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 third installment of an edited version of the correspondence that ensued. To read the first two extracts, click here and here
February 22, 2021 Place of Changing Winds
We are always beginning. Once again, your words ring true for our experience in the vines. Every season there is a new set of challenges. Every stage in the vineyard’s development brings new lessons and revelations. It’s been nine years since we first began planting our vines. That’s something, I suppose, in terms of learning about our place and developing our practice. We’ve certainly evolved significantly and learned a great deal, even if we’re always beginning. Personally, it has been a 30-year journey of observation and research that has led me here, but the truth is that I still feel like a novice. Every day I learn new things that expand my knowledge and challenge my preconceptions. Every day the vines humble me. Every day a new beginning.
You’ve called me a farmer, which I take as a compliment, although I remain a merchant, too, an importer and a distributor of wines. And I write when I have the time. So, I wear several hats, even if they are all wine hats. I feel very lucky in this regard. Being a producer, a grower, a wine buyer, a merchant, and communicator, allows me to view the wine world from many angles. I’m able to draw a great deal from the growers and producers that I buy from, and this in turn helps inform my thinking around the practice at Place of Changing Winds. At the same time, I know that I’m a far better merchant, that I have a deeper understanding of the market and a richer empathy with my growers, all thanks to lessons learned in the vineyard. This was one of my motivations for the project. To close the circle.
Farming is a tough and stressful life, taxing both physically and mentally. You quickly learn the fragility of your system of practice, and how much it relies on the benevolence of nature. This is especially the case when you work in a new place, without experience or track record, and of course when you work as we do without systemic chemicals, without prescriptive irrigation, and when you strive for ultimate quality. With such an approach you have fewer and less powerful tools to combat the problems that inevitably arise. You must be ready to lose something—and at times a great deal. The acute sense of loss that can follow is hard to describe. I would not have believed it myself until I experienced it.
Last year we lost 95 percent of our crop to a savage frost that swept through our vines at budburst. It was to have been our second significant vintage, the result of years of hard work and investment. The emotional impact of this loss reminded me of the first time my heart was broken; there was a bitter sense of hopelessness and frustration that at times took my breath away. It lasted for months and I will never forget it. The vineyard is a heart-breaker.
On the flip side, as you say, we’re lucky. We get to work with nature, to grow and fashion something from our labor, hopefully something of beauty. It’s a remarkable gift, no matter the stress and turmoil that we encounter along the way.
You write that I’m not a legacy guy—but aren’t all humans to some extent legacy creatures? Mortal beings trying to mark their environment and so carve out some fragment of immortality? Wouldn’t we all like to leave this world thinking (perhaps naïvely) that we had helped progress things? Helped to make things better in some way? Or at least strived in that direction? I wouldn’t say that this is my primary motivation, but I’m certainly attracted to the idea of producing something of merit that outlives me.
Perhaps a greater motivation has been my desire for deeper knowledge. I’ve always been obsessed with learning and the vineyard project has been a wonderful if stern teacher. My understanding of the wine world (and more specifically the vine world) has expanded in directions that wouldn’t have been possible without Place of Changing Winds.
There is another, more personal factor. I am someone who has never felt a strong sense of belonging. Perhaps this is because my family moved a lot during my childhood, and I never had the chance to develop a strong bond with a culture or a place. My mother was born in Scotland; my father’s parents were from Russia. Both seemed like outsiders to me and maybe this has also contributed to my sense of being somehow “outside” the culture I grew up in. Perhaps many Australians have this feeling? I can’t say, although so many of us are immigrants, or the children or grandchildren of immigrants. The longer the Changing Winds project has gone on, the more I’ve realized that I am not only striving to establish a vineyard that grows memorable wines of place; I’m also striving for connection.
That’s the emotional element of the project for me. I am not of native (First Nations, Australian aboriginal) descent. I am therefore not “indigenous to my place” in the way that most great growers of Europe feel indigenous to their place and their culture. If I am to become authentic, genuine, indigenous, then it feels like my only path is through immersion in “my place,” through deep knowledge of this place.
