The Hunter Valley has cast a long shadow over the NSW wine scene for many, many decades, and for good reason too, as it is Australia’s first, and oldest wine growing region. And then, there is the sleeping giant of Orange, located approximately 3 hours west of Sydney, which is, today, one of Australia’s fastest growing wine regions, and home to one of the largest certified biodynamically managed vineyards in the southern hemisphere. But, NSW is so much more than just these two regions. To really get to grips with what’s out there, in NSW, you will have to look at little closer.
Somewhere, half way between Sydney, and Melbourne, and 2 hours west of Canberra, there is a track winding back… to an old dog on a tucker box, in a place called Gundagai; one of NSW smallest wine growing regions, and the spiritual home of Alex Retief, one of Australia’s most underestimated winegrowers.
25 kilometers outside of Gundagai, at 100 metres above sea level, in the Kyeamba Valley, sits the Winbirra vineyard, planted in 1995 by Alex’s father. The vineyard is made up of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz vines, and has been managed biodynamically since the beginning, with certification coming in 2003.
“I was doing an Arts Degree at the University of Canberra, and I had no idea where that was leading”, says Alex, “and while I was on uni holidays, I was helping Dad plant the vineyard, and thought to myself that (winegrowing) isn’t such a bad idea”. The next year Alex transferred from the vagueness of an Arts Degree to the more focussed discipline of winemaking at Charles Sturt University.
After finishing his winemaking degree, Alex embarked on a number of vintages, both in Australia, and overseas. He completed one vintage in Sonoma Valley, California, before returning to Australia to work for 3 years with Andrew Margan in the Hunter Valley, whilst, in the meantime, involving himself with vintages in the Languedoc, and then afterwards, in Bordeaux, where he lived and worked for 2 years.
Meanwhile, his parents vineyard in Gundagai was thriving under the biodynamic management practices that they were using on this old grazing property owned, previously, by Alex’s grandfather.
Alex owes much of the biodynamic management of the Winbirra vineyard to his parents, especially his Mum, who sought out the organic, and biodynamic certifications on the property they farm. “Mum has been buying organic food for as long as I can remember, and was always really fascinated by that side of things”, says Alex, “she was really keen on the whole lunar calender, and I think that’s why she wanted to go one step further and become biodynamic”.
“The soils were really hard and compact after years of normal grazing and compaction”, recalls Alex, “and now, after 5 years of biodynamics, the soil is fertile, and full of life again with that really rich, dark brown, loamy sort of soil. There are lot of worms, and a lot of life, so it’s really helped the vineyard become more balanced”, he says. “I was definitely a sceptic to start, but now I’m a firm believer, having seen what it’s done to the soil, and that can’t be a bad thing”.
It wasn’t until the incessant, rain soaked season of 2012 that the true benefits of biodynamics really came into their own, as the vineyard was healthy enough to enable it to withstand days and days of relentless rain, yet still produce ripe, sound fruit that was, far and away, in much better condition than their closest neighbors, as Alex explains…
“The first time I ever really saw the biggest difference (between a conventionally managed site, and their own) was in 2012 when there was still a lot of rain, and other vineyards up and down the road were covered in disease, whereas Mum and Dad’s had hardly any disease at all.”, says Alex, “We were getting 6 inches (of rain) a day, and there was so much water that the vineyard actually shut down as the water began to flood through the vineyard, but the fruit tasted ripe, and was still sound”.
The fruit was only coming in at 11° Baumé (a measurement of % sugar in the grape, which corresponds to the approximate alcohol yield % by volume), but according to Alex, “the colour and structure was amazing, with a full flavor spectrum… it was really in-balance fruit, at a time when I thought there was no way it could be”.
Having not only survived, but thrived through the worst of the rains in 2012, the Winbirra vineyard carried on producing true terroir driven fruit for Alex to make his wines with a real sense of place and provenance. There are huge gum trees that surround the site, and it’s thought that they are the source for some of the more minted, eucalyptus notes present in some of Alex’s wines. In fact, the Australia Wine Research Institute (AWRI) has found that “those (vineyards) grown close to the (eucalyptus) trees contain significant amounts of 1,8-cineole”, (the chemical compound which the eucalyptus smell/taste derives from), and that the compound “was present above the sensory detection threshold in 40% of (Australian) red wines”.