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. Today we publish the second installment of an edited version of the correspondence that ensued. To read the first extract, click here.
February 1, 2021 Place of Changing Winds
Nature is watching. I like this idea. It somehow speaks to the times we are living through as well as recalling something of the beauty and culture of the vine. Yes, nature continues; buds burst, flowers bloom, fruit ripens. Yet can our environment really be oblivious? Every day we’re presented with evidence that reveals our biosphere to be interconnected; symbioses are everywhere. Can we say with any certainty that nature is untroubled by our problems? It’s certainly not unmoved by our actions.
Speaking of nature … you wrote beautifully of how vines, like all plants, are committed to their place, and you contrasted this with our mobility. Indeed: Vines are rooted to a place. Yet the longer I work with my vines, the more I delve into their world, their biology, morphology, their evolutionary history, observing the way they engage with their surroundings and respond to our practice, the more I wonder about the limits we put on plant behavior.
The vine is such a dynamic organism, rapidly exploring and occupying its surroundings. Its roots literally forage the soil, searching for nutrients and water, while its shoots reach for the sun. Its tendrils grab hold of whatever they can, in order to enable the vine to climb ever higher, and it creeps, sending shoots along the ground to investigate the terrain. When the conditions are right, these runners will throw new roots, thus establishing a new location. It’s the same plant, but it has now “moved.” This is common in the wild and has led to the vineyard practice we call layering—marcottage or provignage in French. Then, what are grapes but a travel package of genetics, allowing the vine to hitch a ride with birds and animals? To this end, the vine has trained Homo sapiens, compelling us to take its genetic material around the globe, often to places it has never grown before. It has made the human a slave to its care and reproduction, and so has radically increased its mobility.
Vines also modify their environment endlessly. They grow and feed biota in the soil, which repay them with minerals and moisture. They break down rocks with their roots and by secreting chemicals that weather the surrounding geology, creating soil and releasing nutrients (by shifting pH). They help create the atmosphere in which we live and breathe.
It’s also true, as you say, that the vigneron needs to see and hear something on behalf of their vines, although the vine is acutely sensitive and responsive to its environment. To this end, the vine also sees and hears things on our behalf. If we observe carefully, it can then show us what it has experienced. It’s intriguing to consider that vine leaves absorb light in precisely the same spectrum as the human eye. I often wonder if this is a coincidence.
Recently I read a study that showed plants growing actively toward audio recordings of running water (with no water actually present). Even if they do not “hear,” it seems that they may well be able to sense and identify sounds. In the same way, we know that plants respond dynamically to the light. I don’t want to anthropomorphize, yet such examples caution me against being too definitive about what plants can and cannot do. Or about the differences between us. We still have so many gaps in our knowledge.
You asked about our project and about our site; about what I saw in our place and what made me want to plant vines here. To my mind, a site, or at least a site worthy of vines, is simply a place that offers the potential to achieve a certain level of quality. It should also be a place where the vine can flourish without too many inputs, and a place that has something interesting to say, a place that might produce a wine with character, with personality.
All the usual environmental factors must be considered to this end: climate, good winter and spring rainfall, ideally a soil with reasonable water-holding capacity. This is basic agronomics. Of course, as a student of Burgundy and European wines in general, I believe that soil plays a significant role in the character of the wine that results from any given site, even if we do not fully understand the mechanisms of this process. Our geology at Place of Changing Winds has its own unique make-up and we are only starting to glimpse what this might contribute to the personality of our wines.
There is also an emotional element at play in any choice of site. It is to be hoped that this is balanced by rational considerations, but to attempt to deny the emotional element would be foolish.
So, what did you see and hear in this place? I saw an opening of land on the edge of a forest, in a picturesque, hilly landscape. In a place that I knew had a climate suited to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Place of Changing Winds is situated in the southeast of the country, about an hour’s drive north of Melbourne, Victoria. It sits at around 500 meters [1,640ft] above sea level on the foothills of Mount Macedon. This altitude makes for a cold climate with big diurnal ranges between night and day, something that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay loves.