You asked about what Rémi and I had learned in the years leading up to our first commercial release (2019). First of all, we learned to be patient. Things go more slowly at our densities and practice, and because of the way we originally established the vines, with little water or compost. It’s common for vignerons in Burgundy and Champagne to avoid harvesting any fruit from vines under five years of age, and to declassify grapes for at least seven years. It’s uncanny how much this resonates with us. We took a little fruit in 2016 through 2018, but really very little; the vines were not ready. The fruit was not in balance and it taught us very little about the site. It was only in 2019, when the vines were six or seven years old, that they threw a decent canopy and produced balanced fruit. The vineyard then really shifted a gear.
In terms of our winemaking, I’ve had the benefit of observing the journey taken by many European growers and the approaches of fellow Australian producers. I’ve witnessed many experiments in the vineyard and cellar and this has certainly helped inform our approach. For the 2019 wines, Rémi and I came up with a plan that we thought would work. It was based on these observations and our experiences, but also on our place and the season, and the kind of fruit we tasted on the vine. Yet for the most part, we were guessing. Perhaps intuiting is a better word.
In a way it’s quite straightforward. You start with the place, what it might want to say, and what the fruit is telling you about the potential style and power of the future wine. What you like to drink is a factor, but if you are to make a genuine wine of place (which is our goal), you must adapt your winemaking to the vineyard, to what you have grown. This is a place, we are learning, that produces fruit with good intensity and structure and yet the wines are not rich and heavy. In fact, they are often fully flavor-ripe at well under 13% ABV. So, we tried to respect the finesse of the wine by extracting enough, without overextracting. To age the wines long enough, without tiring them. And so on. These are simple principles that can be applied to any place. We also ran some experiments to test our assumptions, and we learned a great deal from these. I’m proud of what we achieved in 2019, but there is still much progress ahead.
Where does the human end and the place begin? This is always the question when you are aiming to produce a wine of place. Rémi and I both love finesse, that’s true. That is why I planted in a cool place, at 500m [1,640ft] above sea level—because I was searching for a place to grow great Pinot in a style I would enjoy. I also planted in a way that I hoped would make for slower ripening (the shading of high density) and create flavor ripeness with lower sugars (low yields per vine, absence of irrigation). 2019 is a dry year, but we still have 12.6% or 12.7% ABV. I would have been happy with slightly higher alcohol content but the flavor seemed to be there, the skins and pips were ripe, the stalks were lignified, and the acidity was good, so we picked. It really had nothing to do with expectations and everything to do with our place, and what I believed would lead to the highest quality. 2020 was, by contrast, a cooler, later year, where we picked as late as we possibly could. Even with tiny yields and a light chaptilization, the Pinot has ended up at around 12%! But the perfume and depth of flavor is good, so I am happy (if totally depressed by how little wine there is, because of the frost).
Your questions and comments on the closeness of our wine media to the industry are dangerous territory for an Australian wine producer! I take your point, but to be honest, I’m not sure if this is uniquely Australian. Perhaps it is a feature of cultures where production has traditionally been dominated by large companies? Bordeaux and Champagne have also been very effective at keeping their critics close and have seemingly been influenced by their tastes. Is it worse here than elsewhere? I don’t know. It certainly does not affect us at Place of Changing Winds.
Wine matters. You raise a very interesting point regarding wine seeming to “matter” more in Australian popular culture than in many other places. Wine is certainly very visible here. I recall the first time that I sat down to a meal with a family in France. They were not in the wine trade and I was taken by how little attention the wine on the table received. I naively asked some questions about the bottle we had been served and got nothing but shrugs. I noticed something similar at work in Parisian bistros, where the wine served was often terrible—a fact that went unremarked by the patrons. Traveling later through Spain and Italy, I came to realize that for most Europeans, wine was so engrained in their culture that it was hardly visible or worth commenting on—much like the salad, or the salt and pepper.
In Australia, by contrast, the wine put on the table, even by non-professionals, is somehow much more prominent. Maybe it’s because wine is still a relatively new feature of our culture? Let’s not forget that Australian wine, as we understand it today, only begins in the 1960s. Today wine is still a choice in Australia, not a given, and so we “see” the bottle on the table. It makes a statement of some sort. It raises questions. It makes itself manifest. “Oh, wine,” we say. And then questions arise, like, “Why this wine?” “Is it a good wine?” “Who made this wine?” “Where did it come from?” “How much did it cost?” Such questions are unlikely to occur to a Portuguese worker that grew up with wine on the table, drinking the wine of his region or his family’s vines.
