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Natural wonder

Publish Date: 09 Mar 2016

Authored by: Interviewed by Jane Faulkner

Minus machines and chemicals, Will Berliner tends to his ‘garden’ in WA’s Margaret River, crafting chardonnay and cabernet under his Cloudburst label. Here, he tells his story.


Photograph: Sarah Hewer

“Contrary to what some people might say, there was no grand plan with Cloudburst. It just evolved. We were in America, my wife’s Australian and we came back looking for a property and found this land. It’s unreal. We said this is the most beautiful place we’ve ever seen and we still feel that way. We bought 100 hectares in 2004 bordering a national park and we have bush for several kilometres and lots and lots of plants, peppi trees, wildflowers and so many orchids. I had never been in such a warm climate, but I wanted to grow fruit, avocadoes and the plan was to visit on a yearly basis.

Why Margaret River? I love the national park. I love the ocean. I love how everything’s green and people grow things. I saw farms, lot of cows, and vineyards, which of course didn’t mean anything to me other than the land is somewhat locked up in a certain way. I wasn’t wine orientated, I was land orientated. Margaret River ticked the boxes.

Initially, I wanted to plant something to block out the road from where we wanted to build a house. We were going to grow avocadoes, but discovered they would be too expensive and being half-way around the world, not sustainable. It seemed logical to go into grapes and, as we’re on Caves Road, the agronomist thought we had exceptional soils for vines.

I planted cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay in 2005, and in 2006 three more blocks including malbec. So, five blocks are producing with a few more coming on including a home block of cabernet by 2018, which seems to be on classic Wilyabrup soil. Everything is close planted, dry-grown, farmed organically with biodynamics.

Everything is done by hand. We weed by hand. We compost everything together with the exception of kikuyu. [It’s invasive]… it’s the most incredibly adapted grass. If you break off a runner, kikuyu secretes a poison knocking out potential competitors. The only spray I use is a seaweed extract in a compost tea mixed with some sulphur in the hope of keeping powdery mildew at bay. But I do not use copper, which is allowed in biodynamics. Why is it allowed? It’s supposedly natural, but it kills everything. And I mean everything. My earth is alive and the thought of spraying something that’s going to kill those organisms gives me the willies.

A star emerges

I took our first wine from the 2010 vintage back to America and some sommeliers in New York said ‘This is freakin’ great. It opens up like Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, ooh wow Corton.’ Really? Well Corton is creamier, but I can get there.

I started selling first in the States. There was no marketing plan. I had to start my own import company and people bought the wine. I had to do it myself because no one wanted any in Australia. I have been asked, how, in such a short space of time, I could make these wines [and charge more than $200 a bottle]? But it’s not a few years. Growing stuff is not new for me. My whole life has been about studying plants, animals and connections. I’ve had gardens and the only thing new is it’s grapes now, not apple trees.

I thought if I’m going to grow grapes, I’m going to do it really well. How, I don’t know. But one thing happened – I met the Watsons [owners of Woodlands Estate where Cloudburst is vinified]. Stuart Watson took me on my first-ever barrel tasting and I was babbling on saying this was my dream. He said, ‘You really understand something no one else does. You’ve got to meet my Dad’. Stuart is one of my friends, co-winemaker and mentor, and his father David, also a mentor and incredibly generous, challenged me. He said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I want to make incredible wine. ‘Like what?’ I had no idea. He inspired me by opening bottles of Latour, Chateau d’Yquem... incredible wines. It was a revelation. I had a revelation.

I didn’t come to Margaret River with an idea to make an impact on the world of wine. I came to live in this beautiful place and try to make the most amazing wine I could because it interests me. I didn’t come to make a large quantity of wine so I could sell it cheaply. I came to make a limited quantity of amazing wine, which I have done. I hope to continue to do so. In the interim, I’ve disrupted this, challenged that, stirred up the status quo. I really didn’t come to do anything other than ask questions.

I’m a gardener. I’m doing my best to look and listen to something deeper than my training and knowledge [Will studied forestry at Yale University and later, wine at University of California, Davis]. In the vines, I’ve gone the long way around and most contemporaries – I’m not talking about Margaret River or Australia – ask why. It’s very costly. Well, I’m cognisant of the costliness of our attitude. We end up doing things for expedience, economics or egotism. We feel we are entitled to the gifts coming our way, never realising it’s not because we’re good or deserving, but simply because that’s what nature does. I have a gift of an astonishing site, in this remarkable place, among some absolutely exceptional people. I came not for commerce, but something else. Call it spirit.

