By Andrew Jefford and Robert Walters | December 1 2021
In 2012, wine buyer and importer Robert Walters established Place of Changing Winds, a small, high-density vineyard in the Macedon Ranges GI to the north of Melbourne. The first commercial release was from the 2019 harvest, and Walters sent a set of the wines to Andrew Jefford, an old acquaintance and long-term correspondent, and The World of Fine Wine’s contributing editor. Jefford replied. What follows is the first installment of an edited version of the correspondence that ensued.
Thanks so much for sending over those bottles. The wines are delicious—more on that later. They’re also beautiful, which is something that bottles of wine should try to be: The wine object isn’t just the wine itself, but the wine in its container. I’ve kept the empties; they’re on my desk now. You must tell me something about these magnificent labels and their creator.
I’m sitting here wondering about what they say about origin and intent, before the cork is even drawn. Clos de la Connerie, with the stylized medieval image of laden vines, grape-filled hods, foot pressing, the drunkard on the hillside, the church on the hilltop—yet it means “Clos Bullshit.” Or perhaps “Clos Cock-Up,” “Clos Stuff-Up.” There’s a joke here, but I’m wondering who it’s on?
High Density spells out its credo in Celtic-knot style: “High Density the vineyard is a forest / Dry grown / The vineyard pumps the soil / Organic / The soil gently turned / Only a living soil begets wines of place / Observe / Listen / Learn the vineyard is a teacher”—I love those aspirations. Maybe as the world gets hotter our vineyards have to become more like forests. And the rest I agree with, though I am not absolutely opposed to irrigation if irrigation is absolutely necessary. (I love fine Argentine red wines which only exist thanks to irrigation).
The other labels—Between Two Mountains, Tradition, Bullengarook Chardonnay—are more graphic, Arts and Crafts-ish, like Eric Gill drawings or woodcuts: geometrical, full of energy, contemplation, and sharing. The English words tell us that the wines belong to the Anglosphere, but these labels don’t look “Australian.” Did you want these wines not to look Australian? Or do you want to challenge and expand our notions of what Australian wine should look like?
That I’d applaud. Australian wine, after all, is the intertwining of an almost unthinkably ancient continent with practices born in the Caucasus, Anatolia, and the Fertile Crescent and refined in Europe. Australian wine was shepherded into being by 19th-century European settlers and their descendants. Why shouldn’t it be illuminated by cross-cultural archetypes of the sort you have chosen?
But we should talk about the name, too. You say on your website that the place was called Warekila and that this word, in the local Wurundjeri language, means “Place of Changing Winds.” It sounds both evocative and descriptive in English: Was that why you chose to use an English version rather than “Warekila”? Or were you worried about cultural appropriation in some way? This is a big issue in the wine world, and not just in Australia, though we haven’t really fronted up to it yet. I don’t have settled opinions on the matter—every culture must evolve, after all—but I’m curious as to whether you thought much about it before deciding on a name. Did the Wurundjeri people have a fermented-beverage culture or indeed an agrarian culture of any sort? Would it be right or wrong to take this name? Is it tribute or exploitation—or neither? There are so many challenges for the creators of new vineyards!
Best wishes and hope summer’s going well.
Great to hear from you. How surreal to be writing letters! I have no idea why, but I feel strangely energized by this (now outdated) mode of correspondence.
As to the summer here, I suppose it goes as well as can be expected for an organic vineyard owner in the height of season. Namely it’s a very stressful and challenging time. At least we have a small crop on the vines this year—in 2020 we lost almost everything to a severe frost.
I can’t tell you how relieved I was to hear that you enjoyed the wines. I had no idea how unnerving it would be for Rémi (my manager Rémi Jacquemain) and me to send these first bottles.
