News Articles

Meet the unsung heroes of winemaking

Publish Date: 17 Mar 2017

Authored by: Sarah Gamboni

Ahead, we chat to three people charged with tending to some of the country’s finest vines, including Ben Thomson of Best’s Great Western, Suzie Muntz of Xanadu Wines and Michael Lane of Yangarra Estate.

“You can’t make diamonds out of bricks,” says Xanadu’s Glenn Goodall, the winemaker behind some of Australia’s top-rated wines.

The refrain that good wine begins in the vineyard is echoed across the industry, as wineries increasingly seek to produce styles that show a true sense of place. For every 98-point cabernet sauvignon that lands on our table, there’s a team out there among the vines, battling the elements to coax the best out of their fruit. 

Michael Lane of Yangarra Estate

Of all the working dynamics that exist within a winery, it’s the relationship between viticulturist and winemaker that’s most vital. And at Yangarra Estate in McLaren Vale, it’s a union that’s outlasted many marriages.

Viticulturist Michael Lane and winemaker Peter Fraser first started working together 18 years ago when the winery was owned by Normans Wines. Now part of Jackson Family Wines, Yangarra is home to 35 individual blocks, spanning 70-year-old bush-vine grenache and more recent plantings of southern Rhone varietals.

Peter says of Michael: “To have someone who’s looking after your grapes, who worries about them as much as you do and who takes the same pride in the grapes as I do the wine, is so important.”

Over the years, Michael says there’s been an evolution in style “from those broader wines with upfront fruit to the much more finessed and food-friendly styles of today.” And while Peter’s innovative winemaking style has led the charge with whole bunches, cold soaks and ceramic eggs, it’d all be for naught if Michael hadn’t adjusted his growing practices to suit.

“We’re looking for varietal character and in the vineyard, that means trying to get the phenolics right rather than looking for sugar ripeness,” he says. “Canopy management, leaf plucking and shoot placement early on are all ways we can get our flavour profile right.”

The biggest change, however, has been the switch to biodynamics, spearheaded by Peter 10 years ago. “We had always focused on an integrated pest management system, so we were quite soft in our approach anyway,” Michael recalls. “When Pete suggested we switch to biodynamics, I was a bit like, ‘Whoa, we’re being as soft as we can,’ but the next step was to drop all the chemicals out completely.

“It required a change in mindset, to start looking at vine growth so that it was beneficial for vigour, biodiversity and getting slightly better fruit set,” says Michael. It took two to three years for any imbalances in the vineyard to correct themselves, but today the Blewitt Springs property is the poster child for biodynamics. “Our focus is on the practical side of biodynamics, rather than the spiritual side,” Michael explains. “We’re not out there clapping fish together; we still use the latest viticulture practices along with those biodynamic preparations.” They no longer spray for pests, and in winter, sheep and cattle are brought in to graze among the vines, creating a thriving environment of flora and fauna. “For me, the goal is to leave the place better than when I found it.”

“Our focus is on the practical side of biodynamics. We’re not out there clapping fish together.”

You can see shades of that natural symbiosis in the relationship between big-picture Peter and the more practical-minded Michael. “Often I’ll have these ideas, and Michael will say, ‘Yes that’s a good idea’, or ‘No that’s a bad idea’,” Peter says. “He has a logical, practical way of looking at things that helps keep me in line.

“We know how each other works, especially during the busy times of harvest. I’ll be thinking a certain block might be ready, and he’s already on it because he’s often ahead of things,” Peter says. “We have an ability to communicate without saying a word.”

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