You were right to assume that our soils would be ancient. They are around 450 million years old and shot through with sandstones, quartz, and quartzites that were formed on the ocean floor at the end of the Ordovician period and the beginning of the Silurian. This is about the same period that mycorrhizal fungi and then the first plants began to appear on land. It’s a gravelly soil, with up to 30 or 40 percent fragmented rock, and yet with good clay in the sub-soil, over a deep bedrock of mineral-rich sandstone. This combination of gravel-rich top-soil with good clay underneath is, to my mind, ideal. It provides excellent drainage and the ability for the vine roots to descend easily, thanks to the gravelly structure of the soil, but it also means that there is good water-holding capacity in the clay at depth. With this kind of soil, the vine can access moisture in periods of hydric stress, a critical element for quality, especially as we aim to dry-grow. Of course, rainfall is also key, and we typically have between 700 and 900 mm [27–35 inches] per year on average—similar to Burgundy. This rainfall was a crucial factor in attracting me to this place.
Something else. The total property is 33ha [82 acres], yet the vineyard covers only 3.1ha [8 acres]. Around one third of our place is woodland and we are surrounded by thousands of square kilometers of state forest. I love this reality; the vines occupy only a small proportion of the land. A postage stamp surrounded by a wild, native landscape. This compels us to take a much broader view of our place and it gives us an opportunity to integrate our vines into a diverse environment. We have begun doing this via insect banks and vegetation planning, and by running the entire property organically (certified). Next year we’ll establish a wetlands area. This is a long but rewarding process and we have already seen an explosion in the bird life across the property, with species like Blue-winged Parrots and Fan-tailed Cuckoos appearing for the first time, and other populations clearly growing significantly. We have Yellow-rumped Thornbills, Superb Fairy-wrens, New Holland Honeyeaters, Flame Robins, Welcome Swallows, and many types of water bird—and we have more and more Wedge-tailed Eagles, too, presumably attracted by the other birds—we’ve seen them take Sulphur-crested Cockatoos mid-flight!
I mentioned the role that emotions play. As soon as I walked onto the property, it felt right. It was a place that I immediately wanted to plant with vines—an opening in the forest that invited culture. The woods were native, mostly ancient eucalypt trees of varied species, and yet surrounding this forest there had been many European oaks and elms planted. These trees had flourished. If European trees were so happy here, I figured, why not the European vine? I like to think that I let the rational, agronomical considerations dominate my thinking, but who can truly say? The site felt special; special places sometimes make special wines.
You asked why I’ve done it. Why I’ve made this seemingly irrational leap into the unknown. As you say, planting virgin country is a colossal gamble. You also asked about our practice and our choice to work with very high densities. I think I can answer all of these questions with the same narrative. You know my history as a wine buyer. A great deal of my professional life has been spent scouring the planet for great growers and their wines. To this end, I have made myself a student of the kind of philosophies and practices, the kind of culture, if you will, that tends to result in the finest wines, or at least the wines that excite me the most. I feel certain you have done essentially the same thing as a writer. The New France and many of your articles vibrate with this connection between the approach of the vigneron and the wine that results.
Over the years I developed a largely unconscious set of criteria that I was able to apply to potential new producers in order to ascertain what level of quality I might expect, now and into the future. This was a way of working that developed quite spontaneously, and yet it led me to the two most significant insights of my working life.
The first of these realizations was as follows: There are significant synergies in the philosophies and practices of the finest growers, even if the people, the grape varieties, the soils, and the climates are often radically different. Yes, the practice must be “adapted” to the place, but it is nonetheless true that the best growers take pretty much the same approach to their vines, no matter where they are farming, from the dry, granite slopes of Schlossberg in Alsace, to the humid chalk of the Côte des Blancs. We can take this further than the borders of France, of course, even if this country tends to have the largest concentration of great growers. When I looked to the best growers of Germany, Spain, and Italy, again I found great synergies with what I observed in France.
