The virgin vintage

First published

There are various activities which one could describe as labour intensive. Decorating wedding cakes would have to score at 90 per cent. Carving and ageing Chippendale dining room suites or Louis XIV cabinets for the antique market would have to go 92 or 93 per cent. Restoring T-model Fords and dear old Duesenbergs from the scrap heap must go as high as 95 per cent. But if you really want a labour intensive class act, then try running a boutique vineyard. I would suggest the labour intensive rating could go as high as 99 per cent.

The year is carefully organised so that there is not a moment when something is not happening. Come early September the first event is bud burst. This is utterly charming, it is like the first cuckoo after winter or the first mushroom after autumn. The vines push out their first tufts, the first green leaves. They are pale green, so fresh and lovely. It is the prettiest time in the vineyard, and like football in February it is a time full of optimism. Every coach has acquired a number of recruits who are 200 centimetres tall, they can kick goals with either foot from the centre line, and they can battle brilliantly for three hours at a time without a trace of fatigue. It is a dead cert that you will win the premiership this year. It is the same in the wine business, you see those little shoots pushing out and you sense this is the year you are going to win the Jimmy Watson Award for the best red at the Melbourne Show.

So the vines push out their little shoots. The trouble is they don't push them out in the right places. Countless shoots pop out all along the main stems of each vine. There is just one way to get rid of them, they have to be rubbed off by hand. As soon as you rub off one lot, another grows, another and another, this can last for months. It is known as 'rubbing off.' Someone might call at the house and ask Marie: "What's Keith doing?" "Oh, he's down in the vineyard rubbing off." Or it can sound even worse than that. "He's down in the vineyard rubbing off with David."

Unless one has experienced it the growth is almost beyond belief. One day we can see the main road, the cars passing at the bottom of the vineyard, the next day we cannot. The vines seem to grow at the rate of two or three inches a day. I have heard old time wine men claim that they can actually hear the vines growing. My hearing is not that sensitive, but there is no doubt that you can feel the growth. Come October, November, December there is an overwhelming sensation of youth, growth and vigour.

Maybe that is the wonderful thing about grape growing. Australia can be a continent without seasons, leaves if they fall at all do so at curious times, our shrubs and wild flowers do not automatically acknowledge a Spring. Ah, but in a vineyard there is an overwhelming sense of season, a perfect cycle of birth, youth, maturity, death, and birth again. In the youth department one is not idle for a second.

Like youth everywhere it does not pay to let those vines run berserk. As they grow they have to be trained. Training is a mild word for it. Each vine has to be given a hair-do of a kind that would impress Lillian Frank or any hairdresser. We go in for cane pruning. That is, we have two arms which are arched down on to the wire, and we leave eight to 10 buds on each arm. Now these buds turn into canes, so for each vine there are two growing canes. I did some calculations, we have 1200 vines, 20 canes on each. This comes to 24,000 canes that have to be trained and tied down.

The tender little things also have to battle against weeds. There are about 240 varieties of weeds all of which are available in our vineyard. Their speed and vigor of growth is beyond belief and every one of them tries to smother your vine. I remember one year going to the Department of Agriculture display at the Royal Show. An agricultural scientist was there with a display of all the common weeds. He had them growing there in boxes and he was watering them one by one, ragwort, oxalis, chickweed, patterson's curse, copeweed, bindy-eye, potato weed, nettles..."

I said to him: "Were they difficult to grow?"

He looked at me with sad eyes: "Were they ever. When you want to grow weeds they are the very devil. The cranky things kept withering up and dying.

I thought as much. Everything to do with agriculture is designed to be difficult. The next problem after weeds was disease. All right, grape vines are subject to even more pests and diseases than two-year-old humans, all of which require sprays. They come with awesome names like chlorpyrifos, dithianon, and chlorothalonil. And the cost? No wonder chemical companies are the richest in the world. The stuff invariably costs about six times as much as Johnny Walker Black Label. Inevitably they are in large containers. I bought four litres of a chemical called Delan. Now Delan was supposed to cure black spot, downy mildew and several other diseases. This is the interesting thing about nature, there are diseases available for when the weather is too dry, diseases for when it is too wet and diseases for when it is just right. It is important also to keep up with the technical journals like the Australian Grapegrower and Winemaker. It is like a medical journal. One discovers quickly that the scientists are always inventing new diseases. It is similar to the new strains of flu, a new vine disease comes almost every year and every one requires its own special spray. The more selective the spray the higher the cost. The first time I ordered a cannister of Delan, I said to the chemical man, "How much is that?"

"Two hundred and fifty-two dollars."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Yes," he said happily, "this is liquid gold. But never mind. You have a small vineyard, it might last you a few years."

