What used to be a thriving town during the prosperous days of the early 19th century, Sutton Grange has now been reduced to a population of around 150 people, after a typically devastating Australian bushfire ravaged the town, burning down most of the area’s established civic buildings and homes, and leaving behind nothing but scorched earth on the land that remained. Today, the town survives off the back of a few determined farming families who raise sheep and cattle, breed thoroughbred horses, and grow wine.
“My family has been in wine for a long time,” says Sutton Grange winery’s Gilles Lapalus. “My father and grandfather were both wine merchants, and my uncles had vineyards in Burgundy… so, basically, I was born in a barrel.”
Gilles Lapalus is a French expatriate, hailing from the small Burgundian town of Cluny in France’s northeast, who has worked in many parts of the winemaking world, including Chile, Italy, California, Bordeaux and, of course, Burgundy. Gilles eventually settled in Australia in 2001 and started work as the vigneron (grower/maker) for Sutton Grange winery, located 30 km south of Bendigo in the Harcourt region of Victoria, Australia.
The vineyard on the Sutton Grange estate was first planted with shiraz and cabernet sauvignon in 1998, then merlot in the following year. Subsequent years have seen the vineyard expand to a total area of 12.8 ha, with further plantings of viognier, and some experimental Italian varieties, including sangiovese, fiano, and aglianico. The soils are mostly granite based, with smaller pockets of basalt, quartz, and clay, which undulate throughout the property that lies at the foothills of Mount Alexander.
The vineyard features four distinct blocks, each comprised of the seven different varietals; The HoG (Hill of Grange), Ram’s Horn, 500, and Italia.
“The HoG faces north and was the first to be planted with syrah (shiraz) and cabernet,” explains Gilles, “which is 300m above sea level upon hills and slopes. And, some of these vines have recently been grafted with aglianico… the Ram’s Horn has a different orientation with the vines facing south-south east, and it is much cooler than the rest of the vineyard. The granite is a little closer to the surface and is mixed in with some quartz. The 500 is planted with only viognier,” continues Gilles, “and it faces east and has lots of granite boulders on the surface around the site… it’s a wine that is feeding on the rocks. On Italia, we planted only Italian varietals (sangiovese and fiano) and they slope up and down in a dome effect on the landscape, which is rich in iron oxide… it’s one of the most exciting blocks on the property,” says Gilles.
“We’re trying to amplify these variations in soils and utilise biodynamics to help the vines access the decomposed granite underneath,” continues Gilles. “When I arrived in Australia, biodynamics was not something that a lot of people were talking about, but the plan here is to produce premium end wines that are unique, and express this place and it’s soil, and the best way to do that is to use less chemicals… biodynamics is the best tool to do that.”
Emulating his ancestors in Burgundy, Gilles is a vigneron, meaning he manages the vineyard and makes the wine for Sutton Grange, and, therefore, is a part of the entire process of winegrowing. It was he who introduced biodynamics as the weapon of choice for farming on the property.
“Humans have been farming for 5000 years and the evolution of that farming technique is just biodynamics,” explains Gilles. “Until the end of the 19th century, all agriculture was organic, but, what happened was chemical farming was developed after World War I and the rest of the farming that went before was forgotten… Rudolf Steiner was simply taking the old methods of farming and agriculture and writing it down and adding to it.”
“The reason for us using biodynamics is that you eventually reach a point where everything is synchronised and in balance, on the property,” continues Gilles, “and the conditions for practicing it here are extremely favorable. The climate is very dry, with only around 400mm of rainfall every year, so we have low fungal disease pressure and the grass stays low and is easy to maintain.”
Gilles makes some of his own biodynamic preparations on the property, including prep 500. He gets the manure for the 500 and the cow pat pits (CPP) from the 200 head of Hereford cattle that graze on the property. The cowhorns, which are crucial for making the 500 BD prep, come from the property next door, and he collects stinging nettle (504) and casurina (508) from the Sutton Grange property to make these other preps. All other BD preps are purchased from Biodynamic Agriculture Australia.
When transforming the fruit he grows into wine, Gilles approaches the task with an open mind, preferring to let the wine go off on its own, rather than impose some sort of formula for a fixed end product.
“When the grapes are ripening, that’s when I start to think about what they could become,” says Gilles. “I try to be as open as possible in my approach (to winemaking)… respond to what we’ve got and be very instinctual about what’s happening to the wine.”
“There are words that you hear everywhere now, like ‘low intervention’ and ‘natural winemaking’, but low intervention is still a lot of intervention, because you are still making (winemaking) decisions, even if you do nothing,” explains Gilles. “One of the most important things for me, in terms of winemaking decisions, is picking date, because that’s what dictates, more or less, what you do after, back in the winery.”
While Gilles does take what could be considered, a natural winemaking approach to the Sutton Grange wines, he doesn’t believe that this is a relatively new approach to winemaking, either here in Australia, or in France. He thinks it’s simply a reaction to the increased intrusions of some modern day technologies as a way to find balance in his ancient occupation.
“Natural winemaking has always existed,” says Gilles, “and there’s always been people who have worked like that. The more we have access to these super heavy technologies that come into winemaking, like reverse osmosis, or ultra high pressure treatments, the more of a reaction we’re going to have against them. Which means more natural wines and wines like them will be made, because if you go to one extreme, you need to go to the other to achieve the balance.”
“The best position,” says Gilles, “is never to be in the extremes, because the extremes might show the direction, but can also show up any deficiencies… if you can find the balance, you can get the best of both worlds.”
Finding the middle ground for Gilles means utilising some modern technologies, such as temperature control (almost crucial for winemaking in the soaring temperatures during an Australian vintage), or controlling the size of the ferment and what exactly goes into it.
“We have an impact on the outcome of the final wine, simply by making certain decisions,” says Gilles. “Such as, controlling the temperature and size of the ferment, what percentage of whole bunch to use, or not… all of these decisions take the grape in a certain direction, but then we don’t add anything. No tannin corrections or acid, no yeast additions, no enzymes, no nutrients or bacteria’s… we try to not let go of the wine, but follow it.”
With Gilles Lapalus at the helm of Sutton Grange, he’s setting up the winery for the future. By planting and experimenting with some Italian varietals (some predict these types of grapes will be better suited to the future climate of Australia because of the effects of climate change), and combining this with his French winemaking heritage, Gilles is creating wines that easily express their unique Australian provenance through biodynamic farming and natural winemaking techniques.
“”My job is to try and show and express this little island of granite here in central Victoria,” says Gilles.
D// – The Wine Idealist