become suitably golden, and the reds thoroughly red. The fruit dries quickly after rain and is less subject to disease.

Pruning

Machine pruned regimes demand a very restricted fruit zone. The new shoots originate from this tight zone and leaf and fruit congestion is endemic. In very hot climates this probably provides protection from the sun and is desirable. But in cooler regimes it changes the composition of the fruit at harvest. Reds tend to be green and lack colour.

If the pruning regime is hard, shoots are fewer, and bunches larger. This makes hand picking easier. An intact bunch can be chilled in a cool room prior to processing. Intact grapes will not support rapid bacterial and yeast growth during transport which reduces or eliminates the need for sulphur dioxide.

The fruit quantity /leaf area balance

The fruit load on a grape vine in relation to its working leaf area determines its capacity to perform in the current and succeeding years. Overwork the vine and it will suffer uneven budburst in the following year, produce fruit of uneven maturity and look sick. Under-work it and it will produce too much vegetation at the expense of fruit, fruit that is shaded with little colour, low tannin and green harsh flavours. The more leaf area available the earlier you can afford to start losing leaves while still maturing the crop. Losing leaves is part of the ripening process.

Disbudding

In spring the hard pruned vine produces unwanted shoots on its trunk. These must be rigorously controlled in order to keep the desired architecture and maintain productivity. This is an onerous, backbreaking and expensive process. Zen helps. This is a job for those capable of diligent application in very trying conditions! It’s housekeeping.

Weeds and Pests

Avoid weedicide. It can make the local soil environment inhospitable to roots. It reduces the turnover of grasses in the vineyard. Grasses provide summer ground cover, improve soil structure, moisture infiltration, discourage runoff, assist airation and build soil carbon content. If the soil is not growing plants over its entire surface it becomes less hospitable to microbes that are important in maintaining soil fertility and fungi. Funghi have a symbiotic relationship with grape vine roots. The vine provides sugar, the funghi has an extensive feeder network, a direct connection to decaying vegetation and provides plant nutrient to the vine. Unless there is a good population of micorrhyzal fungi the plant will look unhealthy. A healthy plant from healthy soil produces quick clean fermentations, a delight in the winery.

The technologies that yield the highest returns in grain farming are those that preserve the trash of last year’s crop on the surface. Seed is delivered into the soil with the least possible disturbance. Vines are no different to any other plant that depends upon the soil.

Diseases of the grape

The open environment enjoyed by each shoot is our most important insurance against fungal growth that thrives on shade and congestion. This reduces the degree to which we need to spray against powdery and downy mildews. Fortunately, when they are required, the chemicals used (elemental sulphur and copper) are low in toxicity.

The organic approach favours chemical intervention against pests only as a last resort. We prefer to allow predators to build up rather than poisoning that wipes out some species and allows others to explode in numbers – where they can be as much of a problem as the original insect. Necessarily, this promotes a large population of spiders which can be disconcerting to European visitors.

Nebbiolo in late April

Keep the grape eaters at bay

Netting is required to keep the birds out – a labour intensive activity that we have refined after years of practice. The Net Whiz, designed and built by Crendon Machinery in Donnybrook is an essential tool.

Harvesting

If you choose to harvest by machine the vine and its support structure needs to be narrow. This cramps the renewal area, reduces the functionality of the leaves because they shade each other, produces reds with low colour, whites with green chlorophyll colours and tends to lower vine productivity. It’s the bonsai approach. When it comes to harvest the fruit is hard to find and bunches are tiny. But, if you keep the canopy open and hand harvesting can be cost effective, especially when taking into account the nature of the fruit.

If one creates a better solar array some vines produce too much fruit. Unless fruit is removed flavours are diluted. A balance is required.

In hard pruned, well spread canopies bunches are larger and easier to find. Undamaged fruit is easier to look after during transport and does not require chemical intervention. It is easier to chill whole bunches prior to crushing, a big advantage. Cold fruit enables a chemical free approach.

Picking

Conclusion: The decision about how a vineyard is set up involves many important considerations that have ramifications right down the line. The focus needs to be on optimising the flavour of the fruit, not mechanisation for its own sake or to keep costs as low as possible. Accountants have their place and it’s preferably behind glass not in the vineyard.

