Independent growers have been supplying Penfolds with wine grapes for over a century. While Penfolds owns substantial vineyard properties across South Australia, its relationship with growers, sometimes extending to several generations is of key importance. Almost every Penfolds wine, except for its own single vineyard releases has a component of independently grown fruit. Many of Max Schubert’s early wines including his experimental Granges relied on outside vineyard resources. Ex Penfolds chief winemaker John Duval’s family who were grape growers at Morphett Vale near Adelaide regularly contributed fruit to Penfolds including the early Granges.
Penfolds has had a longstanding reputation for its exemplary vineyard management practices. The pursuit of quality wine has always started in the vineyard. The early settlers of South Australia were equally concerned about getting the best from their vineyards. There are many recorded instances that illustrate the high expectations of 19th wine growing from equipment catalogues, international wine shows, immigration records of European vine dressers and winemakers, to old newspaper reports, letters and winery records. After the second world war the Australian wine industry geared up to meet the demands of a new era in fine wine making. Experimentation and research was not only confined to winemaking. During the early 1950s and 1960s Penfolds embarked on a strong acquisition trail and invested greatly in vineyards in New South Wales and South Australia. Over the last fifty years viticultural practices have been refined and improved. Penfolds has shared its accumulated knowledge with independent growers for decades. While Penfolds has always made the best possible wine form the best possible fruit, not a year goes by without further “improvement of the breed.”
There was a general observation among The Rewards of Patience panel members that Penfolds wines had increasingly become brighter with more pure fruit definition and richness of flavour as the decades progressed. During the 1950s and 1960s vineyard management was relatively ad hoc. There was little control over incoming fruit. Long distances between wine regions were also a problem. While winemakers knew where the best vineyards were located, the quality of the fruit was entirely dependent on growing conditions. In a top vintage, the fruit was generally ripe, but in more difficult years the quality of fruit was uneven resulting in variable quality wines.
During the late 1970s Don Ditter former Penfolds Chief Winemaker,implemented better vineyard management and data collection systems. The long drought of the early 2000s, a renewed concern about water availability and the impact of global warming have resulted in further innovations and practices in the vineyard. Aerial mapping to analyse plant cell density/ vigour and the use of portable soil moisture deviners which monitor water availability around the root zone have become essential tools in water management. Bio-security especially disease and pest pressure is a major issue. South Australia remains phylloxera free over a century after it was first discovered in the eastern Australian states.
All Penfolds growers apply a philosophy of sustainable viticulture where minimal tillage and low-input applications to protect the vines from disease pressure are the norm. Most follow organic principles without being burdened with the cost of compliance. Balance is maintained between the vagaries of mother nature and the reality of grape growing; the best fruit is grown regardless of vintage conditions. Even in difficult years Penfolds has been able to provide the necessary fruit for Grange, St Henri and Bin 389.
Minimal tillage, a system which involves minimal soil manipulation is practised to maintain the health of the soils and avoid compaction and structural degradation. The method also optimises soil moisture and natural water availability thereby minimising the need for supplementary irrigation. It also encourages better vine root penetration and reduces soil erosion. The soils are only ever turned over once or twice a year.
Penfolds prefers dappled light through the canopy to allow even ripening and colourisation of the fruit. Controlling vigour is all about maximising the sunlight into the vine. Shoot thinning and bunch thinning is standard practice especially on vigorous sites. This type of work requires skill and speed through the vineyard. Over the last 14 years Penfolds has used a team of Cambodian vineyard workers who have an almost legendary reputation for accuracy and reliability.
Penfolds Grower Liaison officers regularly visit grower vineyards to see progress through the growing season. The officers have a very clear idea of the fruit requirements needed for each brand. The process is about influencing change in the vineyard to achieve optimum ripeness and quality.
Vineyard assessment and monitoring is vitally important. Premium vineyards are visited regularly at pruning time, flowering and veraison. Penfolds viticulturalists, winemakers and growers walk each block together discussing its attributes and potential. During the growing season they look at growing tips, lateral growth and shoot length. They also observe periderm development, leaf condition and fruit exposure. Close to harvest each vineyard block might be assessed several times by winemakers to scrutinize grape quality and flavour development, monitor chemical residues, potential disease and predict harvest dates. Understanding the quality and variability of each vineyard block enables winemakers to match and batch fruit for specific Penfolds wines. Using hand held personal digital assistant computers, Grower Liaison officers are able to schedule incoming fruit and provide winemakers with a quality grading. At every stage of the growing season Penfolds works with its growers.
