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If you're interested in viticulture, winemaking or the joys of wine, you might discover some articles of interest here in our catalogue of insights.

The basis for any solid solution… start at the root of the problem and work your way up. This is the exact approach of the Crittenden family who have found fruit in their holistic approach to vine health. 

After 25 years of “conventional” farming – relying on the use of synthetic chemicals to manage the vineyard – started to take its toll of the quality of their grapes they found themselves digging in the dirt for a more traditional approach.

By the early 2000s the Crittenden family, with viticulturist father Garry at the helm had noticed a year on year increase in the amount of time on the vine that their grapes needed to achieve flavour ripeness. All the while the grapes were gaining excessive sugar and dropping vital acidity, which threatened to throw their resulting wines out of balance.

Vines of increasing age are usually prized as they can often produce lower quantities of higher flavour concentrated, better quality fruit. However at the vineyard, just outside Dromana, the reverse was becoming apparent.

Faced with this paradox they started researching alternative methods to promote the health of their vines. And so began the journey underground, using organic viticulture techniques, which represented a return to the traditional way of doing things before farming became concerned with quick and easy chemical solutions.

By 2008 the philosophy became about eradicating synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers in favour of natural preparations to deter pests, and also having home produced compost, made using winery waste.

Crittenden Estate now finds itself at the forefront of soil health in viticulture in Australia. This may sound like proverbial horse poo but that’s actually, in reality, only very small part of it. The winery produces about 60 tonnes of “marc” every year as a by-product of winemaking.

Simply put marc is the sticky mixture of grape skins and seeds that’s left after pressing. One tonne of grapes can provide between 200-250kg of marc, so for a winery like Crittenden Estate – who process between 200-250 tonnes of fruit a year – it represents a pretty significant quantity of waste material.

However this by- product is also rich in nitrogen, magnesium and other elements that are essential to organic farming, so a huge component of high quality fertiliser is already on-site. While most wineries will pay to have it taken away, the Crittenden family are reaping the rewards of working with this nutrient rich residue, so much so that they have started taking it from other local wineries as well.

The marc is collected straight from the presses in the winery and tipped into a skip on site; once filled, the skip is then moved to another part of the property where it is mixed with locally sourced horse manure and straw or wood chips. This pile is turned once a month by a digger, aerating it to promote the ferment of good bacteria.

Winemaker Rollo Crittenden knows that there’s no way they’d ever be able to buy in this amount of compost (the amount of marc they now receive is the result of some 1000 tonnes of processed grapes in total) but that it has now become a vital ingredient in the surge in soil and resultant vine health in the vineyard.

The steps involved have without doubt increased the work load on the estate. There is the capturing, turning and then finally spreading of the manure on the eleven acre vineyard block on the property but Rollo says it has become a race to the top rather than to the bottom. 

“We feel that this is an investment in the future. It does mean that the cost of our production goes up but so does the quality, and that’s where the investment is”. 

The steps towards soil health also involve growing more diverse plant life than just grapes in the vineyard. Cover crops such as peas, oats and broad beans are planted between the rows as they help fix nitrogen in the soil and increase its bio mass. For the hotter summer months this is then rolled flat to trap moisture in the soil, and as it dies off, it nourishes the growing environment in the ground below.

In an endeavour to map the leaps in quality of vineyard health, Crittenden Estate are now heavily involved in researching and  quantifying the positive effects that the compost and cover crops introduce, and are an internationally recognised forerunner in this field.

If the technical details are tough to digest, there is one simple takeout from all of this that’s easily understood, and that’s the enormous environmental benefit. In a time when everyone is thinking local, Crittenden Estate are not only protecting their immediate ecosystem by ditching chemical farming but they are giving back to the very earth that grows their grapes. What’s more these healthy soils require a fraction of the irrigation they once did.

The accolades are steadily stacking up for the Estate’s wines and there can be no doubt that this is due in no small part to the radical shift back to these traditional farming techniques.

Sustainability beats at the heart of modern wine trends and the evidence shines in the quality of producers such as Crittenden Estate. They are a 5 red star Halliday rated winery and in 2017 received the trophy for best white wine in show at the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show.

The proof is on paper but to see for yourself head down to the wine centre, which is open seven days a week for tastings from 10:30 – 4:30. Don’t be deterred from all the mentioning of manure, the compost and cellar door are at opposite ends of the property… or so Rollo says.

This article is reproduced from Peninsula Essence Magazine, February Edition, 2019.

There are some things in life which are mysterious. And no matter how much we uncover more clues or details, there will always be an element of mystery.

Flor and its influence on the flavour of wine is one of those mysteries. This thin layer or veil of yeast provides a natural, biological protection against aging. In the case of wine, it prevents the wine from oxidising and alters the flavour of the wine in incredibly interesting ways.

It looks like mould and in conventional winemaking, would be seen as utterly devastating, with the assumption the entire barrel or vat is completely ruined.

In places like Southern Spain and the Jura region of France however, this mouldy looking veil of yeast became highly desirable. Why, how and when? There are some answers to these basic questions but there are still many answers yet to be found.

We can only speculate that the first time this occurred or the first time someone chose to keep and make something to drink from a wine ‘sous voile’, was done initially by accident.

In Andalucia, Spain the principal varieties of Palomino, Pedro Ximenx and Moscatel de Alejandria would have initially been fermented in barrel. 

Potentially a barrel was left half filled, ignored and rediscovered with a thick film of yeast. 

But this could have happened more than 2000 years ago. The first mention of sherry was by Greek geographer Strabo, who catalogued the movement of vines from Phoenicia to the southern Spanish towns of Cadiz and Jerez, then known as Gades and Xera. 

The wines made here were transported across the Mediterranean world, and was identified as a wine that ‘travels’.  The land of Sherish or Jera became a major wine production centre, there were documented rules on how and where to grow grapes by 711 AD and the region continued to make and export wine even after the Moorish conquest of the region, despite the Koran forbidding consumption of alcohol.

The fortified nature of the wine from this region suggests it was a product that was highly valued. By fortifying the wine by adding grape spirit and protecting it through the use of flor, the wines of southern Spain could be stored and consumed over a much longer period than unfortified, traditional wines. 

It is also likely the desirability for these wines of Jera was also due to the fresh and complex flavours they delivered as a result of the maturation under flor. 

The flor is made from the same yeast which activates the alcoholic fermentation of sugars in the wine. The veil of yeast keeps oxygen away from the liquid wine to ensure it doesn’t spoil, but once the alcohol is fermented dry with no sugar to process, most yeasts will die off and fail to survive.

The 'saccharomyces cerevisiae' yeast tends to thrive in these conditions, and it survives by continuing to feed off alcohol and glycerol. This creates acetaldehyde and sotolon in the wine.

Acetaldehyde gives us apple and nutty flavours, and sotolon creates spicy, curry characters, which combined with the fresh acidic wine generates a highly attractive complexity.

The combination of flavour compounds found in flor aged wines are unlike any other you’ll find. The sherries of Spain and the Jura wines of France, can be a challenge at first, but once you get a taste for them, you can spend a lifetime seeking out more complex or extraordinary expressions of the style.

Just like the first initial flor wines were likely to be an accident, the Crittenden Sous Voile Savagnin wines were also made by accident.

We planted what we thought was Sauvignon Blanc, only to discover there was an error in the classification of vine material we had purchased and we had planted Savagnin.

Savagnin is the principal variety of the Jura, and hence we began our first step to uncovering the mystery of flor aged wines.

Ten years later, the Cri de Coeur Savagnin is our most highly awarded wine and one which is sought out by people around the world who are also captivated by the mystery of flor.


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