When next you crack the seal or pop the cork on your bottle of Swan Valley wine, spare a thought for what came before … about what went into its making. Just what happens over the course of the year that leads to that ultimate pleasure, opening a great bottle of red, white, sparkling or fortified wine?
Let’s begin in the depths of winter. The grapes have been picked, the leaves have dropped and the vines look stark and barren in the vineyard. This is the time when the vignerons and their workers get out into the vineyard and prune the vines. Most of the Swan Valley vines are hand pruned, albeit often with electric pruners that take some of the pressure off, but it is still a back breaking job.
As well as the pruning, other work needs to be carried out. Repairing posts and replacing wires and checking and repairing drip lines and a host of other maintenance tasks. There's also work inside the winery, with equipment maintenance and repair. And of course work from the previous vintage keeps on, such as checking the progress of maturing wine and riddling sparkling wine bottles.
Spring rolls around and the vines bloom. This is the time of budburst where buds swell and the Valley is alive with verdant leaf growth and the flowers that produce the grapes. But it can’t all be left to nature. Out in vineyard, the vines are tended and young canes are trained to ensure they grow where and in the direction they should.
In the winery the past vintage is still being processed. Bottles are filled, barrels are racked, sparkling wine is disgorged, new releases (usually the young fresh whites and rosé) are ready for sale at cellar door or readied for shipping. New oak barrels are ordered as these need to be in place for harvest and there is a long lead time for them to arrive in Australia.
As summer approaches the grapes are growing plumper and veraison, the change of colour or ripening of the grapes, is the precursor to harvest. The grapes are closely observed with frequent tests of baume (the sugar level) to ensure they are picked at their peak. As the grapes ripen they also become attractive to the local bird life and nets may need to be rolled out to protect them. Vines are trimmed to allow maximum airflow and light to get to the grapes, and a close watch is kept for mildew and other disease that can affect the quality of the grapes.
In the Swan Valley, with its higher temperatures, harvest begins in January (although climate changes have seen the harvest start later in recent years) and goes through to March as grape varieties ripen at different rates. Grapes destined for dessert and fortified wine are usually the last picked because as they dry out the sugar level increases. Picking is carried out in the cool early morning, or at night if machines are used. Grapes are taken to the winery where they are crushed, destemmed and pressed, and the juice pumped into tanks for fermentation.
During autumn vintage is in full swing, the wine is maturing in oak or in stainless steel vats, wine may be fined and filtered before being bottled for storage and maturation, sparkling wine is bottled for its secondary fermentation in bottle, and the winemaker must keep a close eye on all that is happening. Out in the vineyard, harvest is complete and the leaves change colour and drop. The vines begin to become dormant and as winter approaches, it all begins again.