“Vintage was quick this year,” says Josh Pfeiffer from Whistler Wines in the Barossa Valley. “We kicked off on the 12th of Feb and were all done by the 5th of March. All seven varieties were picked within twenty one days, and it all looked awesome.”
Josh Pfeiffer is the young winegrower for his family’s business, Whistler Wines, which was established by Josh’s father, Martin Pfeiffer. For 28 years, Martin was the vineyard manager for Penfolds, managing each one of the company’s vineyards throughout South Australia. In 1982, he purchased a 32ha property called, ‘The Block’, as a place to bring his family on vacations, run a few sheep, and relax. Then in 1994, Martin planted some Shiraz vines, with cuttings purchased from one of the Grange blocks, and established Whistler Wines.
“We’re a family business,” explains Josh, “which was started by my parents, along with my auntie and uncle, back in the early 90’s. They planted over 3000 native trees, and, in addition to the Shiraz in ’94, they planted more vines in ’97 and 2001, and now about half the property is planted with grape vines.”
‘The Block’ (renamed Heysen Estate) is situated just outside the Barossa Valley floor, and undulates through thirteen different soil types that are segmented into three different 4ha sized sites. Each site has been planted with specific grapes varieties to match the soil type. They consist of two white varieties; Riesling and Semillon, and five red varieties; Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache and Mataro.
“I guess they’re fairly mainstream varieties that have been tried and tested in the Barossa,” says Josh, “but that was one thing that Dad was adamant about. He wanted to plant varieties he knew would work, and so he did a lot of soil tests beforehand to help him decide where to plant each different variety.”
Josh studied oenology and viticulture at Adelaide University before landing a job as the assistant winemaker at Two Hands, also in the Barossa. He then worked for Prue Henschke while she was doing organic and biodynamic viticultural trials on her vineyards in the Eden Valley, which is where Josh’s interest in organics and biodynamics first started.
“Working for Two Hands and then for Henschke was a really great experience, because I got to learn from some very talented people,” says Josh. “And, it was amazing to be able to work with such a passionate person, like Prue, who’s obviously very experienced in organics and biodynamics… One of the first things I wanted to do when I came back to Whistler was to start running our vineyards organically,” adds Josh.
Josh’s father, Martin, had once looked into an organic management regime on one of the properties he managed for Penfolds, but came to the conclusion that it was just too expensive. Indeed, the initial rise in costs and the slow transition over to an organic system (which can include an initial decrease in yields) is something that does put a lot of conventional growers off the idea of converting. So, the vineyards at Penfolds, and on Whistler continued to be managed conventionally, by Martin, with agrochemicals, such as Round Up.
“The use of things like Round Up was something that I was dead against,” explains Josh, “but I wanted to learn from Dad how to manage our property, first, and then eventually change over to organics after about 12 months, or so. But, one day, during the start of the 2014 vintage, we were out doing some under vine spraying to kill the weeds,” continues Josh, “and we had some spray drift up into the newly shooting canopy, which damaged the new green shoots and leaves, and I spat it and told Dad that we’re not spraying any more.”
After this, with his Dad’s sceptical blessing, Josh set about converting the Whistler vineyards over to an organic regime. He immediately stopped spraying all synthetic chemicals, including herbicide, and with the help of some WWOOFer’s, shifted the drip irrigation system up out of the way of the under vine mower, which is now used to control the weeds, instead of chemicals.
“There’s no way in hell that I will ever spray Round Up on this property ever again,” declares Josh. “For me, it’s about the overall health of our property and to try and make what we do have less of an impact on the environment, but also to improve the overall condition of the fruit we grow, so I can make the best wines I can.”
Josh says that he likes to remain as hands off in the winery as possible, in order to showcase the site and its fruit for what it is, which is one of the main reasons why he’s pursuing an organic regime in the vineyard. But, the Barossa is a warm place for grapes, and sugar levels can and do get quite high, quite quickly, so given the prevailing conditions, Josh is not yet averse to adding tartaric acid to the fermenting must in order to control the pH.
“For me, it’s all about getting the balance right in the vineyard, first. It’s easy to achieve good colour and flavour intensity quickly in the Barossa, so deciding when to pick is the most crucial decision I can make… Unfortunately, even when we pick at lower Baumé we still need to add acid to get the pH down and make the wine more stable.”
Josh’s first full vintage in charge at Whistler Wines was in 2014, and he immediately set about trialling the use of wild yeast ferments to transform his grapes into wine.
“Last year we did some side by side trials in the winery,” says Josh, “and the wild yeasts consistently had around .3 and .4 percent lower alcohols than the ferments we did with packet yeasts, which makes sense,” continues Josh, “because wild yeasts aren’t usually as efficient at converting the sugars into alcohol as perhaps a selected strain is… This year (2015) we did all wild yeast ferments, and we didn’t have any problems.”
Whistler Wines sells over 70% of their wines through their cellar door, and they have a loyal following of wine lovers who have been drinking and enjoying these wines long before Josh took the reigns. So, it’s difficult for Josh to start imposing his own approach to winemaking onto his family’s wines right off the bat. In 2014, however, Josh made a wine under the Whistler label that looks completely different to the rest of the range, called, ‘Get In My Belly’. It’s made from Grenache. In contrast to the more traditional looking labels in the Whistler range, ‘Get In My Belly’, features a skeletal X-ray scan of a spine and pelvis with a silhouetted wine bottle protruding out from the hips.
“It’s a wine that looks completely different,” explains Josh, “but our customers have responded really well to it, so I guess it’s given me a bit more confidence and the freedom to go ahead and pursue this kind of style a bit more… I want all our wines to be really approachable and really enjoyable, rather than a wine where you always have to eat a big steak to enjoy it. A wine should be able to stand up on its own, no matter what the situation.”
Josh has lots of other plans for experimentation, both in the winery and out in the vineyard. He plans on launching a new side label to compliment Whistler’s more traditional styles, which will feature a few very intriguing sounding wines, as well as looking more closely at biodynamics as a way to run and manage the vineyards on the estate.
“At the moment, we’re working on being organic, but I’ve wanted to use biodynamics ever since we started,” says Josh. “I’ve only really just come back into the business and have had a lot to learn, and to deal with, especially in converting the vineyard to organics. We will eventually start using biodynamics once I know I can fully commit to it.”
For now, Josh’s aim is to take the legacy laid down by his family into a new generation, and make sure it sustainable for many more generations to come.
D// – The Wine Idealist
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