The Vitality of Old Vines
An Interview with Michelle Holt from Poonawatta Wines, Eden Valley, South Australia.By Glenn Malycha
Today I have the wonderful opportunity to visit Poonawatta Wines in Eden Valley. It is the middle of Vintage time, with Riesling being picked, yet their Shiraz will not be picked until a few weeks later. The weather has been excellent so the grapes are looking really good. Poonawatta is a tiny South Australian wine producer, well worth seeking out. They are always rated as a red five-star winery by James Halliday.
Michelle and Andrew Holt are the owners of Poonawatta Wines. They are both hard to find as they are always very busy with their boutique brand, working in the vineyard looking after their precious ancient vines, or making wine, so this is a rare chance.
Glenn: Where does the name Poonawatta come from?
Michelle: Poonawatta is an Aboriginal name. The Peramangk people once lived in this area and originally named the land Poonawatta. “Poona” meaning “good/healthy/fertile” and “Watta” meaning person/place/country.
Glenn: how many cases of wine are you creating from each vintage?
Michelle: We produce approximately 1,800 cases per year.
Glenn: How old are your vines?
Michelle: We have three main vineyards. Our Riesling vineyard is what we call our Eden Vineyard, and these vines were planted in the early 1970s by Andrew’s parents who first purchased the property in 1966. Our Cuttings Vineyard is full of vines that started their life as vine cuttings taken from the original vines that were planted in 1880. Our Cuttings Vineyard was established in the 1980s. Of course, our oldest vineyard is our 1880 Shiraz block. These vines were planted by the original owner who settled in Eden Valley in 1860.
Glenn: So how many acres of vines do you have in total?
Michelle: In total we have eleven acres of precious vines.
Glenn: Barossa Valley and Eden Valley are really side by side, next to each other, but some people are not aware of the differences. How would you best describe the differences in the climate, and the resulting difference in your wine styles?
Michelle: Firsty, the Eden Valley is higher altitude than Barossa, so we have a cooler climate. Sometimes we can visit our friends in Tanunda (about 20 kilometres away) and its 30 degrees on a summer evening but we come back to our vineyard on the same night and its only 21 degrees.
We may reach some warmer temperatures in summer but then overnight the temperature cools down again, where as the Barossa may still remain warmer. We generally also get more rain. (Average annual rain fall in Eden Valley can be around 700mm and elevation is up to 460 metres above sea level). Our ripening happens later than the Barossa. We pick our fruit a lot later.
We are currently picking our Riesling. This vintage, our Riesling is the last to be picked in Eden Valley. We haven’t started picking our Shiraz yet, where as many people in the Barossa can be finished picking their red grapes by now. Our Eden Valley style results in higher alcohol wines, but its all about balance. We have learned that we must achieve fruit flavour in our vineyard first and be concerned about alcohol levels later.
Because our style is more elegant, any higher alcohol does not stand out in our wines; everything is in balance. We always use fine grained French oak too, because we want the fruit to be the hero. Some huge wine styles are okay to drink one glass of, however our styles are very drinkable with or without a meal.
Glenn: The words “Riesling” and “Eden Valley” seem to go hand in hand. What is it that makes Eden Valley Riesling so unique?
Michelle: The cool climate and long ripening periods, good rainfall, and high altitude all combine. A bit like great German Rieslings growing well in their climate, it never gets too hot. Lemon and lime zesty characters can be expressed, with natural acidity. Such a great wine on its own or perfect with Seafoods too. So versatile.
Glenn: You create different shiraz styles with your Four Corners Shiraz, The Cuttings Shiraz and The 1880 Shiraz, could you tell me how these were developed and what the differences are between styles?
Michelle: Originally named Monty’s Block, our first Four Corners Shiraz started in 2004. It sold out very quickly. We decided to purchase a small amount of Shiraz fruit from around the Eden Valley area, from growers who have the same philosophy as us when it comes to high quality vineyard management. We put these batches together (from the Four Corners of Eden Valley) with fruit from our own vineyard. We were able to specifically ask for certain parts of neighbouring vineyards to be picked exactly when we wanted them.
