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Burst of sunshine hits wine country


InDaily wine writer Philip White reflects on life outside, after a horror stint of cabin fever in ill weather. Beyond the comfort of this week’s touch of sunshine, it’s going to be a very tricky year for our wineries.

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A lost farrier with horses in his float just drew me outside for instructions. Dressing gown. Uggies. Ouch. But watching him skillfully inch his rig back and forth in a limited space to ease it back down the hill got some sun on the forehead after a forgettable fortnight wrestling with an infectious demon within. The burst of bright warmth and fresh air felt good. It’s a splendid sunkissed morning.

The horses remained cool in their carriage. There goes a good bloke.

Bring the lemony green tea to the veranda. Sit. Following his direction to the west end of Eyer’s Flat the keen eye can spot a mob of ‘roos basking in the dapple of a eucalypt coppice. The mind almost convinces the eyes they see the ears flicking, but the distance is too far.

Pan the eyelid cinema to the north west, to the spread of a big industrial vineyard where a tractor hurls fungicide at the wiles of a shifty breeze. That explains the distant whine I first heard at dawn. Country life.

Turn further toward the north east and zoom, and the forested horizon jumps with springtime birds which are also far too distant to discern. I can hear white and black cockatoos out there: the noisy nesting business active in the trees here in my yard extends right through these bonnie ranges today, from the tiny pardalotes nesting in a crack in the wall to the giant wedgies daring to risk the great windy sky beyond their gorge.

Last warm morning we had I was awoken by a great screaming din: it seemed all the middle-to-large birds on the block were fighting right outside my window. A swarm of bees had decided to move in to the shade of my veranda. Although I’d lived with bee hives on-and-off through my life, I had never before realised how vulnerable bees are when they move en masse: I drew the blinds to see a feeding frenzy: all the bug-eaters from willy wagtails through welcome swallows to magpies were going nuts, feeding on the wing. Even the sulphur-crested cockies swept through, closer than they ever come. I couldn’t work out whether they were feeding too, or were just being crazy larrikins in the melee.

The weather scientists warn that we can expect more rain into November, when the vineyards are usually quite dry and safe for machinery. In anybody’s language, 2017 is already a very tricky year.

It’s perfect to have bees; better when the good birds move them away from the bedroom window. Vines need pollination, like nearly everything else. But it’s interesting that the same birds tend to leave the bugs in my roses to sort their own little wars: an initial plague of aphids quickly brought on a mighty swarm of ladybird beetles and tiny wasps which cleaned up any leftovers.

But focusing up close brings embarrassment at the unmown grass, which turned from a daggy lawn to a complex meadow in the last fortnight. It seemed to grow ten centimetres in that Supermoon alone. It’s been too wet and lush to admit my little mower. And since the vines have sprung into vigorous growth, the sheep have been removed, so I can no longer borrow a small flock to turn my backyard sward to fertiliser.

Which only reminds me of viticulturers everywhere. In too many vignobles, the ground is too muddy for tractors, right at a time when shoot and leaf growth is unseemly rapid and most would normally be spraying fungicide before the rains return.

Not to mention dealing with the new meadow weeds, by mower or spray.

I made a bad mistake yesterday. On his way home, Michael Lane, the viticulturer in charge of the vineyards that surround my cottage, was dropping me at the dreaded pharmacy.

“That was a lovely steady rain last night,” I said, commenting on the fact that the recent weather had been far too wild and destructive and some calm was a relief. There was a sullen silence, during which I realised that in any normal season, such observation would be welcome. But right now, a man with big vineyards to manage needs no more rain, however friendly and calm.

The ground is full.

Michael made a wry philosophical murmur about being better off than those with vineyards still mucky or indeed flooded on river and creek flats, where they’d planted for ease and efficiency of farming. Some of the hills in his care are gentle, rolling and easy. It’s the precipitous Clarendon vineyard that worries him.

I don’t begin to understand the stoicism even the brightest, most sensitive farmer shows inclement seasons. It’s discomforting to watch them see-saw through their list of measured logical and scientific reactions to finally accept the unacceptable nature of nature. Flexing their knowledge and capacity right through to harvest. I couldn’t handle it.

The weather scientists warn that we can expect more rain into November, when the vineyards are usually quite dry and safe for machinery. In anybody’s language, 2017 is already a very tricky year.

Add the awkward feelings this bestows on anybody with a viticulture bent to the mess the rest of the world’s in and even the jolly brilliance of a day like today is spoiled by the expectation of lesser joys to come.

But I never finished my panorama. You got the gist of the distance, and the close-up? The best bit was the mid-field. As the turbo whine of this morning’s distant tractor phased in and out on the breeze, I heard gentle voices. No, not dreaming. Once the farrier was on his way I realised that there were people in the vineyard across my fence. They were spread through three or four rows, working up the slope in a studious group, plucking excess shoots from below the original flush of leaf.

This will limit unwanted growth, of which there’s probably more to come. It’s the first step in adjusting the size of the 2017 crop, and on a wind-swept shoulder like this it opens the vine canopies so no drying breeze is wasted as it gusts through.

A good clean breeze is a fungicide, too. If you let it in.


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