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.”