Winemakers would make great circus jugglers, given their ability to balance the unexpected demands of nature, especially during the frenetic few months of the year called vintage.
For Dalrymple Vineyards vigneron Pete Caldwell, vintage 2015 was certainly all about balls in the air and walking tightropes.
“In my 27 years this was one of the most nerve-racking vintages on record,” he said.
“We didn’t really have a summer to speak of in the north-east – when you can’t get the boat out or go for a swim in January then you know it is going to be a tough vintage.
“All through February we had rain and high winds and it was several degrees colder than normal. It was the same in the Coal River where normally summer is dry and hot but this year it was cold and rainy.
“I just had to sit tight and wait and worry.
“Then just as I was about to put one foot over the cliff it stopped on March 12 we woke to a fine, warm, sunny day and it stayed like that for the next three weeks.
“We had that beautiful balmy vintage weather that leads to steady ripening, and elegant, even wine styles. “In the end I was very excited about the quality of fruit – so the nervous wait was worthwhile.
“Its now June and we’re seeing some really intense flavours in the wines – so in a matter of weeks 2015 went from ‘woe-is-me’ to wow,” he laughs.
The reason vintage was such a juggling act at Dalrymple Vineyards was because of the vagaries of the island’s weather system, grape picking didn’t happen according to any pre-destined schedule.
“Ripeness is traditionally measured by the sugar level in the grapes, which is an indicator of alcohol,” Pete said.
“But we also measure ripeness by flavour. You have to taste the grapes and see if the seeds are crunchy or green. If they’re still a bit green the tannins will be extractive and unbalance the wine.
“You also have to taste the skins for tannin ripeness and inspect them for colour.
“Overall the grapes have to be nice and clean and free from any fungal disease – it’s the bunches we leave behind which make all the difference to our final wine quality.”
So with such little control over the elements, do winemakers re-assert their powers over nature in the winery?
“When it comes to making the wine, I really like to let the vineyards speak for themselves,” Pete says.
“I have a cultured yeast, which I sometimes use to start fermentation but it depends on the quality of fruit.
“Once the fruit was ripe, I didn’t really intervene. When the winery has a few ferments underway the wines inoculate themselves because of the high level of yeast that’s naturally occurring in the air.
“I describe it as a light human touch while standing by and just letting nature take its course.”
However, if there is one place that Pete feels he can bring his three decades of training to the fore it’s in the barrel cellar.
“We keep the fruit from different blocks separate during fermentation so that we can track the differences in flavour and tannin and colour,” he said. “Each of their personalities showed up quite clearly this year, so that makes it a bit easier to choose which type of barrel they should be matured in.
“I choose barrels from 12 long-established French coopers who all use oak from specially selected forests.
“I’m constantly on a journey to learn which cooper is the right match for each wine.
“As a general rule we tend to match the bigger-framed, structured Pinots with spicy, toasty oak, while the elegant more lifted Pinots go into oak that has softer, more refined characteristics.
“We only use about 40% new oak each year. Re-using second, third and fourth use barrels is another way to moderate the oak influence.
“It’s all about trying to get that balance between elegance and complexity, while still allowing the fruit flavours to shine through.”
So now that picking and fermentation is over, his 2015 Dalrymple Vineyards wines are stowed away in their oak cocoons for 10 to 12 months and the long nights at the winery are behind him, what does Pete Caldwell do for a balanced life?
When we caught up with him in late May he was on the way to Launceston. “I’ve had a couple of international cellar hands working with me this year – Andrea from Canada and Camille from Beaujolais – but unfortunately they’re both heading off soon, so we will have a nice celebratory lunch and look at some of the new 2015 wines as well as a few older vintages.
“Then I might just drag out the boat and go fishing for a day or two. Make up for what I missed in summer.
“But it won’t be long and I’ll be on the road again. There will be the usual round of new releases, wining and dining trade and media and of course pouring Dalrymple Vineyards at Pinot Palooza from August to October.
“But I’m not complaining. Just like a good Pinot, the balancing act between work and life is what shapes you.”