Alex Camatta
17 September 2020 | Alex Camatta

The Interview Series #2

In this Interview Series #2, we chat with Murray Leake, one of the Adelaide Hills' most respected viticulturists and a highly regarded member of the team. Alex Camatta, our Tasting Room Manager, spoke with Murray about the upcoming season and the importance of site selection in wine production.

Murray, what was it that drew you to the world of viticulture?

The true answer is by accident.

As a young man I was unaware of careers in viticulture, and a chance discussion with a neighbour, who was a winemaker for Lindeman’s at the time (early 1990s), knowing that I had an interest in wine and vineyards, suggested I should study viticulture. So I did.

With Spring upon us, and coming out of a wet winter, how is the new growing season shaping up? 

Rainfall during the dormant period has been good to replenish soil moisture and fill dams to capacity, which puts the vines in a good position to commence the growing season. The medium term weather forecast suggests a lower frost risk compared to the last two seasons.

Early varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are just approaching budburst, which is about normal. In around 2 weeks, when young shoots have developed and inflorescences are visible, we will be able to assess the fruitfulness, and potential yield.

Site selection has been integral to the Single Vineyard wines. What is it about our sites that make them so suited to their individual varietals? 

While all of our sites in the Adelaide Hills are considered cool climate, our Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blocks are situated on our highest altitude and coolest site, at Lenswood, and Shiraz blocks on the warmer site in Balhannah, whereas Sauvignon Blanc grapes are sourced from a wider range of sites across the Adelaide Hills.

Aspect also plays a part in site selection, with the cooler aspects being South and East. This is the aspect for the majority of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at our Lenswood vineyard, whereas Shiraz at Balhannah is on a north facing aspect.

Is there a particular wine from our Single Vineyard range that you’re enjoying right now?

The 2018 Lenswood Vineyard Pinot Noir is drinking beautifully and is stylistically unique to other Hills examples.

Over the past number of years we have changed our management practices to follow organic principles and now are certified organic in transition across both Balhannah and Lenswood vineyards. Can you talk us through this process; what are the benefits of this approach and what challenges does it present our viticulture team?

The whole transition to organic has been less challenging than first thought, and we believe this is due to our measured approach. We spent a number of years addressing soil health with multiple applications of composts, removing all herbicide, reverting to a combination of under-vine cultivation and permanent cover for weed control, as well as removing all synthetic fungicide, insecticide and fertiliser.

We believe by running our vineyards as organic we correct the balance of micro-organisms in the soil that promote nutrient cycling and availability within the soil to support vine growth, which provides inherent resistance to pest and disease. We like to compare soil health and the vine root system to the human digestive system, where microbes support nutrient breakdown and health. In this sense, soil health and biodiversity translates to vine health. Similarly, a healthy population of beneficial micro-organisms on and within the vine canopy and bunches supports vine health, as this then becomes a natural defence system against external diseases.

We further support biodiversity within the vineyard via permanent mid-row swards and designated biodiversity areas in and around the vineyard, providing a habitat for insect-eating birds and micro bats, as well as an environment to support beneficial predatory insects.

One of the most obvious changes we have noticed already is a change in soil structure as well as invertebrate and microbial activity within the soil, which has improved water infiltration from rainfall and root distribution within the soil. We are also not seeing foliar nutrient deficiency symptoms, which in the past were common. The whole system appears more balanced, and we believe this difference in the vineyards will be reflected in the fruit and wine.

Lastly, the acquisition of the Piccadilly site has given us the opportunity to build a vineyard from the ground up. Could you speak to how your approach would differ in 2020 versus 2000 and what this will mean for Shaw + Smith moving into the future?

Piccadilly has given us the opportunity to develop a new vineyard and implement a well thought-out design, using practices drawn from vineyards across multiple regions and countries, using techniques that we believe will work best under conditions and site specifics at Piccadilly.

This vineyard will differ greatly from our existing vineyards by having a higher vine density - 10,666 vines/ha - double that of our next highest density site. Trellis construction will also differ slightly: while continuing with a Vertical Shoot Position (VSP) system, our post height will be lower, row spaces will be narrower, cordon height closer to ground level. In addition new clones of both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir will be introduced along with some existing clones.

The site itself was chosen because the majority is south facing which, combined with a higher altitude than any of our other sites, will make it one of the coolest in the Adelaide Hills. The higher rainfall at Piccadilly combined with the lower cordon and close row spacing also adds a humidity difference to our other sites.

We are sure the high density planting will present some unexpected challenges, but that is what makes it more exciting! Nevertheless, once complete, we believe it will be a unique vineyard within South Australia, and provide us with a fruit source unlike any other.


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