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North East Living Magazine - - News - WON­DER

THE high coun­try has been home to the Ritchie fam­ily’s farm­ing en­ter­prise for over a cen­tury but it wasn’t un­til the late six­ties that Robert and Vivi­enne Ritchie de­cided to es­tab­lish what would be­come one of the first, cool cli­mate vine­yards in Aus­tralia.

The idea came from a friend­ship forged by a group of mates on hol­i­day at nearby Mount Buller, be­tween farmer Robert Ritchie, South Aus­tralian wine in­dus­try guru Jim Irvine and forestry ranger, Doug Es­cott. Up un­til then Robert and Vivi­enne had con­cen­trated their ef­forts on cat­tle, sheep and rye grass when Jim sug­gested the prop­erty would be a good spot for grow­ing grapes, adding that he could make the wine, Robert would pro­vide the land and ma­chin­ery and Doug would con­trib­ute the labour. Their son David, who now runs the fam­ily busi­ness, said it started when a bunch of strange look­ing sticks were left at the prop­erty by Jim on his way to Mount Buller, which his par­ents didn’t recog­nise at the time as vine cut­tings.

“They de­cided to plant them, but un­for­tu­nately Jim went back to South Aus­tralia, Doug went up north and mum and dad were left with a vine­yard - not know­ing what to do or how to do it,” he said.

“In the early sev­en­ties when grapes grew they got in touch with Doug and asked him what to do with them.

“He said you have three op­tions - pull them out, sell them at the Vic­to­ria Mar­ket, or find a lo­cal wine­maker who might be in­ter­ested in them.”

A reg­u­lar cus­tomer of Brown Broth­ers, Robert got in touch with John Gra­ham Brown and asked if they’d be in­ter­ested in tak­ing the fruit, which was the be­gin­ning of a re­la­tion­ship that would last from 1974 to 1981, when the wine was pro­duced un­der a vine­yard-spe­cific la­bel. Mean­while David’s sis­ter Ros­alind had left school to study at Rose­wor­thy Agri­cul­tural Col­lege in South Aus­tralia, and she re­turned home to help set up Delatite Winery in 1982, be­com­ing its first wine­maker and stay­ing for the next 23 years. The fam­ily had also en­gaged Oenotec wine con­sul­tants - in­dus­try trail­blaz­ers Tony Jor­dan and Brian Croser - who helped de­sign and over­see the op­er­a­tion with Ros­alind for the next few years as the en­ter­prise got off the ground.

While the first plant­ings were Caber­net, Shi­raz, Carig­nan and Ries­ling, David said his fa­ther be­gan to add a num­ber of new va­ri­eties that he liked to drink and Brown Broth­ers thought might do well, so the vine­yard be­come one of the first in the re­gion to grow Pinot Noir and Gewurz­traminer, along with Mal­bec and Mer­lot.

“We grew to have quite a va­ri­ety of grape vines, not be­cause of any­thing sci­en­tific, but be­cause of Peter and John Brown’s en­cour­age­ment, and dad liked the wine they made from it,” he said. >>

At the time David was study­ing arts com­merce at univer­sity and not re­ally en­joy­ing it so he “bailed”, tak­ing a gap year to work at the vine­yard dur­ing its es­tab­lish­ment, be­fore re­turn­ing to the busi­ness full time a cou­ple of years later. He ran the vine­yard, looked af­ter ex­ports and be­came as­sis­tant wine­maker to Ros­alind, but he also learnt a great deal from Delatite’s viti­cul­tural con­sul­tant, Max Loader, who be­came his men­tor. Af­ter their par­ents stepped away from the busi­ness in the early 2000s, David and Ros­alind ran it to­gether and af­ter she moved on in 2005, David took the helm.

The vine­yard grew from an ini­tial plant­ing of around a hectare and a half, to closer to 27 hectares, which David said is about as much as the prop­erty can han­dle be­cause of its lim­ited wa­ter sup­ply, re­ly­ing only on dams for ir­ri­ga­tion. Grapes grown at the Delatite vine­yard go into the fam­ily’s es­tate and re­serve wines, while fruit is sourced for the “High Ground” range from vine­yards within a 60 kilo­me­tre ra­dius, at places such as Strath­bo­gie, Yea and the King Val­ley. David said it’s a way he’s been able to ex­pand pro­duc­tion and grow the busi­ness while also ac­com­mo­dat­ing his de­ci­sion to run the Delatite vine­yard bio­dy­nam­i­cally - some­thing he started do­ing around a decade ago - in­spired by ideas of sci­en­tist and philoso­pher, Ru­dolph Steiner.