 

2. Our Varieties

There are thousands of wine grapes grown to produce wine across the globe. The varieties that are grown in France are not the only varieties that a flavour seeking winemaker should be acquainted with.

That’s why we grow:

Whites

Chardonnay

Chenin

Marsanne

Muscadelle

Sauvignon blanc

Semillon

Verdelho

Viognier

Reds

Bastado

Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Sauvignon

Carignan

Cinsaut

Gamay

Graciano

Grenache

Malbec

Merlot

Mourvedre

Muscat a Petit Grains

Nebbiolo

Petit Verdot

Pinot Noir

Sangiovese

Shiraz

Souzao

Tempranillo

Tinta Cao

Touriga

 

3. Our Sustainable Approach

For hundreds of years farmers and gardeners have observed a positive response to the application of organic materials to growing plants. Mulch it, manure it, water it and watch it grow. This simple observation engenders a faith in things ‘organic’ that is as respectable as motherhood.

Contemplate the chicken raising industry that uses hormones to promote growth and a diet of antibiotics to counter infection in environments where chickens are penned, relatively immobile, and in close contact with spoiled feed and excrement. This regime is not kind to chickens or man. It’s the sort of agriculture that sends people looking for a more natural approach to farming. All chemical inputs are then seen as suspect. However, this knee jerk reaction can go too far.

Modern grain farming in dry climates uses herbicides for weed control. This avoids destructive cultivation. Seed is drilled into the compost of the last crop. This can be a highly responsible form of farming that conserves soil fertility and minimises the need for fertilizer inputs. Crops can be matured in country that used to be considered as far too dry to be viable.

The strictly organic approach to farming runs into a big problem when a hardy weed like kikuyu appears. It can be a case of use the herbicide or lose the utility of the land.

Sometimes the diehard organic visionaries go right over the top. Compounds with identical molecular formulas may be regarded as organic when synthesized by a plant and not when synthesised in a factory. Pyrethroids produced by the petroleum industry from ancient organic material or distilled by a different industrial organization from a flower are a case in point. From my point of view as a farmer, there is no distinction to be made between the chemicals derived from either source and I will purchase the cheaper version. As a spray plant operator I am no safer using one form rather than the other. I respect growers who seek a ‘natural’ approach but in some cases I see them working with one hand tied behind their backs, without good reason.

And then there are those who promote a ‘biodynamic’ approach who plan their activities according to the phases of the moon calling some days ‘flower days, and others ‘fruit’ days. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodynamic_wine and in particular review the nature of preparations 500 to 508.

A sceptical attitude is healthy.

 Maintaining soil fertility

The key to maintaining soil fertility in any agricultural system is maintaining the balance between what is removed from the system (via harvesting or burning or blowing away) and what is returned to the soil as plant debris. Nutrients to support plant growth originate in organic matter, the product of past growth, and also via slow demineralization of the native rock. Deep rooted plants – including weeds – break up the soil and build up organic matter levels at depth. Worms and other soil organisms feed at or close to the surface and may burrow deeply chasing soil moisture in drier times. Their population relates directly to their food supply – decaying plant material. A soil that is kept absolutely free of annual grass or weed growth by hard grazing, by harvesting or by herbicide will soon deteriorate. The soil then exhibits a pencil thin organic enriched zone above relatively impenetrable subsoil. The surface may become water repellent. The first rains carry what little organic matter and manure lies on the surface into the valley bottoms. Unless there is vegetation on the slopes to take up nutrient the stream may become toxic with algal growth with dreadful consequences for marine life downstream.

A monitoring programme by our local catchment group has revealed that the stream that enters our Karridale vineyard leaves the property with fewer nutrients than it has when it enters. Our mulch layer of slashed grass between and around the vines provides effective catchment for water and detritus that would otherwise run off. The annual leaf and shoot growth of the vineyard is returned directly to the soil. The second line of defence is the tea tree that grows in the valley bottoms that is an effective nutrient trap.

