So you want to plant a vineyard The Grape Vine

Thursday, 01 June 2000


    It's not as easy as it looks, says Robert Mayne of McLaren Vale, South Australia, who's been there and done that.

    It started as a pipedream. I was standing on the parapet near my house, looking out over a paddock of weeds, enjoying a glass of wine with Piers Akerman, then editor of the Adelaide Advertiser, and now a columnist with The Daily Telegraph, Sydney.

    "You know," said Piers, "you ought to plant some grapevines down there." Since this was McLaren Vale, 45km south of Adelaide and one of Australia's premium wine-growing areas, it seemed like a good idea. But it took me a few years to get around to acting on it.

    One day in 1995 my wife Gwen and I were returning from a walk and I said: "We should to plant some vines." So the bank manager was consulted and we borrowed some money. I went to see a viticultural consultant and she advised planting red shiraz because (a) our land is very sandy and shiraz is best suited to sand and (b) McLaren Vale is famous for the red wines from this variety.

    Next came soil tests. We found some nematodes in the sand, but not many. The vineyard consultant said if they became worse we could hit them with a nemacide down the drippers.

    Since it was late in the year, and I wanted to get as much growth in the 1995 season as I could, I found a neighbour with a tractor who cleared and ripped the paddock, which is just under an acre (0.4 ha). The viticultural consultant laid out the paddock with string - 13 rows of varying lengths.

    We found the Shiraz rootlings in Langhorne Creek and got them into the ground straight away, with considerable help from my 20 year old student son Ben. The problem then was: how to water them as they took root - and it was getting hot. I spent every spare minute rushing around with sprinklers trying to save my 887 new Shiraz vines.

    The vineyard posts were then driven in by a device attached to a tractor, and the wires strung along, one to carry the dripper, and a fruiting wire above it. A year later we added the top wire. I thought at the time (and still do) that the business to be in is producing vineyard posts. There are still millions of them going in all over Australia as the wine export boom continues.

    Finally we found an irrigation consultant who installed the pipes and drippers, with the water coming from the mains supply. With McLaren Vale Shiraz fetching $2000 a tonne I reckoned it would be worth it. A little bright red tank to add fertiliser to the drippers was installed. As it was made in Israel (where they make a lot of fertilising equipment designed to conserve water), and was installed on the day the Israeli Prime Minister was murdered, it became known as the Yitzak Rabin Memorial Fertigator.

    So the vines were safely in the ground and growing and to date I'd spent about $15,000, or about $17 a vine, with more to come by way of labour, chemicals, tractoring and materials (wire). It was the Rolls-Royce of vineyards!

    The vines grew most satisfactorily and the following year I started my real learning curve: how to train and prune them. Vine training (trellising) isn't as easy as you think, and you have to be ruthless with those secateurs.

    In late 1997 we decided to go the whole hog and plant the top paddock, behind the house, which is bigger but had quite a few large pine trees on it, plus some other rubbish. "Can't be done this year," the viticultural consultant told me. "If you clear it the sand will all run down the hill, and we haven't enough time anyway."

    I related this to one of my neighbours, the one with the tractor, and he said: "Pig's arse!" The next day his two brothers, who work for a local business, were there with huge chainsaws and the house reverberated to the sound of falling timber. He had another mate with a D9 who pushed these trees into big piles and we torched them. The fires were bigger than the Kuwait oilwell fires.

    No sooner had the fires cooled than the neighbour was in with the tractor again, planting a rye grass cover crop to hold the soil in place. Then came the posts again, the drippers and almost 1200 young Shiraz vines.

    The hill which is now my second patch of grapes is quite steep, with 30 rows of vines running straight up and down, and my wife, sick of hearing me complain about struggling up the hills to tend my new vines, bought me a second hand Yamaha Ag 100 bike for Christmas. I promptly fell off it and cracked a couple of ribs. Lesson: 55-year-old men shouldn't get exuberant on two-wheel bikes.

    The vines were just sticks when they went in the ground in late November and then started shooting. Vitis vinifera grapevines are very tough and resilient, but I had a secret enemy that I didn't know about ...

    Quite a few of the vines, almost a third, weren't putting out those green buds. Had I bought dud vines? Was I doing something wrong?

    No, it took an expert to tell me that just under the surface little cut worms, several centimetres long, were hiding under the sand (they apparently love sand) and climbing up at night to eat the emergent shoots. I had to buy another 400 vines and plant them, spraying the vine areas with Carbaryl to defeat the worms. More costs and tramping uphill and down.