While the vine­yard is not cer­ti­fied bio­dy­namic, David chooses to fol­low its fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples, mak­ing an ex­cep­tion ev­ery few years to spray with her­bi­cide to keep the pesky couch grass un­der con­trol. He dis­cov­ered bio­dy­nam­ics af­ter he and wife Cather­ine de­cided to send their two chil­dren to a Steiner school, and David ad­mits ini­tially the fam­ily’s science-fo­cused vine­yard con­sul­tant was dead against it. “I just saw that our soils were dying,” he said. “We were spray­ing too much, the soils were look­ing bad and getting moss all over them - so I went to a work­shop at Ju­lian Castagna’s (in Beechworth) where an expert showed us ex­am­ples of dif­fer­ent cell struc­tures in milk, from cows raised on ‘con­ven­tional farmed’ grass, or­ganic grass, and bio­dy­namic grass. “It just started to make sense.” In 2003 the team ex­per­i­mented with us­ing bio­dy­namic prepa­ra­tion 500, an or­ganic fer­tiliser which is ba­si­cally made from fer­mented cow ma­nure, be­fore adopt­ing it com­pletely in 2005. David said his fa­ther was quite sup­port­ive about the move, hav­ing al­ways been sus­pi­cious about chem­i­cals and ex­pe­ri­enced their ef­fects af­ter spray­ing and us­ing strong treat­ments, when he would suf­fer nose bleeds and headaches. David be­lieves what we put on the soil must have an ef­fect on the or­gan­isms within it and in Aus­tralia in par­tic­u­lar, soils have be­come se­ri­ously de­graded.

“What they went through with sup­pos­edly safe, rec­om­mended chem­i­cals was ter­ri­ble - and I think it’s still af­fect­ing farm­ers to­day - no mat­ter how care­ful you are, so it’s much eas­ier not to use them,” he said.

“By not us­ing a whole lot of fungi­cides and by us­ing mulch

“There’s no doubt that since we moved to bio­dy­nam­ics and nat­u­ral yeast, other peo­ple (like wine writer and critic James Hal­l­i­day) say our wines have im­proved a lot, so I think that was a re­ally good move,” he said.

Delatite is al­ways ex­plor­ing and ex­per­i­ment­ing too, pro­duc­ing over 25 wines which David ad­mits “is crazy” for a winery of its size. Last year he and Andy be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with mak­ing to­tally nat­u­ral wine, or “orange” wine - white va­ri­eties which were co-fer­mented on skins with no yeast added. The end prod­uct was slightly fizzy wine which was bone dry - and which ev­ery­one seemed to love.

“When nat­u­ral wines are made with care and at­ten­tion, with the right equip­ment and knowl­edge, they are re­ally in­ter­est­ing wines that re­ally ap­peal to peo­ple - es­pe­cially young peo­ple (in their twen­ties and thir­ties),” he said.

“They think of it as just a drink - some­thing to be en­joyed with food - and a well made orange wine with food is full of fla­vor.”

This year Delatite has pro­duced twice as much orange wine and the Chi­nese mar­ket is show­ing real in­ter­est - at­tracted by the idea of a wine with prove­nance, made with­out preser­va­tives.

“It will never be huge but for us, but mak­ing a nat­u­ral wine is a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion from what we are al­ready do­ing,” he said.

Another new ad­di­tion is a “field blend” made from Pinot Gris, Ries­ling, Gewurz­traminer, Viog­nier and Sau­vi­gnon Blanc. It’s a project the cou­ple’s son and daugh­ter, Don­ald (20) and Polly (22), are putting their own stamp on - tasked with the re­spon­si­bil­ity of de­vel­op­ing a name and la­bel. David said both chil­dren have an artis­tic sen­si­bil­ity nur­tured through their Steiner school­ing, and both have a close and per­sonal un­der­stand­ing of the mar­ket to which it is tar­geted.

“It’s quite ex­cit­ing,” he said.

“The wine has got to look good and be good - and it is - but how we’ll mar­ket it is still to be de­cided.”

The new di­rec­tion is re­flec­tive of the way the plant­ing has changed over time, with David hav­ing moved away from Sau­vi­gnon Blanc, Carig­nan and Mal­bec and re­cently adding Tem­pranillo and Gra­ciano. He said a freshly bot­tled Span­ish style Tem­pranillo Rosé is look­ing par­tic­u­larly promis­ing - wow­ing staff and the mak­ers with its stun­ning color and fla­vor and promis­ing to be an ex­cit­ing al­ter­na­tive to Shi­raz Rosés. “It’s a dif­fer­ent thing - and I think it’s re­ally good,” he said. While the King Val­ley has be­come syn­ony­mous with Ital­ian va­ri­eties, David thinks there is a real place in Aus­tralia for Span­ish, and other lesser known Mediter­ranean va­ri­eties. But while there are more he’d like to ex­per­i­ment with, he’s re­al­is­tic about the lim­i­ta­tions of space and the work­load his team is al­ready deal­ing with, so adding yet another “weird idea” to the mix might just be push­ing the friend­ship.

“Andy em­braced our whole phi­los­o­phy of bio­dy­nam­ics re­ally well, and he brought in nat­u­ral yeast fer­men­ta­tions, so it’s re­ally good that he had an open mind from the start - even as a sci­en­tist,” he said.

And he ad­mits that bio­dy­namic phi­los­o­phy does have facets which might be con­sid­ered “ho­cus pocus” and re­quir­ing more than a lit­tle faith - which is why they don’t ad­here to it strictly.

Con­cepts such as fol­low­ing moon cy­cles when choos­ing when to pick are sim­ply too dif­fi­cult to in­cor­po­rate into a busy busi­ness, although he says he would try it if he could.

“If I was work­ing on a two hectare vine­yard with only a cou­ple of va­ri­eties, we’d prob­a­bly ex­plore it more, but you can’t re­ally do it here with what we’re do­ing,” he said.

“There’s def­i­nitely a lot more that hap­pens out there that we don’t un­der­stand.”

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