You asked about our name and our labels. When I found out that our site had an historic name, Warekila, it seemed obvious that we should use it. It makes the point that everything we do is about celebrating and showcasing the place itself. Yet as you rightly assumed, I didn’t feel comfortable using the indigenous word for our place, so we translated it. I’ve tried to think through what it is about using an indigenous name that makes me so uncomfortable. What we are doing derives from Europe—both the vines and much of the practice—and this was a nation invaded by Europeans. Those settlers destroyed a great deal of the local culture, sometimes blindly and sometimes knowingly, and caused countless indigenous deaths. It would therefore have felt disrespectful and disingenuous to use the Wurundjeri (WoiWurrung) word for the place we were growing our vines. So, it became Place of Changing Winds. In this way I can still acknowledge that there’s a history here, a history that long predates what we are doing now, yet one that I don’t claim as my own. What we are trying to do is to produce a genuine wine of place. A cultural artefact that honors our soils and climate, yet one that doesn’t derive from the original culture of this land. I think that’s why it didn’t feel appropriate to use a First Nations word.
Nonetheless, I do aim to make a connection between what we are doing and historical practice. I used the word genuine above. There is an etymological link between this word and indigenous. Both can be traced back to the root gene or gen which means being “born of” or “to beget.” To this end, I like to think that what we are doing at Place of Changing Winds is genuine, or indigenous, in the sense that all of our work is geared toward producing an authentic, genuine reflection of this place, even if it is clearly not a product of indigenous culture. This is a very Australian problem by the way—we’re both an ancient culture and one that’s still very new. And the wounds of European invasion are still raw. We’re trying to walk that line.
As for the labels, the style there is a little tongue-in-cheek. I wanted to find a look that was somewhere between a medieval woodcut and Ex Libris bookplates. Much of our inspiration has come from an ancient, continuous history of farming practice, so I wanted to reference this while at the same time poking a little fun at ourselves. The suggestion of deep history via the medieval style clashes with the novelty of the project. It’s a little joke, even if we could not be more serious about what we do. It was the talented English designer Louise Sheeran who made all this come to life.
Clos de la Connerie is another tragic attempt at humor. I was indeed thinking of “Clos of the Stuff Up” or “Clos of the Folly.” This site—a north facing slope that’s protected from the wind and traps the sun—was our first planting, so there were lots of “lessons” learned. The label tells some of these stories. In general, planting an ultra-high-density, organic, no-compromise vineyard in a place with zero track record was an obvious folly. There is no wall, but there is a fence. So, it’s an Aussie Clos! That’s all part of the blague. Subsequently, our export bureaucrats have informed me that as Clos is a European term, I cannot export the wine with this label. This is even funnier—the term is not defined in European wine law and is used very loosely around the world. Nonetheless, to avoid an unnecessary fight I will change the name to “Place of the Connerie” or something else entirely for subsequent releases.
Between Two Mountains—a blend of various parcels across our small vineyard—speaks to our location, literally between Mount Macedon (we are perched on its foothills), and a small volcano known as Mount Bullengarook. Look to the north and you see Mount Macedon; to the south, Mount Bullengarook. They define and dominate our landscape.
High Density speaks for itself, I suppose; a wine based on the fruit cropped from our closest vines (20,000 and 33,000 vines/ha). I did use the word “forest” on the label: I wanted to reference that these vines, so close together, form a kind of organized forest. The vine is only a small tree, after all. But in truth a vineyard is more orchard than forest. Not a product of nature, like a wild forest, but of culture. This is something we should celebrate, not repress. I think this is a subtlety that much discussion on so-called “natural wine” misses. Wine is a cultural product, not a natural one. The best culture works closely with nature, striving for deep knowledge, steering and cajoling. Yet there’s a crop to be raised and harvested; when nature challenges this, the vigneron must fight. This struggle to work with, and sometimes against, nature is the starting point of culture.
You’re right about irrigation. We aren’t against it when it helps vines survive. It’s there if we need it. Our growers of Syrah and Marsanne (we have a “grower series” where we make Syrah and a little Marsanne from vineyards to the north of us) use it in their warmer, drier sites. But if we take this term to mean “prescriptive irrigation”—regular watering that keeps the vine roots near the surface and stimulates higher vigor than might be authentic for that place—then I believe it’s deleterious to quality and diminishes the expression of the place and the season.