Viticulture that uses a total herbicide approach to weed control is irresponsible. When combined with harvesting of the crop and the burning or removal of vine prunings the system spirals into decline. Diligent control of weed growth can reduce the capacity of the soil to germinate seeds and support plant growth. The loss of organic matter will reduce future cropping levels. That’s why we have a trashy vineyard with lots of cut grass and even uncut grass sitting on the surface. This appearance is built on an appreciation of the cycle of growth, decay and regrowth. It is informed by observation of the growth of the native scrub in Jarrah country, the thinnest and meanest soil that can be found, the sort of soil that we deal with in our Dunsborough vineyard.

Nothing illustrates the value of organics quite as dramatically as the response of the vines to the application of an inch or two of straw across the row or half an inch of sawdust.

The sustainable situation is the one where organic matter levels in the soil are stable or increasing.

These comments apply to viticulture in the circumstances of our Mediterranean dry summer where weeds naturally die off in the summer months providing a protective layer of trash on the ground that assists the vine rather than competes with it. In a moist summer environment where weed competition is more sustained, a greater level of intervention may be required. It may be desirable to have plants across the row actively using moisture and competing with the vines.

Pesticides

Let’s recognise that plants produce an abundance of toxic substances for their own defence. Indiscriminate feeding on these plants can have terminal consequences. American vines successfully defend themselves from Phylloxera and Odium that will devastate the European vine. Decaying leaves of the grapevine smother and poison early weed growth in autumn. Many arid zone plants use this mechanism to prevent competitors taking root. Look under a ‘Bushy Yate’ to see this effect.

Humans select carefully those plant materials that will be consumed and dilute or prepare appropriately those which can be toxic. In seeking medicine to alleviate human ailments, herbal remedies, their use based on generations of observation, often with little in the way of a written record, are widely used despite the complete absence of rigorous testing demanded for the products of the modern chemical industry. We should recognize that we have been running this particular gauntlet for a very long time.

The potential for movement of pesticides like DDT, organochlorins and organophosphates into the food chain is well documented. There is also the very direct danger to the operator or the bystander, including animals that graze a crop soon after it is sprayed. However, a balanced view recognizes the practicalities of the situation. Exotics like the African Black beetle and the African Garden Weevil are as devastating in the Australian environment as the Eucalypt is in the African situation. The Koala, introduced to Kangaroo Island in South Australia is devastating the eucalypts to the point where culling, transportation or sterilization is necessary. These are extraordinarily difficult situations to deal with. Our choices are very limited. In many a situation of this sort a viable ‘organic approach’ is simply not available.

Our approach

The other approach is to stand back and observe. Intelligent farming cares for pest predators rather than inadvertently wiping them out with the primary target. Intelligent farming uses strange inputs in the most conservative possible fashion.

Our Mediterranean climate with its dry summers is a low input, relatively relaxed, and clean farming system. We stop spraying fungicides soon after New Year’s day and the berries are still tiny at that time. They have two to three months to lose that spray residue before the crop is picked. Elemental sulphur, the main tool used to control Powdery Mildew and mite growth volatilizes into the atmosphere, and therefore disappears with time and temperature. This is the typical vineyard stink that you get when you walk into a vineyard in spring. By the end of summer when the grapes are picked it is gone. It is necessary in the springtime when the new growth needs to be protected. By midsummer, when the grasses are dry, the pests have gone and the disease pressure falls away. Later in autumn, we pick a clean crop. In vegetable production, by contrast, the crop can be sprayed when quite mature, withholding periods for spraying may be just a few days, and the whole cycle is much shorter.

In winemaking the growth of an enormous biomass of yeast and bacteria and finally the sedimentation processes that occurs before the wine is bottled all tend to diminish the level of any residues that come in on the grapes. Fermentation is a cleansing process. Nobody washes grapes prior to fermentation. There is no available means to separate out the dust, spiders, the beetles and the ants.

I see little evidence to support the suggestion that a ‘religiously organic’ approach to viticulture, in our Mediterranean climate, is likely to produce superior outcomes for the environment, producers or consumers. There is much to learn from those who teach an organic path and much to avoid in the silver bullet approach of the chemical industry. In farming as in life, a healthy scepticism is required. One of my uncles was a Pharmacist, but he never took medicines, believed in lots of exercise, hard work and good home prepared food. We like to grow our own vegetables, wash out the slugs in the lettuce and appreciate the full flavour of our tomatoes, rocket and chillies that is unobtainable in the shops.

