The first variety we planted when we set off on our own wine adventure was Durif, also known as Petite Syrah. This was a variety I had worked with in Rutherglen, and I was really impressed by its flavours and its versatility as a variety. Table wines are typically massive in flavour and texture, being deeply inky in colour, full of berry, chocolate and spicy flavours, and having grippy tannins that mean it cellars for years. In Rutherglen the variety is used a a blending component in the fortified wines for which the region is famous, but it also makes a lovely Australian style sparkling red wine.
We planted the first vines in 2000 on the spare block next to the cottage we were renting at the time, and harvested a very small crop in 2002, which we fortified. Later in 2002 we bought the property now known as 919 Wines. At the time it was bare paddock - if you can call weeds bare - and had three blocks of Washington Navel oranges planted.
Within a couple of days we had removed the palms along the driveway, and the youngest block of oranges, which we dug up and sold off. A few days later Eric dug up the vines we had planted and brought them around the their new home. This became what we now call our Durif A Old Block, and we filled in the rest of that patch with more vines.
We gambled a bit with the way we trellised the vines. Trellising has a huge impact on the way the vine grows and the fruit quality. Traditionally Durif would be grown as bush vines or on a single wire, low to the ground up to hip height. Our soils are rich sandy loam over limestone, and the traditional trellising type in the Riverland is a two storey affair, technically a modified Scott-Henry. We decided to use a Wide-T to de-vigorate the vines a bit. This trellis also runs four cordons for vine, but because they are side by side rather than one over the other we have avoided green character associated with excessive shading. This has also locked us into hand pruning and harvesting.
We installed drip irrigation with a single outlet per vine. The regional practise was to either flood irrigate or spray with overhead sprinklers. Over-use of cheap water thirty years ago or more gave rise to the perception (and sometimes the reality) of overcropped grapes using cheap water. More progressive grape growers were installing underline sprinklers, continuous run drip irrigation or even experimenting with sub-surface irrigation. We wanted to conserve water using our drip system, and used this as a means of encouraging very high quality grapes.
One of our neighbours, elderly now, migrated from Europe in the 1960’s as a result of economic hardship. He worked hard to establish himself in his new country, working in the cane fields, fertiliser factory and as a farm hand in the Riverland and other regions. Eventually he saved enough money to buy his own farm, just over the road from us. He grew grapes, olives, stone fruit and citrus using traditional irrigation methods. He was completely bemused by our irrigation, telling us that the grapes would die. He hadn’t heard of Durif and was concerned that our T-trellis wouldn’t give us the yields.
We don’t claim to have got everything right. In fact, we have trialled different trellises, pruning techniques and irrigation management to try and optimise vine health and wine quality. We were certainly giving it a red hot go.
The millennial drought started the next year. Water allocations were cut for the first time, and we were staring down the barrel of no water apart from sky juice. The price of water rocketed astronomically up to thousands of dollars per megalitre. Those who hadn’t implemented water conservation measures suffered huge financial losses, and many growers took paid exit packages and surrendered their water. The region became known for dead citrus orchards, bare paddocks and sad farmers.
We watched the weather reports, waiting for rain. Sometimes rain would be forecast, but it was patchy at best. We would stand out in the vineyard and see the black clouds dump a shower to the south, or to the north. We would anxiously hold out our hand to feel the moisture in the air, but rarely a drop fell.
We scraped through the privations of the drought due to the drip system we had installed and the relative youthfulness of our vines (young vines require less water as they are smaller). We even had a few megalitres left unused, which we allowed to flow down the river instead of selling on the market, in line with our sustainable outlook. It was a tough decision, as all startups need capital and the price we would have received would have been useful capital.
Our Durif quickly became our most popular variety we made, outselling Shiraz. We extended our plantings, adding Old Blocks Durif B & C in quick succession. The first commercial vintage, the 2004, was released in 2005, and was dense rich wine. If you have any of this on your shelf, you could happily leave it for another 5 years or so. The 2005 was a bit more restrained, as were all the reds from that year. The 2006 was very tight, and needed a good 8 years to become approachable.
