Driving along a rough dirt road, up towards the cusp of the Great Dividing Range, clouds streak and roll over lush green hills, casting some parts in shadow, making the silver rock boulders shimmer and shift colour from black to grey to comic book blue, and back again. It has rained recently, and all the hillsides are vivid with green splendour as far as the eye can see.
Vines rows begin appearing just as you reach the front gate to Cobaw Ridge, a wine estate high up in the Macedon Ranges in Central Victoria, 600m above sea level. Honest cool climate.
“We planted the first vines in 85′,” says Alan Cooper, owner and winegrower at Cobaw Ridge. Alan, and his wife Nelly, first purchased the land in 1981, not to grow grapes, but to return to the farming roots that Alan had grown up with, to own their own piece of land, and to not have to go to work for someone else.
“There was nothing here when we purchased the property, nothing at all,” explains Alan as we look out over the multitude of vine rows and dams, the soft dirt driveway, and, behind us, the winery, cellar door, and their home, nestled beneath left over trees, and the ridge of the Great Divide.
Together, Alan and Nelly cleared much of the property of its trees and bush land, and built Cobaw Ridge, literally, from the ground up. They planted the Australian staples of chardonnay, and shiraz, as well as pinot noir, and an interesting Northern Italian varietal called lagrein, which was probably one of the first commercial plantings of this grape variety in Australia. The decision to plant lagrien was in response to the cool climate location of Cobaw Ridge, and as an alternative to cabernet sauvignon, which doesn’t tend to do too well in cooler climes.
“Everything that’s man made we’ve put there, between Nelly and I,” says Alan. “We initially thought that we’d grow fruit and sell it to people, but the basic maths meant that we wouldn’t make any money out of it, so the logical conclusion was that we had to value add it.”
Alan and Nelly met when they were nursing together and the constant exposure to ill health and disease in the hospital made the decision to farm their new property organically an easy one.
“The aspirations to be organic were there from day one,” says Alan, “because we’d be working in the vineyard, and didn’t want to be spraying with chemicals… and (so that we could) do the right thing by the environment as well.”
In the early days of Cobaw Ridge, however, organic management was “physically impossible.” according to Alan.
“When we first planted, from the get go we wanted to be organic,” says Alan, “but we were still working full time and the inability to keep up with the weeds made us succumb to chemicals.”
Knowing that they wanted to pursue organic management of the vineyard sometime in the future, Alan and Nelly made sure they were using, “softer options, because we do the work,” says Alan, “and a softer option of anything is always better.”
The more they thought about organics, the more they thought they should retry it, but, “the tricky part was getting away from Round-Up herbicide,” says Alan.
“It’s a real sticking point with a lot of people, because there’s people around that make claims to being organic, but if they’re using Round-Up, then sorry, you can’t be half pregnant,” explains Alan.
“My big mantra is certification,” says Alan, “if you’re not certified, you’re not real. Get certified.”
Alan and Nelly made the conversion to organic vineyard management in 2005, and initially Alan considered, “just doing what everybody else does and say we are (organic), but then we thought what’s the point of this, we might as well do it properly, and get certified.”
So, in 2005 they contacted NASAA (National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia), and began the certification process. By 2009, Cobaw Ridge was fully certified organic by NASAA, and then, in 2011, became fully certified biodynamic, a vintage that Alan describes as, “the vintage from hell,” in which they didn’t make any wine. So, the first year that Cobaw Ridge can claim to be 100% certified organic/biodynamic is 2012.
During the relentless rains of 2011 Alan rang NASAA to find out what would happen if he was to spray his vineyard with phosphoric acid, in an attempt to save this doomed vintage.
“I rang NASAA and asked what would happen if I sprayed with fungicide to try and combat downy mildew,” says Alan, “and they said, ‘Yeh, you can, but you’ll lose certification and put yourself back 3 years.”
Not wanting to undo all their hard work over the last 6 years, Alan and Nelly decided that it was best not to spray, and rode out that awful 2011 vintage as best as they could.
Not making any wine in 2011 was tough, but when it comes to making wine from the grapes on Cobaw Ridge, Alan takes the view that letting the site speak through minimal intervention is the most genuine approach.
“The only additive we routinely use is sulphur, normally to the must before it goes through natural ferment, and again, just prior to bottling,” says Alan. “Josh (Alan and Nelly’s wine science son) is experimenting with making a sulphur free chardonnay this year, which is looking good.”
Alan has no qualms with adding anything to the wine if he thinks that it might need it, but is fairly confident in the quality of the fruit he grows, so additions such as acid, tannin and so on are almost always unnecessary.
“If I need to add something I will add it,” says Alan, “but with true cool climate you get good natural acidity, and you don’t need tartaric acid… why would you add acid if you’re already sitting at 9g/L?”
“We start with very good quality, naturally balanced, low pH fruit from our vineyard, and the wines are just showing their personality from our particular site.”
The mysterious Lagrien is an especially beautiful looking grape variety. After it’s passed through veraison, the grape bunch hangs in long tight clusters, like bulked up shiraz (syrah), of which it is a distant cousin, and glimmers with dusted blues and purple tones. Drinking the Cobaw Ridge Langrien is like drinking old delta blues; rough static pleasantly obscuring a complex, yet simple sound of sweet longing and drifting roots… Smoked cherries, crunchy plums, crushed herbs – insurgent, strangely pleasant, at once definite and obscure – ultimately, satisfying as it seems to reconnect you with something ancient and forgotten.
Alan and Nelly have worked exceptionally hard to execute the aspirations they hold for their special place in the world. The shift from chemical to organic, and then biodynamic agriculture was difficult, to say the least, but it’s the wines, and those that drink them, who are benefiting most from their determination to stick to their ideals.
“We would prefer to say that we run on the quality of wine that we make, and the bonus is that it’s biodynamic,” says Alan. “The organic, or biodynamic farming is secondary to the primary focus of making authentically good wines.”
D// – The Wine Idealist
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