When the crop is harvested and treated with a toxic chemical (like SO2) to prevent the growth of moulds, yeast and bacteria and to inhibit oxidation, something that might be done to any crop regardless of its origin, we cannot pretend that it is any better for being produced on an organic farm. Grain is stored in silos and can be readily attacked by birds, rodents, insects, moulds and a panoply of fermentative and degradative processes that afflict fruit and vegetables. In preserving grain we have a choice between toxic chemicals or simply replacing oxygen with carbon dioxide.

The situation in winemaking is similar. What is the point of producing a crop that has no danger of carrying potentially harmful chemical inputs if our first step in processing the crop is to add a toxic substance? That is how I look at the use of sulphur dioxide in winemaking. It is possible produce superior wines using very little or none at all. The armoury of alternative fixes at a wine maker’s disposal include hand harvesting, inert gas and temperature control. Oxidation and bacterial growth – the chief reasons for the use of sulphur dioxide – can be avoided by the diligent winemaker.

We know that undesirable growth of micro-organisms begins as soon as the juice of the berry is exposed. In this circumstance a mechanical harvesting system is a second best option.

Cabernet Sauvignon at full maturity

Cabernet Sauvignon at full maturity

Summing Up

We are constantly being surprised by what we don’t know and never guessed. We never anticipated that plants that were genetically modified to be immune to Glyphosphate, would cross with other plants to produce a super weed. We are told that it is happening in the Canadian Prairies. Farmers are constantly facing new challenges. The world is still young. Every continent has its specialised species of plants and animals. When you take a species from one place where it is held in check by a bundle of competitors who have evolved with it over a thousand years and drop it into a new environment where there is nothing that wants to eat it, farmers face massive problems. If the farmer cannot call upon the chemical industry to supply a product to keep the new arrival in check he may be in real trouble, at least initially. However, farmers must always look to working with nature rather than against it. Intelligent farming cares for pest predators rather than inadvertently wiping them out with the primary target. Intelligent farming uses strange inputs in the most conservative possible fashion.

There is no better worker for the gardener and farmer than the humble earthworm. He lives on organic matter. If we look after him our plants will thrive and better resist disease. The best fertilizers are the slow release form that is close to slowly decaying organic materials in its release pattern. We know very little about how a plant gathers what it needs from the soil. This is still a realm where magic, mystery and funny ideas compete with hard science. Superphosphate demonstrably boosts plant growth and Australian soils are chronically deficient in that element. More plant material on and in the ground means more mycorrhizal fungi (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mycorrhiza), more earthworms, better soil structure, more organic matter at depth, greater infiltration of rainfall and better prospects for the next crop. Other, less concentrated sources of phosphate release the desired nutrient more slowly and simply represent a slower payoff for the dollar spent. That may be a good choice in many situations but not necessarily all. Sometimes you have to prime the system to get it started.

Experience

We went to a lot of trouble to run ducks to control snails, and chooks and guinea fowl to control grasshoppers. We surrounded the vineyard with a high fence to keep out foxes. But the eagles gave us a hard time, and people wouldn’t close the gates, and the foxes climbed over anyway. So we have started buying snail pellets. We chose pellets that were harmless to the birds. The snails multiplied. But large flocks of ibis appeared and cleaned out the snails! Springs became wetter and the grasshopper eggs rotted in the ground. So, there is a happy ending to this story.

In the late 90’s the South African Garden Weevil came to eat the young vines but we hated spraying so we tolerated some damage. As the years rolled on something else came to eat the weevil. Don’t know what it is but it’s doing a good job. The weevil is everywhere but the numbers are small. So, this too is a story with a happy ending.

As the vineyard gets older the soil is improving. The depth of organic matter is gradually increasing. The wines ferment with ease, showing a good nutrient level in the grapes. We must be doing something right.

In the summer the vineyard is covered with grass debris like the forest floor and this keeps the soil cool, conserving moisture. If a fire comes we are lost but in the meantime looking after the soil demands that we take that risk. This is the chief element of our organic approach to viticulture.

Experience is the great teacher. Experience requires an inquiring mind close observation and lots of time at the coalface. You can’t get that experience sitting at a desk steering a computer. That said, I couldn’t imagine life without a computer and Google search.