Flying from Europe’s approaching autumn into Australia’s blossoming spring, I was reminded what a well-coordinated spectacular the changing of the seasons is. Warm puffs of air in hectic spring winds, lighter mornings, officious birds and wafts of jasmine infused through it all like a tune. It’s like a two-handed face slap from Mother Nature to ensure we’re paying attention.
Is it any wonder so many have conveyed their delight at the season’s arrival in poems, sonnets, symphonies and paintings? Writer Annie Dillard expresses my current curiosity with the change of seasons best in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “So, I have been thinking about the change of seasons. I don’t want to miss spring this year…I want to be there on the spot the moment the grass turns green. I always miss this radical revolution.”
Where better to catch spring than in a vineyard? It’s a magnificent symphony performed to the waves of Mother Nature’s baton. It starts in space when one side of the earth moves closer to the sun, like pulling the blind up on winter, letting the light in and waking the vines from dormancy. When the sap starts running, buds swell, then burst, unfurling into shoots that flicker like green flames on the tips of vines. These shoots sprout flowers, which then become grapes that are eventually turned into wine. A turn of the earth in outer space to a glass of wine. Wonderful, billion-years-in-the-making stuff.
The pleasure of the season is not lost on vignerons. Julian Langworthy, chief winemaker of Deep Woods Estate in Margaret River practically bellows standing in his Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard: “It looks beautiful out here. Hope renews!” Tessa Brown, formerly of Kooyong Estate and now Vignerons Schmölzer & Brown in Victoria’s Beechworth, similarly: “It’s beautiful! Everything is green. The flowers are out. Your personal rhythms change as you get sunshine and start walking the rows again.” Rudi Bauer of Quartz Reef in Central Otago says: “The sun is up earlier, the smell is changing, you feel the urge in the air and the energy from the soil.” Stuart Proud, viticulturist of Thousand Candles in the Yarra Valley says: “Everything just starts leaping from the earth.”
Despite romantic notions, it’s not all Boticelli’s La Primavera with vignerons standing around worshipping Venus. There’s a lot of work to be done. “October and November is a time of rapid growth – vines can grow 15-20 centimeters per day. There’s a lot of canopy management coming,” explains Stuart. “It’s also a good time for soil work, to feed the vines and get them rumbling. It’s the time you say ‘Great, it’s spring’ but there’s also a sense of ‘here we go again’.”
Spring can also be treacherous on vineyards. New buds that hold this year’s and future seasons potential are vulnerable to Mother Nature’s moods – hail, wind, and frost. Entire harvests have been ruined by a lashing of hail or the wicked kiss of an overnight frost, as was the case in 2006 when a series of devastating frosts took out many regions in southeastern Australia. Helicopters, frost fans, temperature alarms and nerves are all on stand-by to deflect potential risk.
New wines are also released to the world in spring. Individual expressions of the previous seasons captured by winemaking. None signifies spring more than rosé. The 2015 Vignerons Schmölzer & Brown Prêt-à-Rosé is a delightfully dry style made from Sangiovese and Pinot Noir from Beechworth. A restrained and savoury nose with breathy hints of crushed red fruits, a textural palate with a pithy grip and refreshing acid tingle. “In very warm, dry growing seasons wines can have an urgency to them, they jump from the glass,” says Tessa Brown. “The 2015 rosé reflects the almost benign growing season. There is a charming subtlety to the wine.”
Despite what the calendars say, spring doesn’t arrive on a specific date, like an A380 from London. Vineyards burst gradually, depending on latitude, altitude, season and variety. Margaret River Chardonnay is well underway but Cabernet Sauvignon just popped. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the Yarra Valley are on but Shiraz only this week. Warmer McLaren Vale and Clare Valley vineyards are frilly with leaves, as both burst weeks ago. Adelaide Hills Chardonnay and Pinot Noir leapt in September and parts of Tasmania a week later. In New Zealand, Marlborough is on but down south, cool Central Otago waits. South Africa is go, Argentina and parts of Chile, too. Region after region, country after country, dialling into spring, like sections of an orchestra tuning to the concertmaster’s prompt.
Watching the vineyards change is almost as endearing as the sighs of adoration from vignerons posting photos of new buds on social media. “We’re on!” “It’s here!” “V16 is go!” Digital uploads of excited delight where once it was a sonnet.
Of course, changes in the southern hemisphere mean autumn is arriving in the north. Relieved of their fruit, vines make final preparations for next season before shutting down for winter. Roots spread wide and deep and leaves soak up the last of the sun’s rays, storing it as energy to make budburst next year. Still spinning at a thousand miles an hour, a side of the earth turns away from the sun, the temperature cools, the leaves fall, the sap descends and the vines doze into dormancy for winter.
As I flew across the hemispheres, I imagined crossing a line that creeps across the earth’s surface like a sunrise, flicking on the lights and dialling up the heaters for spring, or pulling off the leaves and blowing out the candles for winter. But budburst moves toward us in metres, degrees, air pressures and other minutiae imperceptible to our senses. There is no start and stop, the earth in constant motion. As Annie Dillard wrote, “I could no more catch spring by the tip of the tail than I could untie the apparent knot in the snakeskin; there are no edges to grasp. Both are continuous loops.”