Bowen Estate — pull out half the vineyard, start again

This story came out of a bottle – Bowen Estate Coonawarra Shiraz 2006 – a fragrant, silky, delicious drop, sufficiently better than recent vintages to prompt a call to the Bowens. This was more than vintage variation, so what was going on?

It started in 2004”, says Emma Bowen. “We decided on big changes”. For a few years she’d been working alongside her dad, Doug, as assistant winemaker and 2004 was their thirtieth vintage. “We looked hard at what we were doing and asked what are we trying to do now and what do we want to do for the next thirty years”.

They had a general feeling that they could make even better wine than they had been from their 33-hectares of vineyards – running about five hundred metres from north to south, towards the southern end of Coonawarra’s terra rossa strip.

Doug had come to know the vineyard well over thirty years, says Emma. He had always picked the various blocks separately and kept the wines apart during maturation. On the tasting bench over all those years, the quality difference from block to block remained consistent. ‘Every year there was a clear difference from best to worst and it was always exactly the same’, say Emma, ‘and we picked the blocks in the same order each season’.

They wanted all of their wine to be like ‘The Ampelon’ 1998, a one-off release from their oldest shiraz block, a block that year-in, year-out was the first to ripen and always produced wines with the best flavour and texture.

They’d seen what others, including Kay Bros in McLaren Vale, had achieved in propagating new vines from those that had historically produced the best wines – and headed down the same path.

The Bowens ripped out two blocks of vines, one of diseased cabernet and another of shiraz that had been grafted onto merlot. At the same time they’d been marking the healthiest vines in the 2.5-hectare Ampelon vineyard.

Over the following two years they took cuttings from these to replant the two blocks that’d been ripped out. Doug doubled the vine density from four per panel to eight, with two canes per vine instead of four, but the same number of fruiting buds. Earlier trials had shown that this led to earlier ripening (important in the cool, southern end of Coonawarra) as well as being easier and cheaper to prune.

The denser planting gives similar grape yields per hectare but each vine produces only half the fruit of those replaced – twenty to thirty bunches each instead of forty to sixty, says Emma.

Emma and Doug expect to see the first fruit from these new plantings in 2009. Meanwhile a savage frost in spring 2006 wiped out what would’ve been the 2007 harvest on an adjoining 5.4-hectare block that the Bowens had bought in 1996.

The thirty-year-old vines were in poor health and the Bowens intended to pull them out eventually. But after the 2006 frost and ground-softening rain, Doug ripped the whole vineyard out. He replanted it with cuttings in November last year.

While the vineyard rejuvenation started with shiraz, the Bowens also identified their best cabernet sauvignon clone, based on wine quality, and have used this in the replanting program.

Emma says that their Ampelon shiraz clone and favoured cabernet clone, as well as producing high quality, give good yields and ripen early, important in beating the autumn cold.

As well as replanting parts of the vineyard, Doug converted the southernmost block of vines from spur-pruned to arched-cane pruning. As a result, Emma told me, the block weathered this year’s March heat wave and the vines looked in lovely balance – a good indicator of fruit quality, she reckons.

Emma says that all of this underlines what a very long-term venture grape growing is. “It takes a long time to get the understanding of your vineyard and, after thirty years, when you ask what you need to do, to decide to pull out half of it and start again”, she comments.

But all the vineyard changes that are about to yield better fruit, don’t explain why the 2006 shiraz, made in the middle of the rejuvenation, should be so much better than we’d seen for a while.

Emma attributes this to ‘being smarter in the winery, with more attention to detail’. With two palates at work on the tasting bench (Emma’s and Doug’s), there’s a more objective approach to each component and a more critical selection of what goes into each blend.

There’s a couple of winemaking tricks, too, admits Emma, including a bit of juice run off, to concentrate the wines. But, ultimately, she says, all of this richness and texture ought to come from the vineyard – and she expects it to.  ‘Texture and depth of flavour will go to another level in shiraz’, she believes, ‘and I hope for the same in cabernet sauvignon’.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008