Diary of a Barossa vintage casual – part 1

Samantha Cole-Johnson, whom we last encountered pruning in freezing-cold Oregon, begins a series on her current experiences as a cellar rat at this South Australian winery.

Because it’s probably the first thing that most people think of when reading a harvest journal on the 2020 vintage in Australia, I’ll address it to begin with ... the Barossa Valley was not directly affected by the massive wildfires that raged around the country.

Compared with fire-affected regions, we’re very well off. Perhaps a few growers have smoke taint. We’re doing some micro-ferments to test a couple of blocks (mash up a small amount of grapes and let them start fermenting – this breaks down smoke compounds in the grape skin so that the winemaker can taste if the smoke taint is present), but the odds are that they come back clean.

Fruit quality looks decent and there is no damage to any vines. This is not to say the vintage isn’t difficult. Yields are low. I’m not quite sure how low yet but when walking vineyards I was told that problems started early. There was frost in the region in late September and the flowering conditions in November were hardly ideal with much being lost to wind. December followed, breaking temperature records twice and then dropping back down. Water has been scarce not only this year but last year as well and the vines are struggling for it. With all this in mind, it’s amazing the fruit looks as good as it does. The vintage may not be bountiful but there will be some excellent wines produced.            

I arrived in Australia for vintage two weeks ago. The first thing on the agenda after filling out paperwork and tasting through the winery’s portfolio was an induction course called ‘confined spaces entry’. This course is a full day of someone telling you in multiple ways that you’ll die of asphyxiation if you get into tanks with CO2 in them. Every winery worker in Australia is required to take this cheery course every two years. On top of this, you must fill out permits every time you have to enter a tank (confined space). The permit takes as long to fill out as the tank does to scrub. Which is why most cleaning is done by cycling Destainex (sodium percarbonate) through the tank with a spray ball through the top and a pump attached to the bottom.

Stubborn red wine tartrates in Barossa winery

Which brings us to what I’ve actually been doing for most of the last two weeks. I have scrubbed tops of tanks, written out safety permits, scribbled them out and rewritten them the correct way, wrestled with particularly stubborn tartrates (see above) on the insides of tanks, and cleaned fermenters, presses, pumps and hardlines.

Hardlines (see below) are new for me and I’m a bit scared of them. They’re pipes that run all over the winery delivering juice from one place to another. The reason that they’re scary is that, while permanent staff know that when they attach a hose to a hardline at the bottom of the first row of tanks it comes out of the hardline in the ceiling in the second row of tanks, I don’t. And in order to avoid staring at a hose wondering why there’s no wine coming out, only to hear it splash to the floor metres away because I hooked up to the wrong hardline, I may be pushing quite a bit of water through those pipes in order to figure out what comes out where.

Hardlines in a Barossa winery

The other project that we’re chipping away at is assembling a large 2018 Shiraz blend. We have racked tens of thousands of litres of wine into tank from barrel from the 2018 vintage and then we’ve racked those tanks into larger tanks (no filtering here, just settling out). Full timers who have worked in Australia for a while keep telling me that this winery is small but the tank for this blend (admittedly the largest production the winery does) is 225,000 litres (59,440 gallons). The entire production of the winery from my Diary of a Willamette Valley cellar rat wouldn’t fill the tank. Which makes me realise that if this is small, then most Australian wineries must be massive.

For the few hours when we were not cleaning or assembling the 2018 blend, we processed six tons of fruit in two lots, one press load of five tons of Sémillon (see me loading it into the press below), and one press load of one ton of Roussanne (although you can’t really call it a load seeing as the bladder press here holds ten tons). The Sémillon will be used as an inoculum to start incoming ferments. On arrival, the fruit was chilled and loaded directly into the bladder press. After pressing, the juice was settled in tank, racked into a new clean tank, adjusted with acid, received a yeast addition, and will, we  hope, be happily fermenting away soon. The Roussanne was processed in the same way; it just wasn’t chilled first.

Semillon 2020 grapes being loaded in to the press at a Barossa winery by Samantha Cole-Johnson

We were waiting expectantly for some Marsanne this past week but the pick was cancelled. The reason was that for both the Roussanne (that we received) and Marsanne (that we didn’t) the decision was made to machine harvest. This is the first time these lots had been machine-harvested. The Marsanne decided not to co-operate. After three rows of walloping the vines to try to dislodge fruit, the grower called to apologise but he didn’t think it was worth it to potentially damage vines for so little fruit. Our winemaker readily agreed and we ‘casuals’ went back to cleaning.           

Tank farm at a Barossa Valley winery