Tradition gets high-tech

Chris and Gail Aylward must have had an extremely focused long-term view when they planted the first vines at the Kooyong vineyard at Balnarring on the Mornington Peninsula in 1995. The winery that was built three years later was meticulously planned, and fitted out with the latest state-of-the-art wine making equipment, giving the Aylwards the best possible opportunity for processing, fermenting and producing top quality wine. With no debt burdens, they were able to focus on quality right from the start _ something many other vineyards would love to duplicate.

Add to that the expertise of Kooyong’s winemaker Sandro Mosele, who has worked extensively in the winemaking industry and is a graduate in wine science from the Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, one of the most acclaimed wine schools in the country, and the prospect of producing great wines was assured.

“We are all ‘estate’,” says Sandro. “We grow our own grapes, make our own wine … we do everything in-house.” And the equipment and gear that Sandro has at his disposal are an impressive and inspiring array of the latest that wine making technology has to offer.

All the fermenting tanks are on a raised platform, which allows the fermented wine to gravity feed into the press below, thereby eliminating the need to put the wine through the rough process of pumping, which is the norm in a lot of wineries. Multilevel crushers and de-stemmers are also employed to keep the ungentle pumps at bay.

After feeding quite gently into the press below, compressed air pressure is applied through air bags to extract the wine from the pulp, instead of the more usual method of squeezing the skins in a ‘basket’ press with a central auger. “The press is mobile, and can move along to be under whichever tank we want to process,” says Sandro. “The air bag press can do lot more wine at one time, and basically it enables you to extract the wine more delicately.” The pressed wine goes into another tank, just to let the solids settle, then straight to barrel.

What Kooyong winery has managed to achieve is to produce wine using proven traditional techniques, but employing modern methods. “It’s all very modern, but very traditional at the same time. For example, the action of pressing is the same, but the application is different,” Sandro says. “You could say the result is the same, although we think it is a lot more efficient and gives us a much better result.”

The wine making techniques employed at Kooyong certainly recognise the best of old traditions, but combine these with technological advances to get full advantage of temperature control, the affects of oxidation and of course hygiene controls. Otherwise, normal wine making procedures are followed. The skins and pulp are pushed under the surface in the fermenting vat by hand on a regular basis (known by the French term ‘pigeage’, which actually has the human foot as its linguistic basis, and may give some idea of how this used to be done). “We are trying to use the techniques that [the French region of] Burgundy perfected over many years, but making them more user-friendly; so you don’t have to break your back all the time,” Sandro says.

And although there still seems to be a fair bit of back-breaking work involved, he makes the point that the focus is always on the important elements to make great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. For example, one difference that Sandro is keen to underscore is the winery’s use of open fermentation, instead of the more usual enclosed fermenting tanks that would be found in most commercial wineries. “The important thing, with the reds, is that it is open fermented,” he says. “If you’re after quality, I believe you will make a more complex wine in an open fermenter, rather than a static (enclosed) fermenter … and statics tend to be the norm down here.”

The reasons for the better result include that there can be a slight integration of oxygen, which is excluded in the closed fermentation, “and there is no build up of CO2 over the top of the wine, as it tends to blow off a bit more”, Sandro says. “I mean we’ve done our experiments, and believe we are getting the best results we can by what we are doing at present.”

Kooyong produces two basic varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and grows a multitude of clones of each variety. Five separate vineyards make up a total of 33 hectares, or about 80 acres, under vine, which produces about 10,000 cases of wine each year. “We can plant more, but we don’t intend to,” Sandro says. “I mean we’ve still got to sell the 10,000 cases to start with, and that keeps us busy as it is. But we certainly do have the capacity to produce more if the market goes that way.”

In fact, with the quality of the equipment at its disposal, Kooyong is able to perform work for other local wineries. “There is actually a shortage of these kind of wine making facilities in the area. And helping other grape growers helps with our running costs,” he says.

The winery at first planted a lot of Shiraz and some Merlot, but later pulled these varieties out in preference to the Pinot and Chardonnay, a drastic step that Sandro says was taken after a lot of serious thought was put into which grape varieties suited the area better. “It’s got to do with the soil, the maritime climate, a combination of everything,” he says. “And I think these two produce the best wines that the Peninsula can grow. I don’t necessarily find that the Shiraz from down this way is too inspiring. I think there are a few pockets that do well down here, but if I was buying Shiraz I think I’d tend to look to other regions.”

Kooyong maintains an acre of Shiraz “which we still play around with”, but the varietal focus they have settled on for the region seems to have been proven right.

The developing awareness of regionality really seems to be a growing and important key to the success of Australia’s wines. And it is a focus that Sandro and his team at Kooyong wholeheartedly endorse. “I think, for all the success of companies overseas, we have actually taken a big step backwards [in this country] because a lot of marketing is putting it so that regionality is not important; hence these south east Australian blends.

“If you look for example at the UK market, I think it is maturing in a way that they start to want to know about wine, they are developing better palettes, and they will not be willing to buy wines that are not regional-specific. So we are going to have to, as a nation, progress in this way. There’s no doubt about that. This seems to be critical,” he says. “Absolutely critical.”


This article first appeared in Victorian Lifestyle Property magazine.