Again and again this lesson has been reaffirmed. What did Didier Dagueneau (now Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau) do that was so different from the rest of Pouilly Fumé? He farmed (and made wine) like a top Burgundian—which is another way of simply saying that he farmed well. He then took this way of thinking and working to Jurançon, where his approach again achieved a new level of greatness. It was the same in Champagne, with the rise of the great growers, as it was earlier in Burgundy itself, with those first vignerons who, in the ’80s and ’90s, broke with the conventional viticulture of the ’60s and ’70s; and so on with the finest names in Alsace, the Loire, the Rhône, and everywhere else I visited. No matter where I went, I found that the great artisans, across varied regions, soils, climates, shared much in common with each other.
Surprisingly perhaps, I have found that this reality remains counter-intuitive for many wine people. I think part of the problem is that we often talk of great growers “adapting practice to place,” and so people can imagine that these principles or practices are somehow significantly altered or even abandoned when we move from region to region. In my own country, I have often heard wine friends justify the differences between much Australian vineyard practice and what we find in the best vineyards of Europe, with words like “… our soils and climate are so different.” This, by the way, is often the same justification used for conventional practice in Champagne, Sancerre, Chablis, Piemonte, and pretty much everywhere else. As a general rule, however, the vast majority of practices for the best growers of Europe remain precisely the same, regardless of the soil or climate, and when we talk of them being “adapted” to their place, we are simply saying that there has been an adjustment to the frequency, the force, or the timing of the practice, even if the practice itself, and certainly the philosophies behind it, remains very much the same.
In a dry climate, for example, a grower might spray less against mildew, or cultivate the soil less frequently or at different times. But when to spray (after the previous rain and before the next, in low wind conditions) and when to cultivate (subject to the ground cover and time of season, when the soil is neither too wet nor too dry) still applies. Organic practice will have the same impact; chemicals will have the same impact; bad pruning or bad grafting will have the same kind of impact, no matter where you are.
There are certainly elements, like pruning, vine training, or density, where we can sometimes find significant differences from one region to another, but still the same general principles apply. Density, for example, is simply a question of adapting the number of vines per hectare to the water availability and the fertility of that place, as well as to grape variety and training method. The principles and implications to be considered remain the same. The price for getting it wrong remains the same. Everywhere is different—but good practice remains good practice.
You can probably guess the second realization. Once I had grasped the cultural synergies shared by the best growers of Europe, and had witnessed, again and again, that certain practices had positive impacts in countless vineyards, from the Côte d’Or, to Côte Rôtie, from Galicia, to Germany, it seemed obvious that these practices should be equally valid in my homeland, even if I had not seen a number of them there. I had certainly never seen a complete system of farming that compared with what I found at the best addresses in Europe. Of course, I couldn’t be sure that such a system could work in Australia, but I became obsessed with finding out.
Around the time that this project began to crystallize in my mind. I was also writing and researching a series of articles for The World of Fine Wine on the rise of the great growers in Champagne. I could not have found a more dramatic example of how a change in practice, inspired by the culture of faraway places, had achieved significant and positive results. Selosse, for a start, was inspired by his experiences in Burgundy and Spain.
This period also coincided with a time in my professional life when I started to confront the limits of my learning, and when I started to wonder if the only way to develop the depths of knowledge that I was striving for was to become a vigneron. Maybe it sounds a little dramatic, but I’m tempted to describe this as a sort of Faustian pact—in order to acquire genuine knowledge, I had to offer up something significant in return.
What I was envisaging was an agricultural system that would draw from the best practices I’d observed at the addresses of great growers around the world, adapted to a specific and appropriate Australian setting. We have thrown a few of our own novelties in there, and we have come a long way, but this was the starting point of the project. This system would come to include organics (not at all an easy choice in our mildew-prone area!), careful cultivation, super-high densities, very high canopy, arching instead of hedging, root-trimming, intense canopy management, a great deal of hand work (including much hand-weeding and backpack-spraying for precision and to avoid compaction), and some densities where everything must be done by hand, among many other details. Overall, each vine might be individually visited more than a dozen times in a season for manual action.
For the last six or seven years we have also used, and become highly proficient in, a system of pruning known as Guyot-Poussard, re-introduced to the world via the French agronomist François Dal. We have adapted this technique to our densities and soil. It’s a slower and more labor-intensive practice than conventional pruning, especially in the conversion phase. Like many other elements of our system, we must do the work ourselves rather than utilizing contract labor, because such skills are not for hire, or not at the level we require them. Both Poussard pruning and tressage (arching) take us back to this idea of a vine exploring its space. These are techniques that are adapted to the natural impulse of the vine to elongate and to explore its surroundings.