About 2005 or 2006 other South Australian producers started putting out a single variety Durif as well, instead of blending it as was its usual fate. By this time, we already had a fan base, so it felt good to be ahead of the trend.
Our 2007 Durif was a big bruiser, broody and alcoholic, because the season was long, hot and dry. We had to manage our water very carefully to extract maximum benefit from each drop, and planned to concentrate on heat and drought-tolerant varieties into the future. We started to suffer grape losses due to extreme heat and radiation, up to 30%.
We did not make a 2008 Durif for table wine, as the heat was so severe that the grapes were shocked to the point where they stopped accumulating sugars and flavours. We made a small parcel for material for our fortified wines only.
In 2009 the weather was cool, but still extremely dry. Our Durif ripened at a perfect rate and we managed to pick at lower sugar level with beautifully harmonious flavours. This vintage was one of the most elegant releases of Durif we have made, and the first to be released under our second label iteration. If you have any of this in your cellar, it’s ready to drink now.
The rough continued into 2010. About 30% of the Riverland had pulled out their vines and removed irrigation infrastructure. The wine industry was divided over the relative merits of cool versus hot climate vineyards, who was being overpaid and who underpaid for their fruit. Some regions that were traditionally unirrigated started investing in irrigation infrastructure, including Clare, Barossa and McLaren Vale. Most of the citrus in the Riverland was pushed out, and the large fruit juice processor behind our vineyard closed down.
The 2010 vintage Durif, however, was a magnificent wine. This is a 20 year wine. It was rich, intense and massively tannic. We updated our label to the “tattered edge” style, using a local designer to try and give a fresher look. You may have some of this in your cellar.
The drought broke in the spring of 2010, too late for some. We went from one extreme to another, with high humidity and plenty of rain. We started converting the vineyard to certified organic. This meant we could not use systemic anti-fungal sprays on the vineyard to prevent mildew. Some fancy management and many hours on the tractor meant that we were able to prevent widespread disease in the vines.
Vintage in 2011 was awful for many wine regions. Downy mildew, powdery mildew and botrytis (grey rot) wiped out many vineyards. Anyone who harvested a crop in that year had managed their crop with a dash of intelligence and a whole bucket of luck. The humidity was high enough to cut with a knife and some vineyards became water-logged preventing tractors from getting on to spray anti-fungals.
At 919, we have the advantage of being able to respond quickly to weather events. The cool humid weather delayed grape ripening by several weeks, so vintage was delayed. We picked the early varieties and made lovely elegant and floral wines from them, including one of the best Tempranillos we have ever made. Our Shiraz and Durif from that year were adequate rather than exceptional. If you have either of these, drink up! They won’t cellar any longer.
The good rains in 2011 allowed us to purchase our Ella Semmler’s vineyard in Loxton. Unfortunately the citrus on the block had died during the drought, and the abandoned vines required a lot of TLC to bring them back into production. We ripped out some Sauvignon Blanc and replanted with yet more Durif.
The 2012 and 2013 vintages made amazing wines. The soils were fully recharged with the rains of 2011 and the vines had recovered from the drought. The wines were rich and complex with lingering berry and chocolate flavours. We updated our labels to the current “Riverbend” label in 2014-15, and the 2013 Durif was the first vintage to carry the new look. If you have these wines on your shelf, you could drink them now, but you may not be doing yourself any favours. These are 15 to 20-year wines.
Our current release is the 2014. The 2015 is bottled and in the cellar, gradually softening a little so that it is not quite so tannic. Our regular tasting of the maturing wines reveals that the 2016 and 2017 will be stunning wines when they are bottled.
The vines are now quite mature in the old block, and the Ella Semmler’s fruit is showing great promise as well. We continue to trial management techniques for this variety to try and get the very best from the vines so we can make the best wine possible. Our aim is to unlock the hidden potential of Durif and unleash its inner beast.