Use experience to minimise risk in winemaking ventures
STARTING a winery? Look before you leap. Working in the winemaking industry as an employee can (and does) have two opposing outcomes. One is a rational decision never to jump the fence and take on all the risks of ownership: drought, bushfires and fair-weather bank managers leading a brigade of challenges.
The other is to stare down those problems with an unquenchable desire to make wines that reflect personal winemaking philosophies. Here experience is worth its weight in gold, for there can be ways of minimising financial risks without compromising the desire to make the best possible wine.
Rob and Meegan Peebles established Buckshot Vineyard in Heathcote, Victoria, in 1999. Rob already had six vintages at Rutherglen under his belt, the first with Mick Morris in 1993, and after that what he calls ‘‘ weekend vintages’’ with a smaller Rutherglen winery.
A stint at Coldstream Hills cellar door in 1993 provided another perspective but 11 years with Domaine Chandon (primarily in a commercial capacity), where he continues to work, has been of the greatest importance.
The Peebleses run the ultimate virtual winery. The shiraz grapes come from a single 2.5ha block, part of a 40ha vineyard (planted in 1997) owned by long-term friends John and Jenny Davies.
It is situated on an east-facing slope just to the southwest of Colbinabbin on the prized Mt Camel Range. The 500 million-year-old Cambrian bedrock of Mt Camel was broken down over more than 400 million years into jasper, greenstone, granite and the buckshot ironstone pebbles that gave birth to the name of the Peebleses’ venture and to the vivid red colour of the soil.
The Davies’s vineyard grows shiraz for a who’s who of clients, including Bindi, Two Hands and Domaine Chandon. The block dedicated for Buckshot is at the top of the slope, with particularly deep soil. Yields are deliberately restricted to five tonnes to seven tonnes a hectare, keeping production to fewer than 800 cases, including a small amount of zinfandel (with a varying percentage of shiraz) sold as The Square Peg.
Having solved the problem of finding capital to start a vineyard (in this instance several hours’ drive away from the Peebles home and from Rob’s workplace) the need for a winery was solved by parking a handful of two-tonne open fermenters in a spare cranny at Domaine Chandon.
The aim in handling the grapes from this point on is to make a red wine of finesse, with lively aromatics, pure and intense fruit flavours and a long, silky finish.
A recent tasting of the sold-out 2004 Shiraz (96 points), ’ 05 Shiraz (93 points) and the still available ’ 06 Shiraz showed remarkable consistency with wines that fell convincingly within the Buckshot style target zone.
Given that the vineyard sailed through this summer (no smoke, no fire, no heat damage) you might think it’s all too easy. But the ’ 07 Shiraz has caused much angst: three bitterly cold nights in late spring (widespread frosts across much of southeastern Australia) resulted in what Rob describes as bonsai bunches, the tiny berries mainly skin and pip.
Despite all efforts, the wine is still very hard and tannic; whether it will be sold remains to be seen. So the ’ 08 will be released later this year, giving the ’ 07 a second chance. Even then it will be out of the mainstream of the Buckshot style if the decision is taken to release it somewhere down the track.
The mere possibility of not releasing any wine from a vintage is horrendous for a small producer. But it lies at the core of the rationale for taking on this challenge in the first place. It’s your wine and it’s your decision. Come what may, it has to turn on the quality of the wine, not the financial hardship that follows.