Our yields per vine, thanks to our densities and practice, are also extremely low; too low, in fact—around 200–300g [7–11 oz] per vine, or close to half what’s permitted for grand cru Burgundy. We’re hoping to get these levels up in the future as the vines mature, yet it’s unlikely they’ll ever be more than 400g [14 oz] per vine. When you consider these yields, and the amount of work that our system entails, you can start to see that our prices must be at a certain level.
Each of the practices I have listed has its own logic, and all them have been observed elsewhere or were researched. None of them are original, even if the system as a whole must be so, as it’s adapted to our place, and each place is unique. Actually, when you list each practice as I have done above, it gives the misleading impression that each of these elements exists independently. In fact, all these practices are deeply interconnected elements of a complex, fluid system that’s evolving all the time, with the aim of maximizing quality and expression of place—a system that’s adapted to our site, our densities, our vine age, and each season. Change one element and you change the system as a whole. I suppose that the key point is that our densities and practice require a lot more work and much more manual labor than a conventional, widely spaced vineyard. That’s the gamble we have taken, that this extra workload and extra cost will repay us in terms of the quality delivered. Of course, it isn’t the only path to quality, but it’s the path we’ve chosen.
The challenges of applying these practices in Australia were many. The first challenge was that the equipment and expertise needed to apply most of them weren’t available. An organic, cultivated vineyard with the kind of density and specifics I was considering didn’t exist in Australia (in fact, if we take our system as a whole, it hardly existed at all), so, finding local suppliers and consultants was not an option. All the equipment would need to be imported or developed, and all of the knowledge would need to be acquired on the ground, through a great deal of trial and error.
This process has been one hell of a journey. If I’d known everything I know today, I am not sure I could have raised the energy for the journey we’ve been on. But I was naive and full of dreams and so I started looking for a worthy site.
I could not have done this on my own. I employed a local viticulturalist, Tim Brown, who came with me to Europe, multiple times, to get his head around the practices and the style of vineyard I was envisioning. Tim has now gone on to plant a number of other high-density sites in Victoria, following his experience with us. My manager for the past few years, Rémi Jacquemain, a talented and driven Frenchman, has become a significant player in our story, and we had great help from Tom Myers (now of Cantina d’Arcy in Barolo), who aided us enormously in the development of our pruning system. I was also lucky enough to have the support of countless great growers, winemakers, and agronomists in Europe and Australia, whom I list in thanks on our website.
This leads to your questions around high density. In just over 3ha [7 acres], we have around 44,000 vines, with densities of 12,500, 14,000, 20,000, 25,000, and 33,000 vines/ha [5,000, 5,600, 8,000, 10,000, and 13,300 vines/acre]. As you wrote, high density increases competition and so sends the roots deeper in search of moisture and nutrient availability. A vine with a deep and expansive root system is clearly more resilient and can deal better with challenging conditions, especially hot and dry spells. The increased competition also creates slower growing, smaller vines that are less vigorous, producing less canopy and less fruit. The fruit is smaller, with smaller berries, something rightly associated with higher quality. On top of this, the vine has to work harder, pump harder, in order to compete with its close neighbors.
There is another significant impact that is less talked about, and that is the greater shading that comes along with high density. Closer planting results in a more dappled sunlight hitting the vines, and a cooler microclimate in general. This has significant implications for the soil, the plant, and the wine. It was with the great Galician grower, José Luis Mateo (of Quinta da Muradella), that this idea first occurred to me. We were standing in a steep, rocky vineyard somewhere in Monterrei, discussing the advantages of bush vines in sunnier climes, when it struck me that high density could achieve the same ends. Working with Olivier Lamy in Burgundy, the great pioneer of high-density plantings in Burgundy, I learned of many other implications of close planting (apart from shading). By the way, we now have some bush vines, staked Pinot Noir, at Place of Changing Winds, in order to explore this logic even further. Of course, high densities need good water availability, which is where our rainfall, the water-holding capacity of our soil, and the depth of vine roots becomes so important. And you can have too much shading, so there’s a balance to be struck.