We are also a proud nation, ancient on one level, with the oldest continuous culture on the planet, but also young in terms of our modern identity. Surely all young cultures thrash around for things to be proud of? Our wine has done well overseas, like actors and sporting stars, and so naturally we celebrate this.
Our fruit trees have given us a great crop of nectarines, plums, and apricots this year. The apples are almost ripe, and our pears are on the way. Last week we saw the first color-change in the grapes, so we rushed to get the bird nets out. Without these there would be no crop—such is the price of being surrounded by a forest and encouraging biodiversity. The Currawongs and Mynas would take everything if they could. Thus, the vineyard has changed color from green to white (the color of the netting), signaling that we’ve entered the home stretch on vintage 2021. This brings a change in our mood. There’s nothing to do now but wait. We finally have some good weather, too: not hot, but sunny and warm, which is very welcome after our long, cool season. Hopefully this marks the beginning of an Indian summer that will carry us gently home. As always, we hold our breath.
Yours in letters,
March 12, 2021 Montferrier-sur-Lez, France
It was good to get your replies, and I’m aware that a month or more has passed since you wrote—though I’m simultaneously surprised to note this. Time seems to have changed its texture over the past year; what once seemed like a rushing stream in a whirling scene has now turned treacly and immobile as I trace hapless circles in desert-like days. The struggle is to reach nightfall with some kind of record of forward movement, some scrappy proof of activity. In responding to requests from the family and colleagues, I have some; but the inner sensation, “felt time,” is more that of sliding backward than advancing. So, I’m a little jealous of the harvest urgency you will soon be confronting. You have a birth to attend to. There’s nothing more exciting and compelling than that. I hope all goes well.
This is really the time to talk about aromas and flavors with you: The tastes of your place of winds. I loved the 2019 Bullengarook Chardonnay (my top scorer): Lightly silvered in color, then soft, milky, and fragrant in aroma. There were many different aromatic notes in there (almond, tangerine citrus, violet, and iris root) yet what really appealed was its ease and charm, its undemonstrativeness, its unfussy gentleness of articulation. I loved it because it didn’t need me to love it and didn’t demand my approbation. On the palate, it was soft and melting, warm, ripe, and balanced; not at all taut and lean, not at all “tightly wound.” Every sip seemed to beckon the next; it was a wine totally at ease with itself yet rewarded all the scrutiny one could give it. “Honestly, the best Chardonnay I have opened at home all year,” I wrote in my notebook last autumn, long before we embarked on this correspondence, “and it’s now late November.” I was impressed how un-primary it seemed, how well it had digested its fruit already; beautiful craft here. I hope you have plenty of Chardonnay planted.
The 2019 Tradition, I noted, was a Pinot/Syrah blend of your fruit (the Pinot?) and Heathcote fruit (the Syrah?): A joke in a way, I guess, yet in another way a kind of tribute to that great Australian tradition of cross-regional blending and blending of varieties not customarily brought together. This we drank at home after trying some Barolo wines, and it was a wonderful contrast: a cascade of pungent, bright, almost explosive zesty cherry fruits, like a kind of celestial Beaujolais. Barolo can be a workout; this was the refreshing shower afterwards. There was a smoky-savory quality to the fruits, a hint of oiled leather; no tannins to speak of. All its intensity was hidden in that skin-popping, juicy ripeness and that astonishing purity of fruit.
And then there were the three 2019 Pinots. Between Two Mountains is, I guess, “the blend”; the Clos de la Connerie, from the north-facing, suntrap site; and finally the self-explanatory High Density. They were, for me, close in quality, with a clear family resemblance. How would I describe that? A lyricism of fruit above all—they are all singing Pinots, with a fine melodic line to them. Oak never obtrudes. They’re not fierce with ambition; they don’t push and shove; they’ve been crafted for drinkers yet are memorably intense. They have that high-altitude freshness, the energy of airy places, driving their dance and their song; that’s why, in the end, the name works so well for them, and their labels with them: seamless aesthetics. This is a rare and a considerable achievement.
