There's no better winemaking adage than "great wines are made in the vineyard". You can do the fanciest science with the ferments and buy the best oak, but unless the fruit is in top condition once it hits the winery during vintage, it's like trying to use cheap plastic wrap...it just doesn't work. Our vineyards have been a top priority over the last few years and when Ruston Prescott joined Stanton & Killeen as our Viticulturist in December 2013, he and his team had their work cut out for them.
TIME FOR A CHANGE
Like many farmers, we had used traditional methods for years that, over time, had depleted the natural biodiversity of the soil. The Millennium drought (which broke in 2010) was one of the worst we had experienced, and put an enormous amount of stress on our vines. It wasn’t all bad news, however, as dry years can mean minimal occurrence of disease and some of our best vintage ports are from the drought years (as our Portuguese varieties don’t mind a bit of heat stress). A couple of extremely severe frosts in the spring of 2013 also gave our vines a beating.
So when Ruston started in December 2013, he implemented a three year rejuvenation program with the main focus of increasing soil health and vineyard biodiversity, re-trellising and improving the vineyard structure (posts and wires), a hard pruning the first winter, installing a more efficient watering system and changing the canopy structure to allow the right amount of shade and sunlight onto the grapes and increase airflow.
Cover crops of various varieties were planted in between the rows as they are one of the best ways to increase soil health and encourage natural insects back into the vineyard. Harsh chemicals were done away with and a natural fertiliser (that’s safe enough to consume!) was implemented. The vines lapped it up and the improvement was extraordinary.
Above: 'Bud burst' in one of our muscat vineyards in spring.
JACK'S BLOCK BACK FROM THE BRINK
Our Jack's Block vineyard, planted in 1921 by fourth generation Jack Stanton, has produced some of our best fruit over the years with our iconic Jack’s Block Shiraz one our most sought-after wines. However, we haven’t produced one since 2008 as the vineyard really started to deteriorate towards the end of the drought. We only ever want to produce an outstanding wine under this label so getting it back into top condition was our priority.
Salinity was a major concern because, if left unchecked, it can spread and completely destroy the ecology of the soil. After initial tests, the first thing was to remove any dead or dying vines, plant deep-rooted cover crops between the rows and plant ‘Old Man Salt Bush’ in the affected areas and around the perimeter of the vineyards. There was a very high success rate of the survival of these bushes and the plan quickly started to work. The grasses between the rows grew well and the soil maintained moisture during summer. In 2-3 years, once the new plantations are mature, they will lower the natural water table which in turn will reduce the surface salt content that is killing trees, bush land and vines. This project will take a few more years to complete but we have been very happy with the results so far.
The fruit from 2015 was some of the best in years and we have made a JC Shiraz after John Charles ‘Jack’ Stanton. The 2016 fruit from this vintage was even better and we are getting very excited about the development of the wine made from the block this year. You can read here about how Andrew Drumm, our winemaker, got the best out the fruit using various trials.
Above: Seedlings of 'Old Man Salt Bush' planted in spring, 2014
Above: An extensive section of salinity affected 'Jack's Block Muscat' undergoing rejuvenation with salt bush and cover crops.
Above: Salt bush in Jack's Block in summer of 2015
CLIMATE CHANGE AND SUITABLE VARIETIES
Vine or variety choice is also a really important consideration. Just as we wouldn’t plant Sauvignon Blanc in Rutherglen, cooler regions with higher summer rainfall wouldn't do well by planting late-ripening, heat-loving Durif. Chris Killeen planted many different Portuguese varieties in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s to use in his unique style of Vintage Fortifieds (port). With an increase in warmer weather and drier seasons, these varieties have done particularly well as Rutherglen’s climate is very similar to the parts of Portugal where they originate.
Many grape growers and winemakers have noticed that vines are coming out of winter dormancy earlier, Vintage is getting earlier and the weather is doing strange things. This unpredictability can be unnerving but one thing Stanton & Killeen is pursuing is to plant varieties better suited to our changing climate and to our region. The success of our established Portuguese varieties encouraged us to explore more white and red varieties- such as Arinto, Antão Vaz, Alvarinho, Tinta Amarella and Touriga Franca- that will thrive in our terroir.
Some have already been planted and some of the vines are still in quarantine and like all good things, we will have to be patient to see the fruits of our labour (pun intended!).
Above: Marie planting Arinto and Alvarinho vines in spring 2015, with cover crops to be slashed and mulched in summer.
Above: The new Arinto vines in spring 2015, then April 2016. We may be able to harvest the first fruit in 2018.
PROOF IS IN THE PUDDING
Our team has spent a great deal of time and effort in improving the vineyards and wines of Stanton & Killeen and it has been fulfilling to see the rewards and positive results. After many years, our oldest vineyard- Jack’s Block- is producing outstanding fruit once again, we are using less water and resources, the bees and bugs are back to help fight off other pests naturally, the soil looks good enough to eat, and the vines are growing vigorously with bright, fresh fruit flavour in the bunches.
Rutherglen experienced some very warm weather during the last vintage that felt as if it was never going to end. It hardly rained a drop between January and April and the constant warm nights and sweltering days were very trying. At a time when vines can start exhibiting heat stress, we were so pleased to see our vineyards, especially the Portuguese varieties, were relatively happy. ‘The Tintas’ (Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão and Tinta Roriz) faired the best and seemed to be saying, “You think this is hot? Try harder”.
Above: Jack's Block fruit on the day of handpicking in March, 2016
SUSTAINABILITY THE NORM, NOT INNOVATION
It hasn't been cheap turning our patch into a more sustainable operation but it's been a cost we've seen as essential. The environment is our most precious asset and it takes both farmers and consumers to ensure the right decisions are made. There has been plenty of media attention recently on climate change and sustainable food and beverage production and if you're reading this, you're probably one of those people interested in reading about where your favourite products come from and how they're made. S&K still has a way to go to get it right but it's encouraging to see sustainability and production ethics hit the mainstream conversation, and hopefully sustainability will become the norm, not 'innovation’.