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MADE IN THE VINEYARD

Great wine is primarily a product of the skill of the viticulturist. Time and experience endow the viticulturalist with an instinctive intuition to understand the climatic patterns of a district. The viticulturalist must be able to 'sense' these patterns in advance of them happening and to formulate management regimes on an informed scientific basis as well as on gut feel. Perhaps most importantly, the viticulturalist must know when to leave nature to her own devices.

Purists may argue that the only true reflection of a vintage is one that results in entirely ‘natural’ wines being produced – that is, wines that are entirely dependent upon the graces of mother nature. That notion is correct, except that in the case of irrigation, its scientific application is necessary in order to maximise the stress of a plant and in many cases to keep it alive. There is a simplistic view that water alone is the sole determinant of wine quality. The simple response is that this is incorrect. In reality, a large number of factors come into play in influencing wine quality. These factors are generally collectively referred to as ‘terroir’: The interaction of climate, soil, site and sunlight.

There is much made of dry land (non-irrigated) farming and the virtue of the resultant wines. Protagonists of non-irrigated vineyards do their best to attach a stigma of inferiority to irrigated wines. However, such opinions are unwarranted and are founded upon a half-informed understanding of the science of viticulture. Firstly, it is possible to find a perfect site where there is sufficient winter rain to create the reserves necessary for the vines needs over the growing period. Such sites in Australia are rare and becoming even rarer as the climatic changes caused by green house and El Niño make the certainty of rainfall occurring when it is required more and more of a chance. Suffice to say that in viticulture, anticipating rainfall is a gamble.

The timing and quantity of rainfall greatly influences a plant’s growing cycle. The viticulturist has a choice, he can work with nature and supplement the vine’s needs or he can simply choose to ignore nature – a laissez faire attitude. Would you leave your precious rose collection unwatered in the hope that rains will come just in time to revive the plant? Would you not want to provide the rose with the best possible environment for it to produce its superb perfume? Left on its own, there is a good chance the plant would die, let alone bestow its caretaker with the rewards he or she is seeking.
If the season is against the viticulturists, that is, if the stress relieving rains do not occur, then remedial action must be taken. A vine needs to avoid stress during the two key times, flowering and variason. In both cases, the vine is balancing its position of producing fruit as opposed to producing leaves. If the vine becomes stressed, then growth stops, as the signals are sent back to the vine that there is a chance it will run short of water and consequently will not survive. Without any sort of measuring techniques, one can easily detect water stress by the amount of wilting that is evident at the growing tips of the vine. The management of vine stress is a viticultural skill, controlling stress by turning it into tension, thus avoiding the extreme vine condition. If a vine falls out of balance, it will remain out of balance for the duration of its growing period.

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