Frankland River Swinney Vineyard and Viticulture

A recent visit to the Frankland River region led me to call in on Swinney Wines viticulturist Lee Haselgrove who resides on the vineyard. Lee has been at Swinneys for 6 years but has been tending vines for much longer in his career. He has a deep understanding of the land and vines and his background in viticulture is an invaluable asset to any winery.

I was fortunate to spend a couple of hours with Lee talking all things vines and touring the vineyard. Most people when tasting wine will ask about the winemaking process, but few will take time to understand the level of work required, maintenance and care involved of the fruit and vineyard that goes into that bottle of wine.

The vines Lee cares for have served many great winemakers in Western Australia’s Great Southern region including favourites of mine Brave New Wine and La Violetta among many others. If you’ve had a wine from the region, chances are it may have been made with fruit that was cared for by Lee.

During my visit Lee tells me about bush vine viticulture which is a passion and his focus on dry farming. A practice in many old world regions of European winemaking, in fact in some regions irrigation is outlawed to prevent diluted wine and to prevent quantity over quality. It’s long been controversial. Lee, like myself, loves wines that express the site and the season, an authenticity an uniqueness that comes from getting the vineyard site to express it’s characteristics. He explains that he uses irrigation very carefully.

“Our whole industry has grown up thinking irrigation is crucial, and that we need all sorts of instruments to tell us how much water vines need, and all of it is very well intentioned, and earlier in my career I used lots of those tools, but the premise they are all based on is at best partially flawed, and at worst quite wrong. I know that its much better that the plant feels confident. My goal is to anticipate its needs and help it, not control it”.

The whole vineyard has been irrigated since its establishment in 1998. Lee started the direction towards dry farming in 2013 when he started at Swinney’s. In more recent years irrigation systems have been removed from some vineyard sections after 5 years of weaning them off the water. Minimal irrigation and dry grown grapes tend to produce concentrated, intense wines that drink well young and have great potential to develop with bottle age.

I learn Grenache is a very drought tolerant variety and it is clever in that it has its own mechanisms for regulating moisture levels. Lee explains that the plant decides early in the day how much water it will sacrifice when environmental conditions are unfavourable, “Grenache thinks its better to look after yourself, than expect someone else to come along and keep you alive (at least from a hydration perspective). Shiraz exhibits the opposite behaviour”.

“I started becoming a much better viticulturist when I thought about all the great fruit and vegetables that I’d eaten and who grew them, and how” he says. “My grandma had an orange tree, and she would water it for about a week once a year, really slowly. She moved the slow dripping hose all around the plant’s base every few hours. The orange tree was in the chook house, so it was getting plenty of organic treatment. Those oranges were the best I’ve ever eaten. No sensors, no science. Just sense.”

Lee is all about managing vines from the root systems up. He tells me of techniques to encourage root systems to grow outwards and seek nutrients. A good root system is vital to overall vine growth and quality and particularly important for early season vine growth. Lee uses deep row cultivation between vine rows to assist in developing larger root systems. Ripping vine roots encourages new growth and like in gardening, offers better physical conditions for the new roots to explore, and leads to a stronger plant over time and can also minimise the likelihood of water stress effects.

He demonstrates to me pruning of vines and he explains how this is important for new growth for the next vintage, he has come to rely on the wonderful local Afghani community in the Mount Barker region during vintage and pruning. We discuss vineyard composting which can save considerable costs. Lee prefers to use compost over fertilisers and wants all of the soil nourishing the plant, not just the bit it can reach.

Interestingly we discuss how climate change is not only impacting irrigation but also how it is impacting the diversity and change in wine varieties grown in the region. Australia is known for a lot of French varieties like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, but diversifying into more heat and drought tolerant varieties such as vermentino and cinsault is being considered more. Of course this problem is not confined to Australia, but is a global problem.

My visit was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and with not much attention paid to viticulture in wine media a thought provoking visit. Swinney’s Farvie Grenache and Syrah recently received 98 points from Ray Jordan and this can be attributed to the hard work that goes into all levels of winemaking including the care of the fruit.