Australian turns waste water into winning wines

World-beating winemaker Michael Fragos sees his South Australian vineyards as the perfect spot to grow grapes — the soil, climate and afternoon sea breeze are all ideal.

The only problem is the lack of water in one of the country’s driest states, a hurdle that he and other McLaren Vale vignerons have overcome by using treated waste water to irrigate the deep green vines.

A visit to the area is testimony to the long-running drought and scorching Australian climate — any land where vines are not growing is crackling dry.

Fragos said a decision by local growers taken almost a decade ago to use treated effluent piped from the South Australian capital Adelaide for irrigation had kept the vineyards alive.

“Five years ago people were turning their noses up at it,” said the chief winemaker at the Chapel Hill Wine winery. “But now it’s the only way you can grow grapes.”

The irrigation has not harmed McLaren Vale wines, a point made emphatically by the charismatic Fragos last November when he won the title of world winemaker of the year at London’s 2008 International Wine and Spirit Competition.

Judges for the competition described Fragos’ wines as “fine textured” and as having a “seamless, silky texture with beautiful balance” and “supple tannins and long, full fruited finish”.

They also noted Chapel Hills’ water conservation techniques which include recycling winery wastewater through a series of reed beds to use it for irrigating the vineyards.

Fragos said wineries had to be highly efficient with their water usage.

“But the last thing we want is to be putting something back on our vineyard that is high in any mineral element that would be detrimental,” he said.

Amy Richards, the viticulture officer at the McLaren Vale Grape Wine Tourism Association, said rigorous testing of the waste water irrigation scheme had failed to detect any unwanted impurities in the soil or fruit.

About 40% of vineyards in the area use the treated water, which is not drinkable but safe to use on grapes and some other crops, she said.

“I think the severity of drought here in South Australia has made people realise that we have to look beyond using drinking water to irrigate our vines,” she said.

“We have to get over the ‘ick’ factor with reclaimed water.”

Fragos said the McLaren Vale region east of Adelaide was ready for greater exposure.

But the 39-year-old admitted it will be hard to steal the limelight from what he terms “almost the stereotyped wine regions of Australia” — South Australia’s Barossa Valley and Coonawarra, and the Hunter Valley north of Sydney.

“Even though we’ve come a long way in the last 10 years, there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Fragos said from his office surrounded by vineyards.

“McLaren Vale has never had, even though it’s quite an old region, what the Barossa has got with Penfolds,” he said in reference to the label which produces the undisputed king of Australian wines, Penfolds Grange.

“There’s 50 small vineyards, there’s only so much you can do.”

Fragos, who grew up in the McLaren Vale, is quick to point out the region’s attributes, such as its maritime climate, which he said make it ideal for winemaking despite a dramatic variation in soil type.

Even with summer temperatures soaring above 35° Celsius, the coastal location means the heat and sunshine are tempered by a cooling sea breeze by late afternoon.

“Some people say there are some similarities to the Bordeaux [in France], but the soils are quite different. The climate, yes,” he said.

But he keeps coming back to the issue of the dry weather — some of which is a boon for grape growers.

“There’s no rainfall in summer, we don’t get frost, we don’t get humidity,” he said. “We don’t get some of the perils associated with grape growing.”

Even with irrigation, though, grapegrowers still need heavy winter rains and these were not forthcoming in 2006, leading to a lean 2007 vintage.

“Last year was a difficult year,” Fragos said.

“It was a horrifically small vintage for everybody. Most grape growers probably only produced about 30%.”

This time round the rains have been sufficient and combined with the increased demand for grapes and wine, he is looking to keep on producing subtler McLaren Vale wines which he thinks better showcase the region’s characteristics.

It’s a mission he arrived with at Chapel Hill, after 14 years at fellow McLaren Vale winery Tatachilla, in early 2004.

The results, he hopes, are “wines that are reasonably rich and powerful but at the same time not losing sight of style. Wines that are powerful but graceful”.

He sees this as part of a move away from the heavy “tannic monster”.

“People are starting to think more about style, not just weight, and making the wines more food friendly,” he said. “And making the wines more intriguing, really.”

In some ways, Fragos is an unlikely winemaker. His parents grew grapes which they sold to wineries and kept their own “ritualistic barrel of grenache” and there was always wine around, but the vineyard failed to support the family.

“From my point of view, the wine industry was quite tarnished,” he said.

“I got to a point where I finished science [at university] and the options were to be a scientist or a teacher.”

Instead, a friend encouraged him to do a course in winemaking. And when he finished that, he found a job at Tatachilla where he worked his way through the ranks to end up as that label’s chief winemaker. And found that he loved the work.

“I really loved the industry and the lifestyle and the concept of creating a product that brings enjoyment to people,” he said. – AFP

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