When the opportunity arose for me to work vintage at Stanton & Killeen for 2016, I accepted it with a sense of curiosity and trepidation. My memories tell me that vintage was always a mysterious time, when Dad would disappear for days and nights and return with dark shadows under his eyes and a generous 5 o’clock shadow. Would I be able to deal with the physical challenge? Would I accidentally pump red wine into white wine?
A 'nutty' start to the year...
Now that we are coming into winter, we have all had time to breath a sigh of relief and reflect upon the whirlwind start to the year. An unusually warm spring meant that the 2016 vintage was one of the earliest with the Chardonnay rudely interrupting our Australia Day long weekends. The first pick of the year is always the most exciting as it marks the occasion in a big way. Vintage is what we all work toward and in fact, our ‘year’ starts during the depths of winter when we prune for the following autumn harvest (or more commonly now, the summer harvest).
Most weeks were a blur of picking and crushing with weekends spent plunging and checking progress. Normally, no winery in their right mind would plan to have the bottling truck arrive any time during vintage because you just never know when you have to drop everything to harvest and process fruit. “Madness” said Rowly from Scion, shaking his head in disbelief. We were really keen to bottle the Moscato in time for Tastes of Rutherglen and our March club packs so Andrew took a brave guess and booked the 8th-10th of March.
Those few weeks will go down as some of the most nutty as we started picking at midnight on Monday 7th followed by a standard 12 hour day, bottled Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, picked again at midnight on Friday and finished the week with last minute setting up for Tastes of Rutherglen. More harvesting after the long weekend kept us from seeking any sleep with Wagga Food & Wine Festival and an early Easter meant that there were no days off in March. It was a great time for visitors to Rutherglen as they were able to see all the action first-hand. By the time April rolled around, our eyes were well and truly hanging out of our heads and we were desperate for some cooler weather.
When the grapes are ready...
The S&K winery was built in the days of long, slow vintages where everything was predictable and pleasant (within reason), and one of the biggest issues was finding enough tank and fermenter space. Andrew and Ruston were forever juggling timetables of not only when grapes were ready to be picked but also if we were even able to process the fruit. It was another record breaking warm summer, which means so many varieties ripened at the same time. I noticed on social media that this was a common issue at wineries around Australia. Sometimes you have to make the call between two different vineyards and hope that the BOM get the forecast wrong and the weather will change (or the grapes you leave until the next pick will be okay in the meantime!).
Despite the warmer than usual weather, the fruit we received this year was by far the best we’ve had in a really long time. Big, bright, juicy bunches that you could taste the flavour and tannins straight from berries. We still have a little way to go but the effort and investment we’ve made in the vineyards has been one of the most fundamental changes to ensure that S&K can continue to deliver high quality wine to our loyal customers.
One particularly gruelling week...
My heart swelled with pride and admiration at the end of one particularly gruelling week. We’re a small team at S&K which means that we all had to work longer and harder than we would like during vintage.
Our harvester is quite old and whilst it has faithfully chugged along over the years, old Nairny gets a bit weary at the sight of the sticky muscat. The longer muscat and topaque (muscadelle) grapes are left on the vine, the harder it is to get them off. We leave them for a long time to let the grapes take on rich flavours and high sugar levels, necessary for complex Rutherglen fortifieds. Having started at midnight, Nairny had been going well before breaking down at 8am on a Thursday.
It took the next 24 hours for the mechanic to travel to Rutherglen, work out the problem, order the necessary part, locate it, and travel back to S&K to fix it. He worked on it well into the night and early the next morning and by 9am Friday morning we were ready for another bash at the muscat. The mercury was rising and we were under no illusions that today wouldn’t be any different to the previous two weeks- 38°C in the shade!
Normally we would start picking at night in the cool of the evening when the vines are “asleep” and the fruit (juice) is cool. On a really hot day, the vines start to shut down and the grapes are even harder to get off. The slower the picker had to go, the longer the day became. Battling fatigue, Ruston drove the picker up and down the rows whilst Paddy, Marz and David took turns as spotter, chaser tractor driver and bin driver. Mum also put on some old farm clothes and helped sort fruit and leaves on the back of the tractor, amid jokes of “who’s the new girl?”.
Finally by 6pm, the vineyard team had pulled off the last of the muscat and started the long clean up process. Andrew, Joe and I still had to crush and pump through the wine and clean up the winery. It was 9.30pm at night before we all went home, exhausted and relieved. I knew that S&K was blessed with a hardworking team but everyone showed a level of tenacity, grit and perseverance that made me so grateful to have experienced the physical and mental challenge of working during vintage. It really brings people together.
There's no such thing as an average year anymore...
The heat, sunburn, sticky grapes and leaves, scratches, back breaking work lugging hoses and plunging, the blisters, the tired eyes, constant hunger and sore feet; these were all feelings that typify vintage. It’s not glamorous and once the winery is cleaned up and the juice is sent to barrel or bottle, it’s easy to forget the hard yakka that goes into a glass of wine.
Wine still is, and always will be, an agricultural product and Mother Nature often has other ideas. Climate Change is a real issue for those in the Australian wine industry and you won’t find any deniers here at S&K. We witness the changes everyday and are making decisions to prepare us for the future including grape variety choice and efficient water usage. Every year is different and extreme weather events can stop wine production in its tracks. Mum often says that “there’s no such thing as an average year anymore”, but I guess that’s what keeps things exciting here in Rutherglen. Growing grapes and making wine gives the year rhythm and structure, and the changing seasons offers you something look forward to. We’re so pleased with S&K’s 141st vintage and are proud to offer a little taste of what life is like in Rutherglen.
As for me working vintage, I'm proud to say I didn't ruin any wine. In fact, I may see if there are any crusher cleaning championships around as I got that down pat.
Feeding the grape marc and must to the cows was a favourite part of the day. They were like excited puppies when they saw the ute and trailer coming though the gate.
Every winery has had them. Those days when your wine accidentally ends up on the floor and not in the vat...
The S&K Team from left-André, Andrew, Marie, Ruston, David, Patrick, Joe W, Natasha, Joe D and Ros (we're missing Wendy).
Catching the morning sunrise from the roof of the winery made the early starts worth it. The hardest hour was just before dawn- the darkest and coldest. That's when we all got the grumps and the yawns, our equivalent of the "3pm slump". We solved the issue with a hot BBQ brekky.