This week, I made my way out via the Lovedale road to Hunter Valley Wine Country – the oldest wine region in Australia, and the most recognisable Australian wine region in the world. Yep, even more so than the Barossa – in fact, it even boasts some of the world’s oldest vines.
I was heading out to a part of the region I had never previously set foot in, despite the many journeys I have made out there, this time to Rothbury, and more specifically to Macquariedale Wines – the Hunter Valley’s first ACO certified organic and bio-dynamic winery.
Ross McDonald, and his wife Derice began Macquariedale back in the early 1990’s with a small vineyard of Shiraz and Chardonnay, close to the Hunter River. Still living, and working in Sydney at the time – Ross has a background in chemical engineering – winemaking was more of a pursuit of passion, rather than a fully fledged future ambition. It wasn’t until 1998 when that passion led Ross and his family to leave the Sydney corporate world, and move up to the Hunter Valley permanently.
“Wine was a passion of mine, more of a hobby,” says Ross of his time just before making the move out of Sydney, and “you don’t get too many chances in life to actually have a go at something different that you are intensely passionate about.”
Having relocated to the Hunter Valley, Ross set about purchasing a forty year old Southcorp vineyard which contained “some beautiful old Semillon,” and subsequently rode the wave of Australia’a wine revolution, shipping outside to the US and others, but never quite keeping up with the demand, and sheer volume that is required for export.
In 2001, Ross had been researching into alternative methods of winemaking, and encouraged by the Hunter Valley Bio-Dynamic Group, decided to change his winemaking practices to a more sustainable way of creation. An “extremely steep learning curve,” followed, and by 2005 Macquariedale Wines became the first Hunter Valley winery to be certified organic, and biodynamic.
Today, Macquariedale has expanded to 300 acres, with about 35 acres of vines, which now include Verdelho, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as their previous Semillon, and Shiraz. Ross has also been experimenting with Pinot Noir and Mourvedre, with Mourvedre being something of a first for the Hunter Valley as it’s never been recognised as having been grown there before.
“You can’t be half pregnant,” says Ross. The shift to organic and bio-dynamic has to be borne out of an inherent philosophy of sustainability, first and foremost – it can’t be an after thought; some sort of marketing nonsense in order to give your winemaking a little bit of environmental credibility.
Some wineries, in the Hunter Valley and elsewhere, are so deeply rooted into a cycle of sprays, herbicides, and pre-emergent chemicals that it would be nearly impossible for them to change their vineyards into a more sustainable model and receive the relevant certification from ACO. These pesticides and herbicides are designed to kill off any new seedling’s that may begin to sprout within the soil close to the original vines, and they’ve been used year on year for as long as they’ve been commercially viable. So, these sprays are literally soaked into the soil – with many of them having a half life of 50 to 100 years – which makes it very difficult to just decide, one day, to change course and become organic.
Much of Ross’ inspiration and justification for sustainability comes from many of France’s most prominent winemakers, “because they make some of the best tasting wine in the world, but just happen to be organic and/or bio-dynamic”. By using some of these vineyards as a model for his own in the Hunter Valley, Ross is able to achieve what his main passion for winemaking is… “to make the best wine possible, and not to lean on the crutch that we’re organic.”
To make the best wine possible. Indeed.
Next week, we’ll re-visit Macquariedale Wines, and go on a tour of the vineyard, plus look at some of the practices that Ross and his team use to create their wine’s, and, of course… have a taste!
D// – The Wine Idealist.