Sitting 200m above Port Phillip Bay, on top of Red Hill in Victoria, Shashi Singh is plating up a vegetarian pasta dish while black smoke begins to billow out from the oven in her kitchen, which over looks 10 ha of vineyard, planted exclusively with shiraz vines. The black smoke obediently dissipates into the exhaust fan above, while outside an entirely different, and multi-coloured smoke like haze begins to form out over the hinterland of the Mornington Peninsula.
A rainbow begins to appear after fitful rains, which had been falling lightly all morning, and had now finally begun to move on, perhaps to go and bother some poor Melbournians on their lunch-break. As the arc of coloured splendour reached up and over, Shashi, who had finally got her kitchen back under control, looked up to see a fully formed rainbow spanning right across her winery and landing just next door, in the vineyard. She remarked, “ah yes, those things happen all time, apologies for the smoke, lunch is nearly ready.”
Shashi Singh has been winegrowing on this small patch of the Mornington Peninsula since 1998, with her husband Devendra, who is a chef that owns and runs an Indian restaurant nearby. Shashi has a degree in chemistry, and winemaking and has worked for Phillip Jones, of Bass Phillip Wines, since 2004. It was Jones who inspired Shashi to employ a more natural approach to managing her vineyard, which was originally planted with chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet and merlot, as well as shiraz, and was managed conventionally, that is, using synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides and so on.
“Phillip guided us to change from conventional to organic, and at that time I did see a lot of improvement in vine health”, says Shashi, “a lot of the problems we were experiencing in the vineyard fixed themselves… which gives you a lot of confidence to keep on going, no matter how much hard work it is”.
Shashi moved from India to Australia a little over 30 years ago, and once she began investigating biodynamics, she soon realised that this was something similar to what her grandparents had done decades before, in India. “My grandparents were wheat and sugarcane farmers, and they always worked with the moon calender, and made their own composts”, explains Shashi, “they used to burn and smoke cow pat cakes to deter the bad insects away (from their crops)”.
“Initially, I didn’t understand everything (about biodynamics) when you just read it, so I think you just have to do it”, says Shashi. “In the first year (using biodynamics)”, Shashi continues, “there was an amazing difference in the soil structure, when you touched it it had a friable texture to it. It held water so much better and the plants started looking in much better health than what they (previously) were”.
2011 was a notoriously difficult vintage for everyone, and for Shashi it was no different. The shiraz, which tends to ripen a little later than all the rest, wasn’t going anywhere. “They were barely reaching 12 Bé° and the leaves had given up”, recalls Shashi, “It was the end of April and it just wouldn’t stop raining”.
Shashi ended up picking right at the end of April, on the 30th, and amazingly there was not a single bunch that had been affected by botrytis, while many of her neighbors in the Mornington, and colleges further afield had all suffered in some way from this unwanted nobility. “A lot of bunches had not changed colour completely, but there was no greenness, the seeds were ripe, and the stalks were brown”, says Shashi. Even after leaving the unwanted fruit that wasn’t going to be used in the winemaking, on the ground beside the vine, there was still no sign of botrytis on them weeks later. “It was amazing”, says Shashi.
Before converting to biodynamics in 2005 (not certified), Shashi would spray with a botrytis fungicide two or three times a season, and would still end up getting botrytis on her vines. So much of the resilience that these grapes showed to survive the torrid wet conditions of 2011, Shahi puts down to her switch to BD.
Preparation 501, is a quartz silica spray that is applied to the vineyard in a fine mist, early in the morning, and helps increase sunlight and therefore the photosynthesis processes throughout the day, which the plant uses in its energy exchange. Many Australian biodynamic viticulturists don’t use 501 because they believe that it is unnecessary due to the already intense amounts of sunlight and heat that Australian vineyards are exposed to.
“Initially, I was scared to use 501 because of the heat, but I think every part of your vineyard is going to behave differently, so by practice you know what kind of doses to use, and when you should and shouldn’t use it”, says Shashi. “I now use it after harvest, and again in August, then at about four leaf stage, and again at bunch closure. When it was 2011 I was (spraying 501) every second week”, Shashi explains.
When it comes to actually making the fruit into wine, Shashi takes a very understated role by recognising that her interventions in the process from vine to wine are very small.
“My most important task is when I pick my grapes”, says Shashi, “I’m making the wine out there (in the vineyard), and here (in the winery) I don’t do anything, I just let the process take it’s own course”.
All the fruit is 100% de-stemmed, with 8-10 days maceration, which is followed by a completely natural ferment with Shashi preferring to let the process happen by itself when it wants to, without inoculating with packet yeasts. “Once the ferment starts though, I plunge the hell out of it. I don’t go anywhere, and I don’t control the temperature, whatever it goes to, I’ve never had a problem”, says Shashi.
2011 was an extraordinary year because, as Shashi explains, the ferment temperature never went above 20°C, “I was so worried, it was fermenting like a white wine, so I left it on skins for month to see what little more extraction I could get”. In the end, the 2011 Avani Syrah is a textually crunchy experience, like a blood plum readying towards summer ripeness, while still maintaining the crisp complexity of springtime scents and aromas. It’s poised and delicate, with an incredible amount of balance for such a sopping wet year.
“Because I don’t want to adjust anything here (in the winery), I make my decisions out in the vineyard, and biodynamics is so great that it helps me to do that”, says Shashi, “If my seeds are ripe, my skins are ripe, and my stalks are ripe, then why should I worry about (making any additions)? I just want to produce what this vineyard gives me, without having my influence on it, in terms of making a certain wine in a certain way. My job is to just look after it”.
Outside the window, whilst we finished off the last scrapes of pasta, and crunched on the last morsels of bread that had survived the oven’s own private inferno, the rainbow in the vineyard had intensified and was beginning to mutate into a rare double-rainbow!
Shashi poured a glass each of the 2010 and 2011 Avani Syrah to showcase the differences between the years. The 2010 was a lot juicer, with far more intense colour concentration and flavour. Meanwhile, the 2011 showed clear potential with it’s black fruit aromas and crisp texture, although it still had a bit of catching up to do to it’s older sibling in 2010.
The double rainbow continued to shine brilliantly out from the vineyard and over the hinterland beyond, as if nature was providing the metaphor for the entire magical wine tasting experience. I felt very privileged.
D// – The Wine Idealist