From wide to close, our pinot journey.
It’s a nice nostalgia to reflect on the explorative days in 2010 and 2011 as plans were made to establish the Darshan and Block 8 sites, for an evolution from our 1988 commencement plantings at 2,500 vines per hectare to 11,000+. Whoosh….time flies! It’s a sadness that founding Father Bill (Darshan) isn’t here to enjoy the results of those discussions and decisions; we are farming relationships with family and friends as much as we are farming vines for wines.
In 2010 an enlightening visit to the adventurous Erinn Klein at the Adelaide Hills winery Ngeringa was made to discuss closer planting and its management. Erinn showed me his narrow German Niko ‘tractor’. Erinn imported (as far as I know) the first narrow track machine to Australia in 2004. At this exploratory time the successfully established Victorian references we used were Bannockburn (1.2 meter rows in the 1986 Serre vineyard) and Bass Philip (1979, 9,000 to 17,000 vines per hectare). Visiting Bass Phillip often in 1991-1993 was confounding and inspiring for the vineyard was provocatively closer and lower than most (and Philip is an engaging and idiosyncratic character!).
It’s true that less intensively planted, carefully farmed vines on a fabulous site will produce superior wine to intensively farmed vines on a lesser site. Having vision is necessary, but having site is fundamental. There are many great wines made around the world from varying planting densities. The vineyard site is absolutely the key and thereafter appropriate vineyard configuration and farming maximise the potential. For example, the wide rows of Hill of Grace will make superior wine to a 10,000 vine per hectare vineyard on a poorer site nearby. And, within reason, vineyard site trumps expenditure; the most intensively and obsessively farmed flat land Bourgogne Rouge will not be as good as a merely well farmed Grand Cru half way up the hill. Hence established greats like Hill of Grace and Richebourg honour site first and vision second. This is the nature of ‘Terroir’.
Hands on and back bending learnings came from picking and pruning in Champagne in 1994 with Delphine Vesselle in Bouzy. Further education came from visiting 25 other small grower Champagne producers at that time. Seeing how closely planted vines were farmed (and wines made) during an inspiring 50 Domaine tour in Burgundy in January 1995 provided many ‘light bulb’ moments that could not and would not be ignored. It goes back even further though, to the late 1980s in fact, to Stuart Anderson (ex Balgownie) and Ann and John Ellis (Hanging Rock). Stuart had done 20 or so vintages in France in the vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux and spoke inspiringly and encouragingly about their ways of farming when I began helping him in 1991 making Pinot Noir. In the 1970s and 1980s Stuart was also involved in importing wines grown this way from many of the great small producers of France. What he had and what he knew from making, buying and selling he shared generously with us and the local Macedon Ranges vignerons. At this time Ann and John had planted at 2m x 1m (after toying with the idea of an over the row tractor for farming at 1m x 1m but opted to stay wider) and they discussed the benchmarks and logic for intensively farmed vines.
In recent years there’s been inspiring and excitingly adventurous progress. In our region the Coopers at Cobaw Ridge (wide rows established in 1985 and a reference for us in our early days) went closer first with their 2011 Pinot planting of 1.2m wide rows. At home our Bindi tribute Darshan was planted in 2014 (11k to 22k Ha) and Block 8 in 2016 (11k to 22k), which also coincided with the 2016 Ten Minutes by Tractor commencement in Mornington of their dense (12k) adventure. Dwarfing these is the grand vision of the Sandro Mosel led Mornington Peninsula project with 120,000 vines at 11,111 per hectare! Viticulturist Tim Brown (starting with his father in 1988, now starting his own intensive project at Taradale in the Macedon Ranges and working with Bindi since 2005) has been a godsend, drawing on 30+ years of viticultural work and thought. A lot has changed in Victoria in this decade of increased density; there are many more Nikos on the ground and on the way. Excitingly, there are four new projects in our region that are soon to be planted (Drummond, Taradale, Bullengarook and Trentham) with their own interpretations of close on intriguing, diverse sites. The more the merrier, for we all benefit and share as the sum of the parts combine for the greater good (the rising tide lifts all boats).
So what have we learned? A lot. It takes visits and tastings to do explanations justice and enjoyably there’s been quite a bit of that going on (pre and between lockdowns!). Realistically, we observe and accept that there have been many compromises along the way and that the endeavour cannot be one of perfection; our vineyards are a pragmatic pursuit of passion. Installing irrigation is (of course) a compromise, one we comfortably made and sometimes use (though, interestingly and encouragingly, less frequent in the closer plantings). Tilling under-vine is a compromise and is abhorred by some (but we quite like it and, well, it’s softer than herbicide). Sometimes we choose to crop thin, though not in the last three years (to ensure yields of less than 500 grams per vine), we trim extra long shoots and we spray the canopy with sulphur and (heavy metal (toxic?)) copper (which are permissible organic inputs). We have (now three times in 17 seasons) used the systemic foliar spray Ridomil to reduce copper use in order to prevent devastating pre fruit set crop loss in the face of severe downy mildew pressure. We are striving in our own ways for soil and vine health. Opening the soil, composting, manure preparations, seaweed emulsions, 17 seasons of no herbicide and no systemic pesticide, observing increased life in, and friability of, the soils, shoot thinning and more are all leading to healthy vines and wines. The compromises are honest but fewer, some are comfortable, some uncomfortable.
Now we get to line up six individual Bindi Pinots which tell personal stories. In the higher density vineyards we are seeing balanced vines growing very closely, impressive root depth and spread, early and deep lignification of canes and stems, smaller bunches and berries and less moisture stress. In the wines we are witnessing increasing complexity and mouthfeel with strong site expression. This is all very exciting and rewarding. It’s still early days but we are now within two years for the release of the Darshan and Block 8 wines, having made vintages 2017 to 2021. Satisfyingly, there really is now something meaningful to taste and discuss. There’s a decade of treading the sentimental path, from the days we walked and imagined these new sites when kicking the Bindi stones in 2010 and surveying the soils in the winter of 2011 which confirmed their strong connections to the adjacent Block 5 and Quartz vineyards.
Here’s to the varied vine growers of many places being determined enough to give it a go and who graciously contribute to that rising tide that is lifting all boats. Each will imaginatively make their own interpretations of row width, trellis height and vine structure, irrigation, soil management, crop loads and winemaking. When all that is said and done, as the notion of terroir (of somewhereness) dictates, it will be the quality of each site and the year on year consistency of its delicious wines that provides the pleasure in the glass.