Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Mollydooker secret: Sparky unveils the magic of his vines

Mollydooker Wines definitely coax something special from their vines. Using young, high-yielding shiraz grapevines, Mollydooker wines show boldness, layers, depth and balance that resemble more those you would expect from old, low-yielding vines. What's the secret?

On a recent visit to McLaren Vale, Australia, the region where Mollydooker is based, we stopped in for a visit with winemaker Sparky Marquis and his general manager and Mom, Janet Gawith. Sparky was more than generous in his explanations of why Mollydooker is such an unusual collection of excellent-value wines; and why the real secret is in the vines.

As we talked, Sparky poured us a glass of Goosebumps, a sparkling shiraz. In an earlier tasting, I found the Goosebumps combination of effervescence and dry shiraz a bit puzzling. While in Australia the day before our visit, I had an opportunity to try a couple of other sparkling shiraz. That seemed to tune my palate, so to speak. So this time, I found that the creamy depth of Mollydooker shiraz actually contrasted nicely with the bubbles.

As Sparky talked, some of the reasons why Mollydooker is a special sort of wine label became clear. First, understand that Sparky, along with Sarah, his wife and winemaking partner, have been associated with this business for most of their lives. Sparky's Mom Janet has been involved with winemaking in the cooler Margaret River area of Australia; and Sarah's parents are managing directors of the Fox Creek winery right in McLaren Vale.

Sparky has always taken a strong probing, almost academic interest in how grapes grow and what that means for resulting wines. His most fundamental question: Why have the best wines ALWAYS come historically from old, low-yielding vines? And a corollary: Do you HAVE to have old, low-yielding vines to generate these kinds of wines?

If you can answer "No" to the second question, then you have unearthed a way to provide insanely good wines at popular prices. Since Mollydooker aims to provide wines whose quality is two price points above their cost to consumers, you can see that answering "No" to that question is imperative.

For Sparky, the way young vines with good yields can be made to act like old vines with their stingy yields (along with their outstanding flavor characteristics) is through an aggressive and strategic watering program. As he spoke, Sparky sketched out the program for me on a sheet of paper. You can see that here:

It is an intensive program, requiring week-in and week-out testing of vines and their conditions and needs. But let me try to put it briefly into layman's terms:

First, build an excellent canopy of leaves for the vines in the spring. This creates a healthy base for the year's growth and production. The vine happily begins its routine seasonal work of budding fruit, fleshing the fruit out and developing deeper roots and a stronger frame.

Second, once the canopy is built and the vine is thriving, essentially shut down water to the vine to put it onto the verge of starvation. That causes the vine to pull its energy away from growing leaves, and even away from focusing on its fruit. Instead, the vine is focused on survival, on keeping its basic frame intact for another year. In effect, the vine is saying, "Forget growth, forget the next generation of life that would come from my grapes. I've got to keep myself alive." Apparently, this survival attitude on the part of the vine is what brings some real terroir into young vines. You may think that older vines are just doing this as a matter of course - coughing and sputtering their way from one year to the next - happy to make fruit when they can, but mostly concerned with seeing another day dawn.

Third, once there's evidence that the vine is on the verge of starvation and has entered survival mode, bring the water back up. Refresh the vine. Don't refresh it so much that it begins happily creating a bigger canopy of leaves. Instead, refresh it just enough so that no longer worries only about survival, but is willing to think about reproducing to ensure the next generation - i.e., a focus on the fruit.

Finally, keep the vines focused on their reproduction through harvest. You don't want to send them into starvation again; and you don't want them focused on growing new leaves and tendrils.

So, it's a pretty intense process. And the management of it involves meticulous record-keeping and some creative vineyard techniques.

For example, the approach to knowing when a vine has reached "survival mode" goes something like this: Without water, the vine leaves and tendrils will wilt. When you add a bit of water, they will generally recover. If that happens, the vine hasn't yet entered survival mode. So test the vines every now and then with a couple hours of water. If they recover, starve them more. When the vines DON'T recover, you know they've gone into survival mode. Then go ahead and give them a solid eight hour dosing of water to bring them back to life. Imagine how harrowing a notion this must be to vineyard owners.

But what results! Before the discussion, Sparky had asked me what I thought the age of vines and yield was for the grapes used in the Mollydooker line. I compared them to what I knew of other highly extracted wines - I suggested 40-year-old vines with 1-ton-per-acre yields. Sparky told me that, in fact, the vines used for Mollydooker averaged six years in age and yielded 3.8 tons-per-acre. Remarkable.

I hope this gives you some insight into the behind-the-scenes work that makes special wines. The Mollydooker site has additional information on its watering program here.

1 comment:

  1. Very good Sparky! I have observed a similar practice over here in California. It makes for smaller berries hence better skin to juice ratio. Lower yields but higher quality. Nice article!