I haven’t checked prices, but if Between Two Mountains is least expensive, then it offers best value. Lovely fruit grafted to a subdued earthiness, a stone grain; there’s also a shaft of illuminating bitterness through it, like a sunbeam. Poised ripeness and dancing freshness, but the acidity is soft and gratifying, carrying the echo of the full season. The fruit is structuring, but all the structure is fruit, and it leaves a lovely smooth weight on the tongue, like an egg in the palm of the hand.
Clos de la Connerie was, by a small margin, my favorite. It was less immediately engaging aromatically, but a little more complex when you looked: less cherry, more tangerine; flowers and cologne; lime pith and red apple. Good things. On the palate, this seemed deeper and denser than Between Two Mountains, with less dimpled sweetness to it; less cherry and more plum and raspberry. There is more drama to the acidity now, and a little more texture, though this texture suggests lees to me more than tannins themselves. It was nonetheless a poised and mouthfilling wine thanks to the depth and the class of its fruit.
The High Density brought a little damson into the fruit mix and turned the aromatic charm up further. On the palate, I noted whispered tannins, perfumed sweetness, an inner gentleness, and just a touch of meaty warmth, too: impeccable fruit qualities yet again. There seemed to be a sucrosity to the fruits here, which I didn’t notice in the other two, almost an extra level of generosity, which seemed to cry out for a little more tannic weight, though this the wine does not yet have. Can you ask more of the skins? Is there a role for stems? These are the kind of things my personal tastes would lead me to look for, yet I can readily imagine that having created balances this fine, you are not going to be in hurry to jeopardize them in any way.
The question of tannins is one that I often think about in tasting Pinots from around the world, since for me that is still the diagnostic difference between ambitious non-Burgundian Pinot and the wines that come from Burgundy. Of course, I’m aware how hazardous generalizations are here, and I’m also conscious that there is no reason at all why wine that does not come from Burgundy should resemble Burgundy in any way—it’s different, and that’s the point. But these comparisons still need to be made in order to understand the differences.
Even the lightest and most graceful Burgundy has a structural dimension that is always quietly apparent. That’s a part of its authority when you drink it, something that your palate immediately and instinctively recognizes; and when the wine is great or profound, then that greatness and profundity is somehow embedded in the structure. The fruit, indeed, serves the structure, not the other way around, and the difference between different climats is often as much to do with structure as it is with fruit; they offer different articulations of structure. Different architectures, if you like. The fruit is apparent from the off, and furnishes immediate seduction, whereas the structure is that which you come to appreciate in drinking, in spending time with the wine, and in apprehending what it says about its place on the escarpment. (Acidity is often the liaison between the two.) Ambitious Pinots from non-Burgundian origins can often eclipse Burgundy in terms of fruit seduction; indeed, their fruit qualities are such that the drinker forgets about structure, or is satisfied with wealth, energy, or nuance of fruit as structure. If they are beautiful wines to drink, that’s enough; and in any case that is perhaps their destiny, and the way place must be inscribed in them. But whenever I taste any wine there is always a little voice inside saying “why? why? why?” to me, and this is the “why?” that comes up more often than any other to me when I sit down with a wine called Pinot. I don’t know if this makes sense, or if it has been a part of your relationship with your own wines; I don’t even know if craft or culture has any role to play here, or if the genetics of place is all. But you will tell me what you think—and time will tell us both.
But tell me above all about what nature has given you at the end of this year that none of us will ever forget. The cycles churn on; new beauty comes into being; we help things happen, and those things will outlast us all and utterly eclipse us.
Yours in wine,
March 22, 2021 Place of Changing Winds
A number of captivating ideas to engage with here. First, your evocative notion of the slowing and thickening of “felt time” made me think of something I read recently about the surprising discovery that smaller creatures experience time as moving more slowly. It seems that their metabolism is much faster, so they process information more rapidly, and literally find themselves with more time. Maybe this is why time passes more slowly for children than adults? “Are we there yet”? It is certainly why it can be so hard to swat a fly; they see our movements, rapid to us, as though in slow motion.