    Then it was more training - and picking the first grapes from the bottom paddock. We got a trailer load and the fruit looked terrific. I drove them around to the weighbridge at a local winery and he paid me $666 for them. Then I backed the car into the trailer on the way out and did $600 worth of damage to the car. Am I really destined to be a grapegrower?

    I'd got a bit smarter by the time we planted the top paddock and taken a few shortcuts, with some neighbourly help, and we planted the top block, which is almost 50 per cent bigger than the bottom. We had now spent over $30,000 of the NAB-and-grab's money, and they had responded by sacking our 50-year-old bank manager, who was just starting to understand our business. I justified this investment by telling myself it raised the value of the house and property.

    Oh yes, and I took a photo of my wife in front of the cleared and planted top paddock and sent a print to the female viticultural consultant and wrote on the back: "And you said it couldn't be done". No reply.

    We now had just over a hectare of vines, or nearly two-and-a-half acres in the old money, and I started thinking about what we would do with them. The farmgate added value for wine grapes is about seven times - that is, a dollar's worth of grapes turns into $7 worth of bottled wine. Why not sell some wine as well as some grapes?

    I spent quite a few weekends trudging around seeing my neighbours and talking up an idea that I'd thought up while I spent long, cold hours pruning and training. Occasionally it got interesting. Secateurs in hand, I was listening to a pocket radio when Princess Di drove into That Tunnel. That was enough of an excuse to abandon the lonely pruning task, open a bottle of wine and watch the unfolding TV drama.

    That idea eventually came to fruition. Fourteen of us, almost all growing McLaren Vale Shiraz, got together and formed a company, chipping in $3000 each for shares. What else would we call it but Neighbours Vineyards Pty Ltd?

    David Green, who is an eminent Adelaide taxation lawyer and noted drinker of red wine, agreed to chair our little company. The core of the idea was to get a good winemaker involved by offering him our pooled Shiraz grapes. Most winemakers would kill their grandmothers for quality McLaren Vale Shiraz, we reasoned. In return we would use their facilities - stainless steel and oak program - and skills to buy back some finished wine.

    The biggest company in the district turned us down, another ignored us, a third said they would love to be in it and Chester Osborn, who makes the wine at d'Arenberg, finally got the business. This year he'll get about 70 tonnes of fruit from the scheme. We thought we obtained the right outcome, as Chester had just been named "Australian Red Winemaker of the Year" by Winestate magazine.

    We have just put on sale the first release of Neighbours McLaren Vale Shiraz from the excellent 1998 vintage and, if I do say so myself, it is a fine wine, very representative of the style and with a long life in front of it. I got five tonnes of fruit from the bottom paddock from that vintage, value $10,000, so I reasoned that we were getting somewhere at last.

    This year, the 2000 vintage, things aren't so rosy. It has been a pretty unhappy vintage all over south eastern Australia. The problem originated with cold weather during flowering and this gave a very poor "fruit set" with loose berries and small berries alongside each other ("chicken and hen" they call this). Some growers are complaining of yields down 60 per cent. Some others say they aren't bothering to pick at all. There is much whingeing.

    Because we had a lot of bird damage (silver eyes and others) in 1999, I decided to net the entire bottom paddock for this vintage. This was done mechanically, with my neighbour Nigel Rayner hooking a gadget like a giant reel to his tractor and driving through the vineyard, netting four rows at a time. It looked like a sailing ship going through the vine rows, and it cost $2500. But I reasoned, I can use the nets for quite a few years.

    As I write this, I have picked the top paddock and got a disappointing half a tonne, or $1000 worth of fruit. But we had to pick because bunch rot was starting to set in. Next year will be better.

    The bottom paddock is in better condition but bunch shrivelling is also setting in. I doubt that I'll get five tonnes again, and I'm waiting on Chester Osborn directing me to pick it. He wants ripe fruit, and that means a sugar level which equates to around 13.5 per cent alcohol by volume in the finished wine.

    I had a minor disaster a few weeks ago when a solenoid, which turns the drippers on and off, failed, and four rows were drenched with water for a few days until I spotted the problem.

    So now I am sweating it out. As soon as Chester says go, the net man has to be found, the machine hooked up to the neighbour's tractor and away we go with the plastic buckets, the big aluminium hopper and the pickers ($16 an hour).

    When you enjoy that next glass of wine (try a bottle of 1998 Neighbours McLaren Vale Shiraz at $21), remember every drop of it had to climb up the stem of an expensive grapevine, maybe one of mine.

    It's cost a small fortune, but I have had some fun along the way and learnt a few new tricks. And I have some terrific Neighbours.


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