I told the story to Neill Robb of Redbank and he had another angle. "Yes, it might last you a few years, but did you ask him about the use-by date?" The way I felt that summer I thought my own use-by date had already past.

All this is leading up to the true story of Black Monday. The agricultural experts said after the damp, soggy spring, conditions were perfect for almost everything horrid; it was vital at once to spray against black spot, downy mildew, mites and caterpillars. After that look out for powdery mildew and bunch rot.

I waited a week for the right conditions, when it wasn't raining there were 70 knot gale winds. All right, the forecast was good, so I was up at 5 am before the gales got under way, did my mixing, filled the backpack spray and then sprayed with Delan to get rid of the diseases and Lorspan to get rid of the bugs. It was barely light when I started but brilliant sunshine when I finished.

I returned to the garage, started to return canisters to the chemical cupboard and noted something very strange - the square plastic bottle of Delan was still there and in my hand was an exactly similar square plastic bottle of Surflan. How could that be? The terrible truth began to seep into my brain. Surflan is a pre-emergent spray for killing weeds. Theoretically it stops weeds before they get out of the ground. Ohhh! Nooooo! I rushed to the bedroom where my wife Marie was just getting up, and blurted:

"I have done a terrible thing."

"What, dear? Tell me about it."

"I have just sprayed the entire vineyard with weed killer."

That sank in, she said nothing, so I added what should have been the right cross.

"What's more, I thought I was doing the right thing. I sprayed all your lovely roses with the same stuff."

She should have committed homicide at that point, but she was marvellous. She took over like General Eisenhower organising the Second Front. "Don't worry about it," she said, "there has to be an answer."

Soon she was organising. We pulled out every hose we could find. She called up friends, Derek and Patricia Rumbold were staying with us. We pushed them into action. Leon and Vivienne Masson had the neighboring vineyard over the hill. We called them. Leon filled his car with knapsack sprays, so they all went into action. How could you exist without good friends? For three hours we hosed and sprayed down every leaf.

It was nearly one o'clock by the time we had given the vineyard a good wash and considerably reduced our stock of precious tank water. Wearily we sat down. Then Leon Massoni delivered the blockbuster: "You know what you have to do now?" "What's that?" "Get out there and spray with the stuff you should have used in the first place."

That took the rest of the day.

After this there was a period of waiting, running out every morning to look at the leaves. We estimated that it would take possibly a week to three weeks for a decent weed killer to destroy everything. But it was remarkable. All 1200 vines survived. Indeed they took on the most extraordinary luxuriant growth and looked very beautiful. We found them particularly lovely in the late evening as we gazed through the living room window and the western sun was shining through the leaves.

As for the roses, White Wings, Chianti, Cymbeline, Tuscany Superb and Alba Maxima had never been more prolific. They just kept on flowering.

The vines were very tender and young, terribly precocious. A sensible citizen would not have worried about a 1990 vintage. But there were good grapes on a number of rows, we went into action.

So we had our first experience in the great bird battle. It is well known that the Mornington Peninsula is very nearly the bird capital of the state of Victoria. Those who have vast vineyards, forty, fifty, even a thousand acres in Rutherglen, Clare, Barossa or on the Murray do not concern themselves about birds. For one thing they do not have the trees, for another the grape vines extend over such an area the supply is beyond the appetite of the most voracious of the little aviators. Furthermore the birds are nervous. They will nibble around the perimeter of the vineyard but when there are grapes in vast quantities they are nervous about flying in towards the centre. But we have trees aplenty. What's more trees are considered precious by the Shire and we can chop only with written permission. So with a splendid array of stringybarks, pittosporums, box, pine trees all around we have a constant musical box of birds. Furthermore the Department of Conservation provides posters with lovely pictures of all local varieties. There is the Farmyard Bird Poster, the Urban Bird Poster, the Country Bird Poster. We had them all.

We heard that there was a wonderful new net available, biodegradable. It was cheap, so cheap that one could throw it away at the end of the vintage. No need for costly storage, one could buy new nets for the new season. So we bought our fancy new netting. It came with countless blessings from the manufacturers, it was perfect for the fruit and grapegrower. The netting was bright yellow, rather loose weave, we thought, but that did not matter, any sensible bird would be terrified of being trapped in its spider like lace.

It was late February when we spread the net across the vines. It is not a difficult task to put nets over vines. One needs only to be tall as a basket player with seven foot arms, and not to be over concerned when the wretched stuff becomes tangled on every second cane. Tangle it did. It was like fishing line, it would go out of its way to tangle. Bird netting adores hairpins, loves hair combs and is particularly attracted by any belt buckle. It fastens with enthusiasm on to every shirt button. I found too that I could not wear any of my caps which have a button on top, the netting would find this instantly.