Could it be, I wonder, that Covid has shrunk us? That Father Chronos has clipped our wings? Made us face up to how small we are when contrasted with the omnipotent authority of nature? Something has certainly changed. For you, as a writer, I can see how this would be pointed. For the writer, time is something else. You are always waiting; for inspiration, for the words to flow, for narratives to form, for publishers and agents to return emails. This must make you acutely aware of changes in chronological perception.
For me, as a business and vineyard owner, as you point out, there is still plenty of urgency and distraction. In the vines, nature keeps following its cycle, throwing new challenges and an ever-growing list of tasks in the vineyard and cellar. As to the business, well, we must work even harder. We must find new ways of reaching our audience, supporting our producers and clients, new ways of educating and selling. For me, the extra energy and time demanded by these altered conditions has been balanced by my inability to travel (and my current staff, brilliant all). Before Covid, I spent three months a year on the road, much of that in Europe. For the past 18 months, I have hardly left Victoria. So, in one way I have more time, in another less. I feel like an ouroboros, pushing forward and yet never moving. No matter how much I strive, I always arrive back at the beginning.
Speaking of beginnings (again!), I was of course flattered to read your notes on our wines from 2019. I have been energized by what you have written, as I have from the responses of other experienced tasters. These are only our first (serious) wines and we have so much progress ahead of us. Every year our vines are older, every year we understand so much more about our place and have refined our practice in both the vineyard and the cellar. The terrible frost that wiped us out in 2020 has set us back, no question, but we will once again have fruit in the cellar in the coming weeks so we can apply the lessons that we learned from our winemaking in 2019.
Speaking candidly, we’ve longed for such affirmation. This venture has been taxing and exhausting. At times it has felt like all the cards have been stacked against us. Such kind words are the fuel that drives us on.
Your notes on the High Density had me nodding vigorously. I am not one of these growers who believe that we cannot compare our wines with Burgundy. On the contrary, we must! Not to imitate, but to gain insights and to question, as you do; Why? Why? Why?! It’s self-evident that a grower should taste widely of the benchmarks in order to critique and gain insight into their own work. Your comments on Pinots from outside of France are on the money. There is, as you suggest, an austerity common to young Burgundy that is rarely if ever seen in Australian or American Pinot. What is going on? I feel we are on the edge of understanding this and I feel that at least part of the answer will be practice. Of course, different places should make different wines, but I doubt place explains everything. Burgundy also has the added advantage of eons of learning, of vine age and massal selection—but this cannot explain all the differences we find, especially when it comes to power, structure, and freshness (or, by contrast, sweet fruit and viscosity). The place is different, the plant material is different, but the key factor that is not considered enough is practice. It has been this latter paradigm that I’ve wanted to explore to the nth degree at Place of Changing Winds.
To this end, the question we are trying to answer is this: If you farm in a cool, marginal place, and you develop a system of practice that can stand up to comparison to the very best growers of Burgundy (in terms of attention to detail, yield per vines, bunch and berry size), would you arrive at similar quality? Would you arrive at grape material that would produce ripe wines with similar acidities (or pH), and similar structural power? While these remain open questions, at the very least it seems clear to me that you will be able to produce wines that are as fine as they can be in your place, for you will have taken no shortcuts.
Of course, we must acknowledge that things are now changing quickly in Burgundy. A warming climate brings wines with ever higher pHs, richer fruit, and softer tannins. I often show young Burgundies, masked, to colleagues and friends, and it’s becoming ever harder to answer the question “Burgundy or not”? Interestingly, we rarely find such difficulties when we show Australian Pinot masked.
In 2019, we were conservative with both our extractions and our length of aging for High Density, as we really did not know what to expect. We were flying blind. There was so little fruit for this wine that we decided to destem everything, and to extract relatively gently, arguably not building as much structure as we might have done if we had worked the skins harder. We feel ready to take another step forward in 2021.
Today it’s raining. We are still waiting for our Pinot and Chardonnay to ripen and are certain to harvest late, in the autumnal cool of April. It has been an extremely mild, slow season in our place and yet, as we wait for our own vines to finish their cycle, we are already busy making wine. As you know, we also produce some Syrah and Marsanne from much warmer vineyards farther north, and this has kept us busy while we wait impatiently to harvest our own fruit. Wine growing is a journey and, as always, we are only just beginning.
Yours in letters,