The Cuttings Shiraz is created from our vines that grew from vine cuttings that were taken directly from our oldest vines that were planted in 1880. Some cuttings were planted directly into the ground, whereas other cuttings were grafted onto rootstock. We used phylloxera resistant rootstocks to guard against any risk of disease.
The 1880 Shiraz vineyard is next to our Cuttings vineyard, near our creek. Their roots are really really deep and that is where their strength comes from. This is part of the reason why these vines have lasted so long.
We also have a small vineyard called The Insurance Block. We took further cuttings from our 1880 vineyard and grafted these to phylloxera resistant rootstock, and as the name suggests, this gives us some insurance against any risk of phylloxera, even though this is not anywhere in South Australia. We are custodians of this land and these vines, so we want to protect what we have.
Glenn: How many original vines from 1880 are left on your property?
Michelle: there are only about 900 original 1880 Shiraz vines across 24 rows.
Glenn: With such old vines, machine picking must be out of the question. Do your vines need a lot of love and attention?
Michelle: (Laughing) They sure do! Yes, we do look after them very carefully. We only ever pick fruit by hand, no machine harvesting. Each vine must be looked at separately. You must treat each vine individually. We must be very careful. We had to put in a trellis system to make sure the vines were kept safe. We also put up fences around our vineyard to keep our cows out. After we pick our fruit, we do let some of our sheep in the vineyard to eat the grass between the rows of vines. Its as natural and organic as possible.
Glenn: If you pick your shiraz later than the Barossa, what time of year do you need to prune your vines?
Michelle: It’s a very cold time of year and we prune as late as possible. We prune our Riesling vines once winter starts settling in, but where our 1880 vineyard sits, is lower in a gully and there can be a risk of frost, so we try to prune later, around late August or September. This way there is no risk of vine damage. Every single vine is pruned by hand.
Glenn: Your wines are very rare. Obviously, tastings must be by appointment only?
Michelle: At the moment we host private tastings at our family homestead in the vineyard. We are happy to invite visitors and wine collectors; however, we need lots of advance notice.
Glenn: When people come to visit, are they allowed to have a look at your 1880 shiraz vines?
Michelle: Visitors must request this specifically or they will miss out. The reason is because we need to create a foot (shoe) bath for people to use first, or else they are not allowed into our vineyard. This is so the bottom part of your shoes are cleaned, which prevents any risk of transferring disease from anywhere else. It’s for Bio Security. We do this to ensure the health and long life of our vines.
Glenn: Last time I looked, I don’t think you had any wines rated under 94 points. James Halliday always rates your wines so well and your limited release Centenarian Shiraz is no exception. When you are making this wine, how do you know which single barrel will be the one reserved for this special Shiraz?
Michelle: We look at each individual barrel of 1880 Shiraz very carefully. We take notes on each barrel we taste and there will always be one barrel where you think “This is it! This is the one!”. There will be a certain aroma or flavour characteristics that make one barrel stand out from the rest. This barrel is then marked so the wine will stay in barrel longer before bottling. We are about to release our 2009 vintage of the Centenarian Shiraz.
Glenn: What is the cellaring potential of such a beautiful Shiraz?
Michelle: Easily twenty years or more…although we have done some cellaring for you. A long time in oak plus further bottle aging before release means you don’t need to wait twenty years, but upon release, you should still decant it. All Eden Valley Shiraz is best when decanted first.
Glenn: Are your wines available in China?
Michelle: We send a very limited amount, mainly to private buyers who request it. Our 1880 Shiraz is the most popular with collectors.
Glenn: Would you like to visit China?
Michelle: I would love to! We have had lots of visitors from China telling me about their wonderful country. They love visiting us here to see how natural and quiet our country vineyard is, so I need to visit China to see all the great things I have been told about.