We spread the yellow peril everywhere, then retired to the house happy, with that comforting knowledge that all was secure. Not a bird would touch our lovely pinot grapes, all was safe for the season of 1990. Human intelligence is the master of the mere bird.

That was not true. It was several weeks before we discovered whole bunches had disappeared. Just the little spiky remains were left on the vines, as if schoolboys had been through picking off every grape. Blackbirds, we discovered, heaved their way in by pushing their way through and there were ingenious birds that burrowed their way in even though the nets were tacked to the ground. We could cope with that but the silver eyes were too much. The silver eye is a tiny creature and it adored the loose weave of the yellow netting. We watched helplessly as they settled on the yellow stuff then worked their way like a plumber going down a manhole, first one wing, then the other. The silver eye has a hypodermic beak. It twitters along plunging its little needle into every grape.

Dammit, they didn't take much. Just that little puncture, we could still use them, couldn't we? Certainly not, said Kevin McCarthy, once needled those grapes were infected, ruined and would destroy a whole vintage.

So the nets were no use and every last grape was being progressively needled or devoured. "I know what I'll do," I said. "I'll go down to the super market and buy hundreds of clear plastic bags and put them over every surviving bunch, then secure them with rubber bands.

"It might work," said Kevin. "But you will find that the bags will sweat and you will have to puncture every one of those bags to provide air."

Kevin was right. The grapes were miserable, unhappy in their unnatural plastic environment. It was Marie Rose who found the solution, pantyhose. She went round all her friends pleading for old pantyhose. It was fortunate that we have three daughters and a daughter-in-law. This was a considerable help. The latest stretch material was splendid, not only did it cling very nicely to the bunch, the weave provided all the air that was required. We found that we could get three bunches to a leg. Soon rows nine, ten, eleven and twelve were done in the loveliest fashion colors. We had grapes in flesh, in black, in burgundy, dark blue and even emerald green pantyhose.

It worked beautifully, but one must confess it is labor intensive panty-hosing a whole vineyard in this style. Furthermore we did run short of available leg material but I must confess I was very much in love with some precious bunches. I knew them by their Christian names. The crisis became so serious we visited the K-Mart and bought new panty hose to cover them. Regardless of the brilliance of the pantyhose the birds devoured at least 90 per cent of the 1990 vintage.

We picked our grapes on Friday the 13th of April, Good Friday. It all seemed strangely symbolic, almost a feeling of Crucifixion. David, Paula, our daughter Jane and husband Steve, all were there. We picked just enough grapes to fill a plastic rubbish tin. David, Paula and Jane went through the bin, carefully throwing out individual grapes that had the dreaded silver eye hypodermic.

In ancient times it was traditional that virgins should foot tread the grapes. This ensured the absolute purity of the vintage. It so happened we had some excellent virgins available, our granddaughters, Hannah seven years and Isabel, four, got into the plastic bin and trampled quite beautifully.

Now it must be appreciated this was not a huge vintage. Kathleen Quealy, our winemaking consultant, sent us over all the right chemicals in medicine bottles. I added 25 millilitres of pectinex enzyme, this was to improve the flow of juice. I put in just a pinch of metabilsulphite, this was the sulphur to help guard against oxidisation. I dissolved another pinch of yeast in warm water at 30 degrees Celsius, added it to the brew and put the whole lot in the laundry.

Glory be, on the morning of Easter Eve it was gently starting to bubble and the temperature was rising steadily. On the morning when Christ rose again, heavens above, we had 32 degrees, the ferment was seething and wine was on its way.

It all went through in four days. Now it was important to separate the free run juice and squeeze the skins. I actually did my squeeze with a potato masher and I had always observed the way my mother made crab apple jelly. She would up end a kitchen stool, tie the four corners of a tea towel to the legs, then strain the pulp through the tea towel, leaving it to drip over night. I didn't leave it that long, but I did strive to catch every last drop.

On Tuesday April 17, the Bank Holiday, we bottled. It came to nine bottles.

I lined them on the kitchen table, took photographs, and purred, our first vintage. The grapes had risen from the dead, and here were the new bottles, our own Ascension. But I wondered how we would cope in 1991. This precedent of foot squashing by virgins could become difficult. What would we do when we had three or four tonnes of grapes? It would be preferable to have virgins with big feet, nice weighty virgins, preferably 70 to 90 kilograms.

Quality virgins like this on the Mornington Peninsula are as rare as Tasmanian Tigers.

Follow onto the next chapter, The bird demon

The seventh chapter of Keith's book on his relationship with wine, beer and drinking, 'My life with the Demon'.

Keywords in this article

WineWinemakingLillian FrankNeill RobbDerek RumboldPatricia RumboldLeon MassoniVivienne MassoniKathleen Quealy

View all keywords