Gardening versus viticulture

Gardening means the land is of a size manageable by humans, not by machines. Every machine separates us from having a connection with the land, keeps us a step away from touching the vineyard. Every machine has consequences. For example, using a weed-whacker – whack, whack, whack – and the vineyard might look really nice and manicured, but all it does is knock the top off of the weeds sending out the seeds (in preparation to sprout) and nicks the bottom of the vine causing fungus to set in. I don’t want to live with the consequence of having broken my vine because I was able to work more quickly. It takes five minutes to walk up a row with the weed-whacker and even if you did it perfectly, 10 days later have to do it again. I spend an hour on my hands and knees, and I pull out those weeds and they end up as compost. They are gone from my soil. It took an hour as opposed to five minutes so it’s very inefficient. Or is it? And you know what? I’m not listening to the noise of a weed-whacker – I’m listening to the birds, the ocean, the wind and that’s Cloudburst. Cloudburst is a garden.

I’m aspiring to make the best possible and cleanest expression of fruit without machines and chemicals. It’s my goal. We do absolutely nothing to disturb the vines, only biodynamic applications and some sulphur, but nothing deleterious. Dig down into the soils and there are all kinds of organisms – Cloudburst’s forest of vines.

It’s a truism that wine is made in the vineyard and in my case it’s absolutely so. The 2010 is amazing, rounded with incredible length and mouthfeel, yet different. Yes, it’s made at Woodlands, but it doesn’t taste like Woodlands. Yeah, it’s biodynamic, but it doesn’t taste like Cullen. We have our own deep expression every year although it’s different, whereas in the winery I’m still learning.

We moved from the States to Margaret River in 2012. Stuart suggested, ‘You now live in this area and you’re part of the community, you should enter the Margaret River Wine Show (2013) and see where you stand with us.’ Cloudburst ended up winning three trophies for our 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon – best single vineyard estate red, best cabernet and red wine of show. Only then did I start selling a little wine in Australia. Suddenly, people started to look at our little vegetable patch and what the non-tractor guy was doing.

What’s in a name

On the morning of my first vintage, there were clear skies everywhere except over my vineyard. Clouds rolled in and it poured on our vineyard. Someone phoned asking, ‘What’s going on with the cloudburst?’ I looked up and there was a Renaissance-coloured sky with gold, the clouds, a rainbow; the whole place was resplendent with light. Actually, it was pretty trippy. Thinking about it, I’m in a drought country and we’ve just had this wonderful, life-giving precious water and it dawned on me: the consequences of approaching things in an almost non-Western way is to listen, to be in an appropriate relationship with the land, the plants and, biodynamics aside, with the cosmos. Suddenly I thought that’s what a cloudburst is – a gift of something precious and needed and unexpected.

Okay, we’re Cloudburst. The wine turned out to be extremely flavourful and people liked it, and uniformly told me Cloudburst was a shit name. I stuck to my guns. I like it because I can say, while pouring a wine, ‘Want some Cloudburst? Want to taste the Cloudburst?”

Four to try
Tasting notes by Jane Faulkner

2014 Cloudburst Chardonnay ($250)
95 points

Since his first vintage in 2010, Will Berliner has been heading towards adopting wild yeast fermentation, with the ’14 hitting 100%. Cloudburst’s chardonnays are bold, full of flavour and rich, but never heavy or worked. This has the hallmarks of the vintage and vineyard – an amalgam of fleshy stone fruit, ginger spice and florals, some smoky oak influences, neatly integrated thoughout. It’s creamy, leesy and textural with a fine line of acidity keeping it poised. Such energy in this chardonnay.

2013 Cloudburst Cabernet Sauvignon ($275)
95 points

Stylistically, Cloudburst’s cabernet has been the stronger wine, finding its groove seemingly more easily than the chardonnay, although Will thinks the contrary. Still, the 2013 cabernet sauvignon is pitch-perfect. Ripe, detailed tannins, a core of concentrated, sweet fruit, wafts of spice and oak, all in balance though, and an appealing umami, savoury character coming through. As with all the cabernets, there’s a splash of malbec in the mix.

2012 Cloudburst Cabernet Sauvignon ($275)
96 points

While all Cloudburst wines have revealed an extraordinary depth, the 2012 cabernet sauvignon is the most compelling to date. Such astonishing tannins, almost powdery and then there’s the core of dense and ripe luscious fruit, all juicy and bright. Full-bodied, excellent balance, also some currants, florals and creamy nuances. And the length of this wine – wow.

2013 Cloudburst Malbec ($275)
93 points

From 2012, Cloudburst has managed to yield enough malbec for a separate bottling and again for the ’13. Superb colour – deep purple and enticing, really aromatic floral, earthy and spicy. On the palate, the dark, rich fruit is so intense and concentrated, round and full-bodied yet lively acidity keeps this from being mawkish; ripe tannins, tangy and grippy, and the result is a moreish Aussie malbec.

Next article: read Jane's interview with the couple behind CRFT wines in SA

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