As the sun sets, smoke drifts across the vines at Vasse Felix. It’s an ethereal scene yet Chief Winemaker, Virginia Willcock explains that it has a more practical significance. Burning off isn’t allowed prior to the all clear from wineries that the last grapes are safely off the vine. Any sooner and smoke taint could ruin a season’s work. For some the smell of burning in the night air is a sign that vintage is over for another year, while for others it’s an indication that the work is far from done.
Image below and top: Xanadu Wines
A few days later and Virginia Willcock is in the red barrel hall, beanie on, glasses perched on her head; she’s upbeat and ready to talk vintage. A contrast to most winemakers weeks before. Then their eyes would be on the clouds, in a vintage characterised by rain and fears of botrytis. As the figurehead at one of the wineries looked to as a benchmark of Margaret River excellence, she has a weight on her shoulders. “Coming into vintage, not knowing what the seasons going to be like, it’s the most nerve racking time of year.” She tells me. “But I need to be nervous to perform.”
It seems that as the years pass and vintages are notched up there’s no escape from pre-vintage tension. “Every year I get butterflies, like it was my first vintage ever. How’s the fruit behaving? Is it different to other years we’ve seen? And how is it different? And how should I react to that? Should I leave it on the vine longer, pick it a bit earlier? What’s happening with the acids, the sugars, the flavours? Everything’s changing and it’s different every year. Kind of like coming into a new experience every single year and that is petrifying.” Something tells me that Willcock isn’t quite as petrified; as a winemaker renowned for her work, consistently innovating and raising standards, there’s a steady hand at play.
Over at Xanadu Wines, winemaker Brendan Carr points to the two halves of the winemaking operation – the vineyard and the winery – and the need for them to think about what each is doing in vintage. “If you’re from the vineyard and you’ve just finished your last harvest it’s that final dot point on vintage, before post vintage jobs start and then getting busy again with pruning. Vintage for the vineyard crew is really through the growing season, running at a million miles an hour, keeping an eye on the weather, lifting wires when they need to.“
While bound by what happens in the vineyard Carr is focused on the winery. He’s well aware of this and makes sure that the different crews understand that they’re essentially working to a common goal. “We watch the weather in the winery but the vineyard and the winery march to a different drum beat in those respects,” he says. “We try to ensure that the people in the winery understand the vineyard and that there’s an appreciation of what it took for the fruit to get there in the first place. The years long worth of work to get it onto a vine and then into a bucket, and hopefully teach the vineyard guys that once it’s in the bucket it’s only half way through the process.”
Once that vineyard work is done Willcock says that this is essentially “relief number one” as when the grapes are off the vine “I’m like oh I don’t have to eat grapes for another year”. But then starts the second wave. She explains, “this is probably the most stressful time I’m going through, trying to get the reds off skins at the right time and bedded down into the right barrels.”
Inevitably there has to be some release for those caught up in vintage. Carr talks about the annual inter-winery surf competition, as a moment to stop and relax, take stock and celebrate a completed harvest. “It’s not scored as seriously as at the Pro,” he laughs. “There’s a few extra points for bad wipeouts and ill fitting wetsuits. I see it as a good excuse to get together and have a beer and a wave together. To see how vintage has gone, what went well, what didn’t and have a bit of a chin wag.”
While Carr doesn’t feel the need to be too competitive he says there’s “a few hot surfers in the field who always get good scores, but the general scoring is as a team. So essentially the score is averaged out across all the team members.”
It begs the question as to whether Xanadu is in contention each year. “Howard Park and Voyager seem to do very well,” he says with no hint of envy. “Xanadu has a proud tradition of last place. We see it as a feather in our cap. We always win best team on the beach though. We’ll strap the Barbie onto the back of the ute and cook up some bacon and egg burgers and treat it as a nice day down the beach. It’s all about team camaraderie.”