You raised a genuinely interesting point about the differences in establishing a vineyard in Europe compared with Australia. It’s true that any European wishing to plant, or to buy vineyards, will face far more bureaucracy, strict regional and European controls, and the weight of history. Yet they will find many advantages as well, especially in established regions. The size and complexity of the European wine trade means that there is significant government support and a diversity of services that we cannot currently match in Australia. They will have the resources for any kind of practice at their fingertips: commercial or artisanal, high- or low-density, organic, biodynamic, or conventional. Machinery specialists, compost specialists, outstanding agronomists of every kind, vine nurseries with degrees of specialisation that we can only dream of (offering multiple types of grafting and massal selections, for example), enologists and enological labs of all shapes and sizes, often with radically different approaches, including some that offer a number of services that cannot currently be found in Australia.
Yet perhaps the biggest advantage that Europeans will have is that they need not wonder where to plant, or what variety to plant, or even at what density to plant. Most of these practices will be specified by AOC regulations. Nor do they need to wonder about how they might arrive at “best practice” in their place—they only need to observe the finest, most revered grower(s) in their village or region to understand what’s needed to make exceptional wines of place.
Contrast this with our experience of planting a vineyard on a site that has never carried vines before, and planting in a way that differs radically from our local cultural norms. You’re right to use the word “terrifying.” The risks were obvious. It was, as I mentioned above, a leap into the abyss. From the beginning, we faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles. We had to coax and educate contractors on how to establish the trellising for our densities. We had to source and import all the equipment, and then work out how best to use it with our soils.
While there were some who encouraged me, and some who went on to plant similar vineyards using the same contractors and equipment, many shook their heads and muttered. Some openly told us that we were headed for disaster. One viticulturalist predicted that our vines would die. Others simply said that it could never work or that we were crazy (a recent article in a national newspaper described me as a “crazy bastard”). There have been times when I’ve wondered if this was about right. Hence the naming of our first planting as the Clos de la Connerie. I worry less about this today. The grapes and the wines we are now seeing has excited us about what the future might hold, even if the work and all of the trial and error required to get to this point has been grueling.
In the vines, we’re waiting for veraison to begin. It’s a late, cool, wet season. There has been no summer and we are heading for an April harvest (the equivalent of an October vintage in the northern hemisphere). In Europe, we observe the harvest dates getting earlier and earlier and the wines getting riper and riper. Here, in our place at least, we must wait patiently for ripeness. The world has seemingly been turned on its head.
Yours in letters,
February 14, 2021 Montferrier-sur-Lez, France
Thanks for the fascinating account of the process you have been through. I can sense the depth of feeling behind it and imagine some of the trials you and the team have undergone. Indeed, as I typed that word “process,” I heard an echo of its use in psychotherapy: the long, tough, lip-biting, tearful stages that everyone lying on the couch has to undergo before swimming out, somehow or other, toward change and “ending,” which really means beginning again. We’re always beginning again. (My Dad began again in his care home, even though he knew he was going there to die. And enjoyed it.)
I grew up among farmers; my schoolfriends were farmers’ sons; I’ve spent my working life, at least in part, talking to farmers. It’s tough and there’s lots of process, decades of it. Your life unfolds out there, on the hillside, alone under the sky that feeds you and punishes you, which is always both just and arbitrary, and which unlike the therapist never bothers to reply when you talk to it and remonstrate with it. You’re a farmer now. It’s a difficult life—physically, of course, but still more difficult mentally. We all owe so much to farmers, to their lonely toughness and their stubbornness. Everyone should dabble with gardening, should watch their tomatoes split and the slugs eat their cabbages; everyone should chew ruefully on their own dull, woody carrots. To see, in other words, how difficult farming is, to see how easily failure comes, and to realize that without farmers we’d be dead, the whole lot of us, and in short order, too.
But … wine farmers are just a little luckier, or at least they are if it works out well, as I think it is in the end for you. Luckier, that is, as long they don’t mind doing three different jobs, not one.
