“Lots of people say they don’t compromise in their vineyard, but we do. Especially with time.”
Neil Prentice is a former ‘wine waiter’, now restauranteur and winegrower, from Sandringham in Victoria. In 1991, his parents purchased a property in the Gippsland Mountain River District, two hours east of Melbourne and established a cattle farm to grow beef. Seizing upon an opportunity to establish a vineyard on this new farm, and try his hand at winegrowing, Neil set about planting a small, dry grown vineyard, upon a north-east facing hill, in a cool climate region, close to the Moondarra State Forest.
“My parents were looking to buy a farm in Gippsland, to grow beef,” says Neil, “and the proviso that I imposed on them was that it had to have a little hill that faced north-east, with deep, free draining soil, that I could grow pinot noir on. The property they eventually bought is way up in the hills of Walhalla, in Gippsland, and it’s quite a cold site, even for pinot.”
Neil’s introduction to wine happened courtesy of a career spent in hospitality.
“I was a wine waiter,” explains Neil, “only because I’d never even heard what a sommelier was. But, people would ask me if I was a sommelier, and I’d have to explain that I didn’t have a smart enough hair cut, or a beard, so I was just a wine guy.”
Neil worked for Iain Hewiston at The Last Aussie Fishcaf, and, more recently, with Hewiston at Big Huey’s Diner, a burger joint in South Melbourne, while, at the same time, he was tending to his close planted, cane pruned vineyard, in Gippsland. Neil is a proponent of biodynamics because of his love of Burgundy, and many of the famous Domaines from the region (DRC & Co.), but suggests that he doesn’t fully embrace the biodynamic regime as much as he should, because of his split commitments, running restaurants and bars in Melbourne, which are his main source of income. He does this while managing his hill side vineyard in Gippsland. Neil is very honest and candid about his approach to winegrowing and making.
“I don’t do biodynamics for any sort of altruistic reasons,” says Neil, “it’s simply a result of my love of Burgundy. All those vineyards, at that stage, were switching over to BD, and I thought that if I’m trying to make the best wine I can, I need to be growing grapes that way.”
Neil has had no formal training, in terms of winemaking, or viticulture. Instead, he says, he learnt by reading, and osmosis by talking to the many winegrowers and makers he dealt with in his job as a ‘wine guy’ in Melbourne.
“I picked up winegrowing really naturally,” says Neil. “I did a lot of reading, and learnt a lot through that, but it always felt like a really natural thing for me to do. I used to ask a lot of questions to established winemakers, like Gary Farr and Phillip Jones, and the great thing about the wine industry is that blokes like that are really willing to share their experiences, and offer advice,” explains Neil.
The Moondarra vineyard has never been irrigated and never fertilised with synthetic fertilisers. In addition to the pinot noir, which was planted in 1991, the vineyard also consists of chardonnay, pinot bianco, pinot grigio, friulano, nebbiolo and a row of picolit, which is an Italian white grape variety that is usually made into a sweet dessert wine, called passito or straw wine. The vineyard is planted on deep, free draining soils, and can receive extensive rainfall in winter and spring, meaning that disease pressures, like downy mildew, can pose a big threat to crop levels within the vineyard.
Most biodynamic growers will utilise natural sprays, such as the quartz crystal derived preparation 501, or the silica based prep 508, to increase sunlight refraction, and ‘warm up’ the vineyard, in an attempt to stave off moisture retention in the grape bunches, which can lead to undesirable rot. But, because of Neil’s self proclaimed, compromised style of farming, he does, and will, resort to spraying synthetic fungicides on the vineyard, as and when required.
“I’m certain that I’m not practicing biodynamics as I should do,” says Neil, “and I still do some evil things… like occasionally resort to spraying fungicide. Our biggest disease issue is downy mildew,” continues Neil, “which reduces vine vigour, so I will spray synthetics to combat that, if I need to, which I know goes against everything that biodynamic farming calls for. If we didn’t, however, we just wouldn’t be able to make any wine… so, whilst I do say I do biodynamics, I don’t think I do it as well as I could, simply because I live away from the vineyard, most of the time.”
Although certainly not ideal, Neil’s current ‘absentee’ style of farming hasn’t prevented him from dismissing biodynamics altogether. He still sprays preparation 500 out onto the vineyard, according to the celestial movements in the biodynamic calendar, and makes a variation of the silica prep 508, in the form of a tea made with bracken, which Neil says has a high silica content.
“Yes, I could use 501, or 508 (as a substitute for synthetic chemical spraying),” says Neil, “but it goes back to the issue of me not being in the vineyard enough… spraying fungicide is just a fall back, and one of the compromises of me not living on the farm.”
There are plans to eventually move on to the farm in Gippsland, and live on the property full time, once Neil’s children have grown up. In anticipation of this, Neil has hired an architect to draw up plans for a house he plans to build, while he experiments in trying to propagate a section of pinot noir from the Moondarra vineyard, entirely from seed.
“What I want to do,” explains Neil, “is make a wine that is all about the vineyard. And, because I have this picolit, which is female, I wanted to try to grow it from seed that has been crossed with some other varieties, and eventually make a wine that is not a varietal wine, in any sense.”
Usually, new vineyard plantings will be done with established grapevine cuttings, from either clonal or massal selections, that already have a developing root system. By doing this, a viticulturist has, for all intents and purposes, a vine that is ready to plant, or re-plant, as it were… sort of like moving a potted plant from one pot to another. Propagating from seed is much harder and takes time, because, ‘each seed contains unique genetic information from its two parent varieties (the flowering parent and the parent that provided the pollen that fertilised the flower) and would, theoretically, be a different variety than either parent’ (Wikipedia, 2014). For example, cabernet sauvignon is the result of many, many, years of propagation between cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc. Neil is using the picolit, which is entirely female (most vitis vinifera are hermaphrodite, meaning they contain both female and male reproductive organs), and crossing it with his other species of grapevine, in an attempt to grow something totally unique to his vineyard.
“I started growing pinot noir from seed, almost ten years ago, and we’re almost up to the second generation, in the vineyard,” says Neil. “The first generation is all hermaphrodite, and so it’s self pollinating… then, when the next generation grow from seed, the genetic theory is that only 50% will be hermaphrodite (25% male / 25% female), and that’s roughly how it has worked out. Now,” continues Neil, “we’re up to the second generation where I’m crossing a particular male clone (NV6) with a particular female clone (Abel), and I think that’s where we’ll get some really interesting and new types of pinot noir.”
Neil Prentice is open and honest about his application of synthetic fungicides to combat the disease pressures in his Moondarra vineyard. He also acknowledges that spraying them could potentially undo all of the specific life energies that biodynamics brings to his vineyard (and that he needs to amend a few references to his practice of biodynamics on the Moondarra website). But, to be honest, his sort of honesty is refreshing. At least Neil has the courage of his compromised convictions to own up to not being totally committed to biodynamics, due to the practicalities of his life. If that was the case, perhaps Moondarra would be certified?
“I use aspects of biodynamics so that I can grow wonderful grapes and make fantastic wine,” says Neil, “and I have thought about getting certified, but for the moment my intentions are not there… in a perfect world, where St Kilda wins the premiership every year, I’d live in the vineyard, and then I wouldn’t have to resort to spraying. It’s a compromise that I choose to make… I’m my own favourite hypocrite.”
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