Mount Terrible Vineyard is on the Licola Road, 3 kilometers east of the beautiful township of Jamieson – Neville Shute’s idea of the best place to wait for the end of the world. The 5 acres of vines are a thousand feet above sea level, on a gently-sloping north-facing river terrace. Jamieson falls just outside the Upper Goulburn Wine Region, thus the unqualified “Victoria” designation on the label.
The vineyard is divided into three parts by dramatic variations in soil. A headache when the vines were first planted, with the passage of time this has turned into an advantage since it adds greatly to the interest and complexity of the resulting wine.
The zone closest to the river has five feet of well-drained, fertile river loam overlying gravel. Vines planted in this area grow vigorously and require brutal shoot thinning and bunch reduction.
The next section is the most problematic. Nine inches below the ground, sandy gravel gives way to a layer of impermeable yellow-grey clay; waterlogged in winter and (since the installation of essential aggie-pipes) biscuit-dry in summer. A harsh environment in which to establish young vines, though once their roots force through the clay they encounter a loose, gravelly subsoil with abundant water.
The uppermost zone, which is also the steepest, is the easiest to manage. The Wine God loves hills, the Romans used to say and here a foot and a half of iron-rich sandy silt underlain by fifteen feet of silty gravel provides a soil of moderate fertility where vines do well and are not too vigorous.
The close-planted vines are orientated north-south at row intervals of 2.25 metres. Vertical shoot positioning with a cordon at 1.1 metres and a clear undervine strip (this is a frost-prone area) have been employed, and highly efficient drip irrigation can be delivered.
All vines are grafted on phylloxera-resistant rootstocks and for the scions three Dijon clones, 114, 115 and 777, and the (notionally) Australian vigorous and reliable MV6 clone were selected.
Jamieson’s climate is generally described as mild, with warm days and cool nights and an average of 900 mm of rain per year, most falling in winter and spring. Over the past decade, though the vineyard has had the occasional heavy downpour early in the New Year, the period from January to April has tended to be dry. This has been a good thing from the disease point of view, although we have had to contend with heat waves, such as the one which occurred in the first two weeks of March 2008
Wind can be severe in the Jamieson Valley. Westerlies are the problem; they can come at any time of year and gusts in excess of 100 kph are not unknown. It was for this reason that the trellising (which to ensure even insolation had to be aligned at right angles to the prevailing wind) was slung between poles thicker than normal. Hail too has threatened damage in the past. On one memorable summer afternoon in 2005, a leaf-shredding curtain of hail advancing up the valley came to a miraculous halt ten metres short of the vineyard.
A frost which occurred on November 27th 2015 halved the 2016 vintage, but worse were the frosts in late September and again in late October 2006, when temperatures fell to minus 8 degrees C. As a result 100% of the primary and then 100% of the secondary buds that season were destroyed and there was no 2007 vintage. It felt like a disaster at the time – this was the first frost damage to occur since the initial vines were planted in 1993. But when the Mount Terrible fires broke out in December 2006 and for six weeks a pall of acrid yellow smoke made the valley feel like the surface of Venus, the frost came to seem almost like a blessing.
John had been envious of the few local growers who’d escaped the ravages of that spring’s frosts; now, witnessing the despair of friends whose seemingly promising wine tasted as if it’d been crushed in an ashtray, he was glad to have been spared false hope.
Vines are spur pruned, and shoot thinning and bunch removal are employed to keep yields below 1.5 tonnes to the acre. Australia is not Burgundy and some may argue that with appropriate canopy management higher yields can be obtained without loss of quality, but they are mistaken. Pinot really does seem to differ from other varieties in this respect, and if one is dedicated to producing the highest quality wine it doesn’t pay to be greedy. Nothing too much.
Shoot thinning also serves to maintain the open vine canopy which is an essential component of the vineyard’s disease prevention strategy. Rainy springs make Downy Mildew the principal risk. This is controlled by regular applications of copper and sulphur. Blister mites were a minor nuisance in the early years but have been completely controlled by sulphur spraying over winter, and, by luck or good judgement, even after the rainy 2010 – 11 season we escaped the bunch rots and Powdery Mildew that affected other vineyards in the area.
The only significant insect pests are European wasps, which are successfully controlled by a combination of simple traps and nocturnal nest-attacks. Birds however are a nightmare. Within a day of veraison, the skies darken with squadron after squadron of crows and currawongs. Taped alarm calls and noise generators drove the neighbours round the bend while the corvine Luftwaffe continued, unruffled, to raid at will. Full netting is the only strategy that has worked, and that requires to be backed up by a visible human presence, assisted by two gun-toting and extremely life-like scarecrows (Fatty and Fluffbat) kept constantly on the move.
But Mount Terrible isn’t just a source of frosts and bushfires and crows. It sends in season deer, kangaroos and wallabies to eat the vine leaves, bower birds to eat the grapes, cockatoos to eat the house, and, for their own dark purposes, snakes. But then again it is beautiful, and the haunt of koalas and wedge-tailed eagles and the exquisite and extraordinary lyrebird which – not least for the fact that it doesn’t seem to like grapes – is honoured on our Mt Terrible winelabel.