The rain is incessant, from Sydney all the way south, past the the New South Wales/Victorian border. After 8 hours of driving, the tedium that is the Hume Highway, coupled with the drizzly conditions outside, it’s a welcome sight when we arrive in Beechworth, as lush green hills slope and roll underneath giant granitic boulders, making the gray sky glow, and look strangely beautiful.
We are heading out towards Alma Rd, on the outskirts of Beechworth, to visit Barry Morey, an 11th generation winegrower, who’s lineage stems from the Mosel Valley in Germany. Barry and his wife, Jan, have lived in Beechworth, in north-eastern Victoria, since 1984, and established their estate-owned vineyard and winery, Sorrenberg, in 1985. The original Sorrenberg is the name of a valley off the Mosel, which was run by three relations of Barry’s family in Germany.
As we pull up outside Sorrenberg (the only indicator that we’re in the right spot is a tiny little sign hung from a tree at the edge of the driveway), the rain continues drizzling overhead. We’re greeted by Barry and Jan, who take us inside, past the vineyard, which is soaking wet and the deepest green, with grass growing up almost as tall as the vines.
“If you walk past our vineyards, you’d think that these people haven’t done anything and have just left it alone, because there’s just so much growing underneath the vines”, says Barry, “but when you turn over the soil and see the root mass, you’ve got microbes, fungi and everything happening in that soil”.
When Barry and Jan first moved to their property in Beechworth, Barry had visions of being organic, but time constraints due to the birth of their first child, meant that it was easier for Barry to use weed sprays under vine in order to stop their spread throughout the vineyard. To reduce the amount of spraying he’d have to do, Barry bought, and used a silly (dodge) plough, “before it was cool”, because of its much gentler action as it turns the soil under the vines in order to kill the weeds.
Slowly, Barry moved the Sorrenberg vineyards onto organic management systems, with Barry describing himself as “a passionate compositor”, and, eventually, employing biodynamics in 2000, becoming certified by Demeter in 2008.
“I think the biggest difference that I’ve seen has been in my soil and it’s structure”, says Barry about the shift to biodynamic management of the Sorrenberg vineyards. “You can get down underneath the vines, put your hands in (the soil) and pull it out. 10 years ago, you’d have needed a shovel. Now when I’m doing my under vine weeding I’ll sometimes disturb a frog and say, ‘oh gee sorry!'”
For Barry, using biodynamics as a tool helps him become a better farmer because, he says, “it makes you think carefully about things, and about what you’re doing”.
“It’s a great system”, says Barry, “it teaches you to think for yourself, because you can’t just follow a formula, you have to think outside the square, which is really quite exciting, and it can put you under a little bit of pressure”.
“I’ve seen the results (of biodynamics) in terms of water holding capacity (in the soil)”, continues Barry, and “I’d like to think I can see and taste the results in the wine, but I’m not going to claim that”.
Winemaking, for Barry, is secondary to being out in the vineyard.
“80% of my time is spent out in the vineyard”, says Barry, “and even the people that work for me, outside of vintage, would be lucky to do half a day in the winery”.
The Sorrenberg vineyards are grown on a combination of granite shale, and red mud stone, approximately 300m-400m above sea level in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. According to Barry, “the red mud stone provides fantastic tannins, whereas the granite gives more elegance” to the wines he makes. The main Sorrenberg vineyard (pictured) was planted in 1985, with a second site established just 2km up the road, and both are made up of an eclectic mix of a number of grape varieties including chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and semillon, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and gamay. There are also smaller plantings of petit-verdot, malbec and pinot noir (and no shiraz!).
The inspiration for what to plant was a combination of imitation, and pot luck.
“Some of the early examples of sauvignon blanc from Cloudy Bay I thought were good”, says Barry, “as well as the chardonnays coming out of Brown Brothers, were also pretty exciting”.
“Gamay”, continues Barry, “was a bit of pot luck. I had friend and we were having a chat about what varieties to put in and he said ‘Why don’t you try some gamay?’, so I thought, let’s take a punt and go straight for gamay and blend a little bit of pinot in with it”.
Sorrenberg’s first vintage was 1989 and the ‘punt’ to plant gamay didn’t pay off for a little while for Barry because, at the time, it was coming from an unknown vineyard, and was a relatively unknown grape, with many Australian’s not even drinking Beaujolais Nouveau, let alone it’s varietal. But there were a few sommeliers in Melbourne who took a few cases, and, as Barry puts it, “we were very lucky after they took (the wine) and gave it such big wraps”, which meant that it’s success for future vintages was secured.
Barry emphasises the importance of the vineyard so much that he even puts the complexity of his wines down to the pickers he uses during vintage.
“I’ve been really lucky because I’ve got the best group of pickers, some have picked for me for over 20 years”, says Barry. “We pick 2 hours a day, maximum, and we only pick small amounts (1 tonne/day avg.), so the development of complexity in our wines comes from staggered picking. Picking at different baumé’s from the different blocks that we want”.
The fruit is picked into bins and then pressed using a basket press. The whites get double pressed and then tipped into a stainless steel skip. “I like the second press”, says Barry, “because it’s brown and oxidized juice that really gives you enough phenolics to make the wine interesting”.
The sauvignon blanc, for example, is left on skins “depending on how long we have lunch”, says Barry, usually between 4-6 hours, and then after lunch “we think about bucketing it off straight into barrel, which are usually puncheons, and I tend not to use any new wood”.
The gamay is made, “more Burgundian”, says Barry, with no carbonic maceration, 20% whole fruit, in an open top fermenter, and left for 2 weeks on skins, which is plunged approximately four times a day, then put through malolactic-fermentation. Sulphur additions usually occur right at the end, either after malo, or just prior to bottling.
“I like the winemaking”, says Barry, “but I just think that there’s not that much to it really… If the fruit is good, and comes in clean, the winemaking job is easy… it becomes more like maintaining really”.
“I always wanted to be a farmer”, says Barry eluding to his love for being out amongst the vines, “and when we bought this place I thought it wasn’t ideal because it wasn’t quite big enough, but having said that, I’m glad we didn’t buy anything much bigger because I’ve always been busy enough”.
Winegrowing, for Barry, begins and ends in the vineyard, and biodynamics is just about simple farming practices that enable him to better engage with his land. When it comes to turning those grapes he grows into wine, Barry says, “the more you do correctly out in the vineyard, the less you’ve got to do in the winery”.
D// – The Wine Idealist