A close look at Max Allen’s The Future Makers
This fascinating book, published in 2010, explores the effects of global warming on Australia’s vineyard areas. Among these effects are said to be
- Shorter ripening seasons bringing vintages forward and reducing fruit quality
- Shrinking water resources threatening most of our traditional vineyard areas
- Large parts of our traditional vineyard areas becoming unsustainable
- A reduction in the quantity of Australia’s wine grape crop.
It looks like Max Allen completed The Future Makers in 2009, the year of the fires that burnt across Victoria and South Australia and destroyed so many lives and homes around King Lake just north of the Yarra Valley. 2009 followed the hard drought years of 2007 and 2008. By 2009, the River Murray was reduced to a trickle, and governments were at last forced to take action to rein in the wanton waste of irrigation water.
Forget the projections, just look at the facts
‘Many winemakers will tell you that global warming not only is already here,’ Max writes, ‘but also started to make its presence felt well before the consciousness-changing 2007 vintage.’ That was the vintage when apparently most of the cynics stopped scoffing at the warnings that business as usual was no longer an option. Max quotes various winemakers who say their vintages have started earlier and earlier in every year of the last decade. Many tell Max they now finish picking at the same time harvest used to begin.
The pendulum swung the other way in 2010, producing the most ‘normal’ conditions in a decade. The year 2011 produced 4 times the average amount of rain in parts of NSW, most of Victoria and South Australia. There was widespread flooding along the major river systems, and some areas simply didn’t get enough sun to ripen the grapes fully. A picture perfect 2012 vintage followed in South Australia, and it was a good year in Victoria too, apart from March rains in some parts.
Those who believe that global warming is a plot devised by bleeding-heart, Chardonnay-swilling intellectuals will point to the last three years as proof that these extremes are perfectly normal events in mother nature’s calendar. Those who look further ahead, as serious vignerons tend to, are not content to sit on their hands. Max Allen’s horror scenario is one where winemakers have to abandon their vineyards in McLaren Vale or Clare, and set up shop in Tasmania or the high country around Orange.
A more practical option is converting existing vineyards to water conserving viticultural practices and grape varieties that can handle the hotter, drier conditions. Biodynamic and organic farming practices are designed to retain more moisture, more carbon and more microbial life in the soil. They’re no longer the preserve of hippie drop-outs, Max tells us. Many serious wineries have followed this route in recent years, among them
- Frankland Estate
- Lark Hill
- Meerea Park
Green winemaking? You can’t be serious!
Before we get too carried away by
visions of clean, green wines, let’s look at what Simon Clayfield, a veteran of
the Great Western region, says to Max Allen: ‘Wine industry turning green?
Don’t make me laugh. The only green thing is the vine leaf.’ A blunt reality
check, but a valid one. The vineyard is only one part of the picture, wineries
are another challenge altogether.
Clayfield explains: ‘Winemaking is not a lot different from other chemical engineering factories. Things go in one end and come out the other. We cut down a lot of trees to make barrels, cardboard cartons, labels and pallets. We bottle the wine in glass made in huge furnaces. Practically every drop of wine is pumped, sucked, squeezed, squashed, sometimes several times, each time requiring more energy.’
Quality begins in the vineyard
Many of the wineries listed above have adopted BD and organic practices to improve the quality of their wines. As Andrew Mitchell says, it’s basically going back to the old farming ways before loads of chemicals became the norm, followed by mechanical pruning and harvesting. ‘Why should we space rows of vines based on the width of our tractors?’ asks another winemaker. It’s the same trend we’re seeing in food production: the folks chasing quality are going back to the old ways, which are far removed from the chemical/ mechanical farming model that has long been the norm.
A change in the approach to quality winemaking is another driver for nurturing the soil of our better vineyards. Many winemakers are now focusing on the expression of ‘terroir’, the character of the place where the fruit came from. That means less processing, less handling, letting the fruit tell the story.
Kooyong’s Sandro Mosele says: ‘Australian winemakers have been concentrating far too long on making wine according to the twenty tenets of Croser they learned at wine school. They’re obsessed with clean juice, using cultured yeasts, chasing varietal expression. I’m not. I like the way Henri Jayer makes wines in Burgundy – wild yeasts, lots of solids, getting good texture and tannins into the wine … I want to make wines that taste of the soil where the grapes are grown.’
Croser-style wines were once shining examples of young Turk Aussies parading their technical prowess. Hubris made them lose sight of some core elements that make wine the really interesting beverage it is. Our Croser-trained young Turks used to scoff at the Henri Jayers and their old-fashioned ways – now our best and brightest are going back there. Interesting.
Variety is everything
Our more adventurous winemakers are also looking for varieties that are more suitable to our hot and dry conditions than Cabernet and Chardonnay. Varieties like Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne from the south of France, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Barbera from Italy, and many more. We’re lucky to have some old Grenache and Mataro (Mourvedre) vines left in South Australia where they were once seen as varieties of no merit.
In our quest to make wines in the image of Bordeaux and Burgundy, it seems we overlooked the opportunities the old Southern Rhone varieties offered us. Many of these old vines were ripped out, but enough survived to make new style Barossa blends of Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvedre. They taste nothing like Chateauneuf du Pape, of course - they taste like Barossa reds with more interesting flavor dimensions.
The respect for gnarled old vines, and the small quantities of concentrated fruit they produce, are part of the back-to-basics drive for greater quality and authenticity in our wines. The big refineries aren’t prepared to pay for them, with a few exceptions, but some of the young Turks are.
Big Reds and Global Warming
In a previous post on this subject, I suggested that the higher alcohol levels we’re seeing in our reds these days have more to with winemakers making wines for Robert Parker than global warming. Max Allen is of the same view. Once our reds were 12.5 – 13.5%, he recalls, now the norm is 14.5 – 15%. ‘In my opinion,’ he writes, ‘Australian reds have become more alcoholic primarily because winemakers are making them that way on purpose … they think they need to pursue a big, alcoholic red wine style to win points and impress punters.’
In my post I suggested that vine spacing, canopy shape and soil condition have a big impact on phenolic ripeness (flavor and texture), which in large scale vineyards set up for mechanisation may not develop until the grapes reach 15 Baume (14.5%) alcohol. Healthier, closer-spaced vines, and greater retention of carbon, nutrients and moisture in the soil mean that phenolic ripeness is reached at lower Baume levels.
cites Coonawarra as the obvious example, a vast flat area that is
perfect for broad acre farming and highly mechanized viticulture. With
mechanization came higher alcohol levels and, what was in the seventies
considered our best area for making Bordeaux-style reds, now makes big
bronzed Aussie reds pushing 15%. By contrast, Woodlands in the Margaret makes
elegant Bordeaux reds running to a perfect 13.5%. More on this here:
Australia’s wine industry has never been short of pioneers or mavericks, from Thomas Hardy to Max Schubert. The Future Makers tells the story of a new generation of pioneers who’re meeting bigger challenges than any before them. Max Allen talks to most of them in this book, but some come to life more readily than others. Most of the stories are of most interest to people like me who want to know where the industry is headed, even if the broader issues Max raises should be of pressing interest to all of us.
On the whole, Max’s writing is lively and easy to read apart from some grammatical glitches and the occasional clunker like ‘bizarrely’. Adverbs are always suspect, and adverbs like that are major crimes. Publishers no longer provide editors for their writers, it seems. The photos in the book are of very high quality, and many are taken by Max. I enjoyed reading the book and learned a great deal in the process.