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High-tech gadgets help make South Australia's finest

People who drink wine sometimes forget that it's an agricultural product, and as such heavily influenced by climate. When we talk of good vintages we really mean years when viticulturalists grew good grapes.

This week we focus on some exciting new wines from Wynns in South Australia. But first it's worth discussing the innovations that produced the fruit for these wines.

As well as being on the famous terra rossa or red soil, the Coonawarra mostly produces red wine — the region's 5,600 hectares of vines consist of 90 percent red grapes. Allen Jenkins, senior viticulturist at Wynns, said his company's holdings comprised about 15 percent of the best vines in the area, mostly on the terra rossa soil. This means Wynns control the biggest area under vines in the region.

Half of all the red Wynns grows is cabernet sauvignon. Their oldest cabernet was planted on the Johnson block in 1953 and their oldest shiraz dates from 1892, Jenkins said.

Most visitors perceive Coonawarra as flat. But Jenkins noted that the general elevation rises from 51.4 to 63 meters above sea level as you go north, and temperatures rise about 0.8 degrees C with each meter of elevation. “I have the difficult task of convincing people that the Coonawarra is not flat. I do know that the northern vineyards of Coonawarra are warmer than the southern.”

Summer heat can be intense, so Jenkins ensures that vine canopies are designed to protect the grapes. “Each bunch gets a hat,” he jokes. Viticulturalist Ben Harris confirmed Jenkins' protective attitude toward the grapes.

Wynns uses a combination of technology and human skill to choose when to pick. A technology known as plant cell density or PCD determines optimum ripeness. Vines are photographed from the air and PCD locates ripe areas. This information is fed into picking machines and these devices only pick ripe grapes, over time passing through a site several times.

The human touch is also involved. Winemakers will taste grapes two or three times a day as the time to pick arrives.

Some viticulturalists use PCD in other ways to help grapes grow. If a PCD survey shows low vigor in an area of a vineyard, they use that information to mulch and restore those vines.

Sensors in the vineyard detect changes in temperature, moisture levels and wind speeds — the things that cause mildew — and send alerts. Staff can then protect the vines, reducing the need to spray entire vineyards. This means less money is spent on chemicals and provides options for more organic methods of grape growing.

Wynns has introduced a new range of wines named after V&A Lane, the road that dissects the region east-west and divides it roughly in half. It contains some of the best vineyards in Coonawarra. The lane was named after Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert.

Winemaker Sarah Pidgeon sees V&A as a vehicle for experimentation, and a chance to showcase Wynns' wonderful old cabernet and shiraz vines. Wines from 2009, 2010 and 2012 were tasted. Pidgeon said 2009 was the coolest vintage, noting that the climate in Coonawarra “changes profoundly season by season.” All fruit was handpicked.

The 2009 V&A Lane shiraz is inky-black cherry in color with matching intense black fruit flavors. The oak contributes vanilla and mocha notes yet the tannins are soft, and the acidity tingles against the ripe fruit. Sarah Pidgeon said Coonawarra shiraz can be quite floral and “fun to play with.” She used whole-bunch fermentation, the stems adding structure to the wine.

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