From Soil to Cellar - A Year in the Vineyard with S&K

The wonderful thing about working with vines is they create a beautiful rhythm to the year. The vista always evolves and builds to a crescendo of hard work when we harvest in summer/autumn. There are many times of the year where we could lose everything – frosts, disease pressure, bushfire smoke, too much rain, too little rain...growing grapes is not for the faint-hearted! Luckily, we have Scott and Marie in the vineyard who do a fantastic job of delivering the finest fruit to the winery. This isn’t an exhaustive list of everything we do here but it’s a summary of what each month can bring.


After the long weekend, we let the ewes and lambs roam the entire property for the winter months. They do a great job eating the weeds and naturally fertilising the soil. By now, nearly all of the leaves have fallen off and the vines have entered dormancy, meaning we can start pruning. It’s an important skill as there are future vintages located on the vine (there’s a secondary bud within the primary bud); one wrong cut can affect two years’ worth of fruit.


Winter has set in and the woolly jumpers are on. July is one of the coldest and toughest vineyard months of the year - it once got to -7.5˚C here in Rutherglen! We do a mix of both cane and spur pruning on 15 different varieties over 34ha, with “wrapping down” needed for the cane-pruned blocks. It’s also a great month for maintenance as it’s much easier to see where the broken wires and posts are.


We aim to be finished pruning and wrapping down by early this month to give us an opportunity for infrastructure maintenance The sheep head back to the farm paddocks so that they don't damage the newly emerging buds. Scott puts the mulcher over all the old canes, creating another organic addition for the soil. August is also the month we collate and submit our data and workbooks for our Sustainable Winegrowing Australia membership.


This is a milestone month! It’s when the vines start to emerge from dormancy and go through “budburst”. We watch the weather forecast anxiously, hoping for no heavy - or even light - frosts. A black frost can wipe out a whole vintage by burning the delicate and vulnerable buds. This time of year is visually great for those who like perfectly manicured gardens – everything is green, neat and ordered with beautiful sunsets. It’s gets pretty unruly from here as the vines grow like hungry teenagers once the warm weather emerges. 


Want great glutes? Join Marie for manual disbudding of the suckers on the trunks, especially the over-achieving muscat vines. Disbudding is also required in the crown to keep it airy and clear for when there is a full canopy in summer. Scott is often busy spraying to protect the vines from diseases like mildew – luckily an increased interest in sustainability means that organic chemicals are now readily available.  


Canopy management is the name of the game for this month. Everything is growing so quickly! After budburst in September, the buds grow rapidly, multiplying leaves and getting longer; stages include growth of inflorescences (tiny clusters of flowers), flowering and fruit set. These growing months (September to January) are so important -there are several vulnerable “make or break” moments that will ultimately impact on the yield and quality of the final bunch of fruit. From November, we lift wires in some blocks to help train the canes upright so that the fruit gets access to fresh air and sunlight. If it has been a dry winter and spring, we’ll irrigate the vines to give them a boost.  


Most people are winding down for the year, ready for holidays and long lazy lunches with friends. Not Scott and Marie, they’re only halfway through the marathon. There is a lot of canopy management still going on – if it’s going to be a cool, wet year (like 2022 and 2023), we’ll trim the canopy much closer. If it’s predicted to be a hot year, we’ll leave more growth to protect the fruit from sunburn. Luckily we have access to water to help us irrigate, however every drop is precious. We’re implementing straw mulching and cover crops to help preserve moisture and improve soil structure and resilience. “Veraison” is the term for when the bunches of green grapes slowly start to flesh out and change colour – it won’t be long before some varieties are ready to go through this final process before reaching fruit maturity.


The smell of a summer vineyard is very distinctive; lush vine leaves, dry grass, bees and ripening fruit carried by a light breeze. Some of our earlyripening varieties such as the whites, might be nearly ready to harvest. In some of our hottest vintages, we’ve picked chardonnay and muscat (for Moscato) in the last week of January. Scott and Marie check all 35 "blocks" (different varieties spread across 10 vineyards) every Monday and update the winemaking team of progress.


The winemaking team are anxiously watching the sky, hoping for no rain or heatwaves (notice the theme of anxious weather watching?). There’s a lot of washing of tanks, tools and winemaking equipment and pacing up and down until the first bin of fruit arrives. The first picking day often irons out any nerves or shows up any weak spots in machinery which need fixing. This is good as February is not too hectic in the winery just yet, we are mostly picking whites and early reds. When Scott and Marie aren’t harvesting, there’s still lots of irrigating, fruit thinning, canopy management and protective spraying to do.


March is one of the busiest months of the year. Not only are we in the thick of vintage, we also have Tastes of Rutherglen and our Autumn Quinta Club packs. The team supports each other through this exciting and busy time. There’s still lots of cleaning to do, including the harvester at the end of each picking day – it can take Scott hours to get it perfectly spotless. By the end of the month, the rich fruit of our Jack’s Block vineyard, planted in 1921, is ready to be hand-picked – it’s one of our favourite days of the year.


Marie continues bunch sampling to keep track of the exact moment we need to harvest. Not only are we looking for perfect balance of acids, sugars and flavour, it’s also about juggling the space in the winery. Ideally picking days would be well spaced however sometimes, there can be a few blocks ready at the same time but not enough fermenting tanks or vats in the winery. Some winery hiccups can include equipment break downs, or if there is a power outage when all of the temperaturecontrolled fermenters are full. One year the harvester blew a huge custom-sized tyre, but luckily Scott was able to source one quickly, ensuring minimal down time. 


As a fortified winery, it’s not uncommon for us to still be picking early May, and certainly still processing juice in the winery. It’s definitely the “home stretch” month of vintage. Some people say that September is the start of the viticultural year however our hardworking crew take their longest holiday in May once everything is cleaned, repaired and put away for next year, so it’s fitting for May to mark “the end” of a long and satisfying 12 months. It’s also the month we have our vintage party and say goodbye to our international vintage casuals.