Yours in letters,
That helps me to understand—but of course there’s a lot more I want to know. How much land did you buy, and how much have you planted? And above all, why here? Why this land and not other land?
If you plant a vineyard in Europe, there are nearly always models, indications, and precedents to think about, to inspire, to try to exceed—not to mention the bureaucratic difficulties of getting hold of planting rights. I often think about how different this decision is away from Europe. Assuming a piece of land is for sale, you can drive up, phone the bank, tap a code, and the place is yours to plant: total freedom. Terrifying.
You’re going to marry this land, to splice your life with it, to live and breathe it for years to come, to bury your money and your work in it, to make it synonymous with your own time on earth … but it may never even have carried vines before. You haven’t been out on a date together, you haven’t spent the night together—yet you’re about to get married. Does it feel like a colossal gamble? How did you reason it through with yourself?
Tell me what “a site” means for you, too. This, again, is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about. The challenge, Robert, is that neither you nor I are plants. We’re mammals, and we think like mammals: Mobility is everything, and we either graze or prey. We make shelters and hide in them most of the time. We adapt our environment endlessly, in order to dominate it and “win a life” from it; indeed, we are now destroying it with our adaptations.
Plants, though, are bound to one place on earth, and live and thrive or wither and die at its mercy. They feed on light, and drink with their roots. They never hide or shelter. Aspects of a place that mammals are barely capable of noticing will assume a colossal importance to a plant: the angle of dawn’s first rays, a pattern or rhythm of winds, the fungi, insects, and dust riding on those winds through the year; the way water moves through a soil, its electrical charges, the messages delivered by its microbiota, and by all the other roots with which that place is already threaded. Plants live in a cacophony of inputs and stimuli, a tsunami of information downloads—yet we see (with our feeble eyes) nothing other than the wind blowing through the trees, and hear (with our blunt ears) nothing more than a bird call or two. When you plant a vineyard, you have to become a plant, a vine—or at least try to see and hear something on behalf of your vines. So, what did you see and hear in this place?
This leads us on to your decision to plant at high densities—and 33,000 per ha [13,300 per acre] is colossally high. Why bet on that? Of course, I understand the desire to urge the roots deeper, assuming that “deeper” in the Place of Changing Winds is a good environment for them to be. A deeply rooted vine is generally a successful and enduring vine, and the argument that this is the way to maximize the print of place on the wine has much merit, though it’s not the only parameter in play.
But you will also be asking your plants to compete hard with each other—and I remember how tough Australian soil environments can be. I remember 40- or 50-year-old vines rooted in the bony quartzites of Pewsey Vale, for example, their trunks looking barely thicker than teenagers elsewhere; I remember the same thing with vines out in the ancient laterite buckshot gravels of Western Australia, rooted in stones that have stared at the sun for millions of years.
Burgundy is so different. Think of the “Street of Lost Time,” the Rue du Temps Perdu, in Vosne-Romanée, the little road that leads out of the village square, through Romanée-St Vivant to each side, and up to the cross at the bottom of Romanée-Conti—you must have walked it, as I have. Remember those rich young forest-nourished soils in Romaneé-St Vivant, just truffled with limestone pebbles? Perfect kitchen-garden soil; plenty for every vine to compete over, even at double their existing densities (though the tractors wouldn’t like it). Okay, that’s a grand cru; it’s tougher up at the top of the hill. But bony isn’t the first adjective that comes to mind.
I’m always a little wary of taking a lesson from one place and applying it elsewhere, because everywhere is different. Every site poses different questions, solicits different answers. You’ve now had nine years with your site and it will be asking you questions. But we’re back to the challenge of “first planting,” I guess, and of course you must have an opening hypothesis. You may indeed have young, relatively nutritious soils. Anyway, I’d love to know how the close planting is going, and what the results are like compared to those of the neighbors.
More later. Everything’s very chill and cold up here just now: we’re locked down because of Covid; the plants are locked down by winter’s grip. But the light is just beginning to tiptoe back—and the violets that grow just outside our front door are watching. And sensing and feeling.
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