Growing grapes is the first job. Then you have to craft them into wines: job number two. And then you have to sell those wines into a global market teeming with other wines: job three.
You’ve bought and imported wine all your life, which means you’ve sold it, too, or your co-workers have. That will give you experience, networks, and reputation, so you won’t have had too much difficulty in selling those first wines. For perspective, though, I should say that for most winegrowers where I live in Languedoc, no part of the winemaker’s work is harder than selling. That challenge is also the one most frequently underestimated by those who, after successful business careers, decide that winemaking will be their “legacy.” But I know you’re not a legacy guy, striding around the place in big boots. You’re running a kind of experiment, a dream-fueled experiment. Not barefoot, exactly, but there must be moments when it feels a little ragged.
So, it’s really about craft that we should exchange now. The wines you sent me are from 2019 … but you bought the land and began planting in 2012. I don’t know exactly when the vines went into the ground, but presumably you’ve had a harvest or two to play with prior to 2019. What happened to those wines? What were they like? What did you and Rémi do or try along the way? What worked and what didn’t?
You’ve obviously had the chance to observe a huge number of winemakers at work in Burgundy and other regions down the years, and they will all be doing things slightly differently from one another in the cellar. Sometimes, indeed, radically differently from one another—yet each method works for each grower. You can, for example, make beautiful red Burgundy by retaining all the stems in your ferment, and you can make beautiful red Burgundy by discarding them all, too. So, how did you decide what’s best for you and the fruit of your place? You only get one try every year; that’s what’s so tough about winemaking. No chance to practice! No chance to stuff up quietly, chuck it all in the bin and have another go! Set off in the wrong direction and you lose a decade.
There’s another question I have, too. Australia is a special place for wine, as I saw for myself when I had the chance to spend 15 months there just over a decade ago. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s the same in Georgia or Moldova, but I have the impression that wine is somehow closer to the national sense of identity in Australia than in any other country I know. There’s far more about wine and winemakers in the media in Australia, for example, than there is in France or Italy; indeed, in France you sometimes get the sense that the political class is ashamed of wine, though it’s the nation’s most important agricultural export. In Italy or Portugal, it’s everywhere, it’s just normal life, it’s what people do: unremarkable.
That’s not true in Australia. When Australians think about themselves and their culture, wine is up there with sport, with Aboriginal art, and with that tough, jokey, continental pride that muddles up tourism and mining frenzy and awe at nature and fear at what it can do. Wine matters.
One result of this is that the wine press, the critical interlocutors, are much more important in Australia than elsewhere, too. There’s a kind of osmosis between them and wine creators which I’ve never seen elsewhere. All of this is wonderful and advantageous in many ways for the country—but it can be dangerous, too. There can be a groupthink, a normative pressure on winemakers that is very hard to evade. Do you feel that? Do you resent that?
I noted that all the wines are labeled 12.5% ABV, for example, whereas it’s not hard to find grand and balanced Burgundies at 13.5% nowadays; and I remember how down the Australian press was on alcohol in general when I was there. South Australian wines that fetched up 15+% were cancel-cultured, even though their places and plantings were often wishing them into being. Perhaps your wines just came out at 12.5% naturally—or did you feel some pressure to have those numbers on the label? Did you have to have some palates in mind when you crafted the wines … or were you able to do exactly what you wanted? What’s Rémi’s take on all that? Could you make the wines you both dreamed about, the wines you felt the grapes really wanted to become, or did they have to have a kind of contextual intelligibility in order to be taken seriously?
That’s enough for now. We’ll chat about aromas and flavors and shapes and textures next time. I’m sorry to read in your letter that this summer has been nail-biting—but maybe you expected this, given the significance of ENSO (the El Niño-Southern Oscillation) for Australia? Wasn’t this always going to be a La Niña harvest, like 2010–11? They can be impressive … if the rain holds off. I’m hoping it will.
The violets are out here, by the way, and our mimosa has exploded into flower; the almond tree is doing its thing a little more shyly. The vines, though, are still fast asleep. Under snow, up in Burgundy. Under stars, down here by the Mediterranean.
Best wishes and fingers crossed,