2013 Night Harvesting with Anthony Scholz in the Barossa Valley
The one good thing about jetlag is that it’s not a problem to meet a wine grower at 5am to go out and see the harvesting machines at work. I’d been up since 4am so I was glad to be out and about.
I was in the Barossa Valley for a very quick trip last week and serendipitously it was also the tail end of the harvest. 2013 happens to be a bit of a strange year in the Barossa as it’s a very early harvest but not because of any particular reason. It just seems that all the grapes are ready to come in at the same time. Every grower and wine maker I talked to couldn’t quite explain why the harvest was so early but they were unanimous in their opinion that although it will be a small harvest, the grapes were in excellent condition and 2013 is on course to be a great vintage. It might not be as good as 2012 but it certainly wouldn’t be far behind.
How I came to be riding on top of a grape harvester is a funny story. I tweeted that I was going to the Barossa and would have time to meet anyone who had time to talk to me. Two seconds later, winegrower Anthony Scholz tweeted me an invitation and a week later, there I was watching this gigantic machine beat the hell out of the vines.Little did I know that Anthony is one of the most innovative growers in the Barossa but more on that later.
If you’ve ever walked behind a grape harvester you will know it is loud and violent. I felt sorry for the poor vines, as I commented to Anthony, it’s kinda like a mini-earthquake for them. He assured me though that the vines are sturdy suckers and judging by the aftermath of the harvester, they looked none the worse for wear to me. I later found out that the vines have so much water in them that they are pretty difficult to break. Thinking about it, I have tried to break a vine limb in the past and they are rather flexible. See how loud the harvester is…
The harvester is a nifty machine, with soft rubber beaters that shake all the berries off without breaking them. I had a look at them after they’d been harvested and they were all perfect, round, little berries. It’s common to use harvesters in the Barossa, as a matter of fact, most growers use machine harvesters and there are few vineyards nowadays that are harvested by hand, unless they are old vines, of which the Barossa does have a lot of, but more on that later.
Anthony showed me around his vines, he grows 41 hectares of shiraz in the western part of the Barossa and talked about the relationship that growers have with the winemakers and wineries. Most winemakers and wineries in Australia source grapes from growers, a situation similar to Champagne except that the Barossa growers deal directly with the wineries and there isn’t a co-op system as in France. One major winery I spoke to said that something like 82% of their fruit is sourced from growers (which is not unusual), so it’s easy to see why it’s important to have good relations. The growers see themselves as farmers striving to produce the best grapes possible for their customers. It’s about …”good grower/winery relationships…if you have that then you end up with a consistent wine. It’s also about getting the best output of the season…” Anthony explained and “…it’s value chain thinking not supply chain thinking…”
Just because he doesn’t make wine himself doesn’t mean he scrimps out in the fields. Anthony spoke about the importance of vineyard management and to a greater extent water management. Because the Barossa is such a dry area, they are allocated water every year and once that water has been used, there is no more to be had, unless you buy it at very high rates. Anthony has found a clever way to conserve his water allocation. He has constructed an earthen dam the size of a football pitch where he keeps in water and covers it with a plastic tarp. This helps prevent evaporation and remarkably, he told me that this year, he has left over water, something of a rarity in the Barossa.
Anthony is also using other innovative ways to make the best use of his water supply. For example, this year he has started to lay straw mulch around the some of his vines to keep moisture in after they have been irrigated. He says it works wonderfully and has plans to expand the straw mulch program throughout his vineyards. He also uses a soil moisture sensor to monitor and optimize the frequency and volume of water applied to the vines, yet another way to get the best management of his water supply.
He also believes that you “…gotta give the land back better then you found it…” and his vineyards are all set up with the best viticultural practices in mind. Soil health is very important to Anthony, it gives better infiltration and this also allows water to be held in the soil, which wastes less of it – for him, it’s a holistic approach to the whole system. He also analyzes every block of his vines to find the weak points and then tries to fix the weakest link. He uses some biodynamic practices with his vines because he’s seen the results in other vineyards but at the moment he says that as he’s only converted to bio practices 3 years ago he can’t really say if it’s been beneficial. In the end, “…good viticulture is the answer (because) it leads to wineries trusting you and you trusting them…” He does what’s best for the vines and won’t use harmful pesticides or herbicides on his vines. As a matter of fact, he said that the native Wallaby grass is starting to make a comeback in his vineyards.
His philosophy of good water management, healthy soil and healthy vines has made him one of the most sought after growers in the Barossa and he is choosy about which wineries and winemakers he works with. I got to taste some of the wines made from his vines and the proof was definitely in the pudding.
I’ll be posting on those in the next week or so as after our visit to the vineyards, we headed off to visit some of Anthony’s grapes as they were being pressed and in the finished product.