Over a period of time both growers and Penfolds are able to predict vineyard performance within the context of seasonal conditions. Growers are given Grade Level targets, an internal alpha-numerical rating system. A1 Grade is likely to find its way into Penfolds Grange. The fruit at this level must be sublime with superb colour, flavour, and tannins ripeness. Paul Georgiadis who is in charge of looking after Penfolds growers, maintains that you can spot a top vineyard by its appearance and by the look and taste of the fruit. “We look beyond Baume, pH and acidity. The fruit that scores the highest points are invariably grapes with concentration, richness, chewiness and plenty of sweetness and flavour length. The spit test is usually a very good indicator. If it's got the colour of dark purple ink it’s a winner.”
Penfolds aim is to buy the best available fruit. In the past all growers were paid for their crop on a $ per tonne basis. Today Penfolds rewards it growers for quality focused viticulture. All growers are encouraged to maximise the quality potential of their crop. Members of the Premium Shiraz Growers Group for instance are paid on a per hectare basis, “rain hail or sunshine”. Bonuses are also offered if the fruit exceeds expectations.
Penfolds Top Shelf Project is a collaborative scheme to optimise vineyard performance. A typical example is a mature Shiraz vineyard in the Barossa Valley. The cane pruned low to moderate vigour vines are planted on red-brown earth over solid sandstone and ironstone. The vines are generally in equilibrium with balanced crop levels. However the vines are anchored in relatively limited soil depths; in some years because of water stress they can suffer from leaf loss towards the end of the season. This can lead to variable fruit quality where some berries have achieved sugar ripeness by raisining. A Penfolds Grower Liaison officer usually in consultation with the field team, will then provide the grower with recommendations on how to improve the performance of his vineyard. This will include advice in Winter to reduce bud numbers to ensure vines have the capacity to produce balanced canopies. This may include the “clean out of congested spurs to allow better canopy distribution”.
For some growers the ultimate prize is having fruit selected for Penfolds Grange. Generally these vineyards comprise low yielding mature vines with an average age of around 35-45 years. Some of the vines are a century old. The Gersch family vineyard in the Barossa Valley and a long time supplier of fruit to Penfolds, is the youngest contributor on record. The vines started producing Grange quality fruit after nine years. This is a beautifully managed block with good clones and terroir. The vines have been encouraged to scavenge resulting in outstanding root penetration and naturally balanced canopies. While refinement and hard work in the vineyard can reap dividends for growers, vineyard site is the tangible yet enigmatic wildcard. The late Max Gersch once said “If we all knew the answer to making high quality fruit, everyone would be growing grapes for Grange.”
While most of Penfolds independent growers are located in the Barossa region high quality fruit is also sourced from growers in other regions. Adam Brown a Penfolds viticulturalist says “A couple of Clare growers are at the very top level and are of strategic importance to St Henri. The fruit profile is too elegant for Grange. These vineyards, like our own Clare Estate can be managed along organic principles. The region is very dry and the vineyards rarely endure long periods of humidity and disease pressure. Around Watervale and Sevenhill, the soils are red clays over ironstone or ironstone. These rusty red soils have marvellous water retention properties, ideal for such a dry warm wine region.”
McLaren Vale is milder than the Clare Valley. It does not have the extremes of frosty winters and searingly hot summers. The climate is typically Mediterranean with higher levels of humidity. The Shiraz generally takes longer to ripen. Vigorous growth during the growing season is not uncommon requiring hedging, shoot and bunch thinning. Vineyards closer to the sea are often less vigorous because the afternoon onshore breezes can retard growth. The Shiraz is generally big berried with strong rich flavours and excellent sugar ripeness. Cabernet Sauvignon is more perfumed and classically structured than the chocolaty textured cabernets of the Barossa Valley.
Mclaren Vale has produced highly consistent fruit over the years. Growers rarely produce fruit below B1 quality; a very premium standard considering the entire Penfolds intake. Oliver’s Tarranga Vineyard and Mark Smith’s Vineyard are outstanding examples and have regularly supplied Penfolds with Grange quality fruit.
Penfolds also sources fruit along the Adelaide Hills around Gumeracha. The fruit is particularly exquisite with beautiful definition and minerally acidities. One Tree Hill Vineyard in the Adelaide Hills is also an exciting new development as it is only located a short distance away from Penfolds original Modbury Vineyard. It is already providing grapes for Thomas Hyland Shiraz. There are high hopes for this site. With a bit more age and vine equilibrium, the fruit could eventually land up in wines like St Henri and Grange.
The relationship between growers and Penfolds is an important one. Growers are given every opportunity to improve their knowledge and refine their vineyard management skills. Field days, regional workshops, a range of planned feedback sessions and quality assurance programmes are offered throughout the year. The use of field digital technology has allowed Penfolds to further improve the capture of information and feedback to growers. The Penfolds Grange Growers Club, The Penfolds Premium Shiraz Growers Club and Penfolds Yattarna Growers Club are the ultimate rewards for growers who are able to achieve the most exquisite fruit quality. Asides from the financial rewards, they belong to an elite group of growers who are able to produce on a regular basis, some of Australia’s finest wine grapes.
Andrew Caillard MW
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