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An Interview with Dudley Brown from Inkwell Wines

An Interview with Dudley Brown from Inkwell Wines
by Michael Davey © 2011

Here’s and edited interview with Dudley Brown owner and viticulturist of Inkwell wines, McLaren vale.  Inkwell grows limited-release, hand-made estate wines from sustainably managed vineyards. Dudley currently makes an Inkwell Shiraz, Inkwell Primitivo (Zinfandel) and Inkwell Viognier and this year will see new plantings of Mouvedre/Mataro, Grenache and Cabernet at Inkwell.

Wine growing during 2011 in Australia has been difficult with extremely adverse weather conditions.  High rain fall and very high humidity has in some cases prevented many areas to forgo a crop all together.  We started off by asking Dudley how this affected Inkwell and McLaren Vale...

WineSeek: What has been the extent of the fungal infection at your vineyard in 2011 and how badly has the area been affected generally?

Dudley Brown: McLaren Vale had very low disease pressure compared to other regions in 2011. With a naturally low disease pressure site (hilly, windy, small crops, good neighbours), Inkwell sailed through this year with our best vintage ever quality wise.  Lower beaumes at ripening, slower development because of lower temperatures, all good here!

WineSeek: How do lower beaumes and slower development manifest in the completed wine compared to a warmer vintage?

Dudley Brown: Excessive heat during ripening (January to March in McLaren Vale) can bring sugars (beaume) on more quickly than flavours. So slower is good for balanced flavours to develop and integrate. But, too slow is bad too. Vines are all about balance of canopy and fruit load, some stress but not too much, moisture but not too much (or at the wrong time) etc... It’s a constant balancing act with every season teaching us something new.
With the wine we have in barrel from 2011, we have very full flavour profiles, dusty fine tannins, appropriate acidity, long finishes and less alcohol than usual. At this stage, it is the best we've ever produced from a vintage that was unkind to many.

WineSeek:  I suppose a lot of viticulture still relies on its success or failure on the year to year trial and error and learning from experience, despite the technological advances made over a long period of time. Can you tell me the three biggest lessons you have learned and how they have led you to produce better grapes and ultimately better wine?

Dudley Brown: 1) surround yourself with the best people who are all much smarter than yourself at what they are good at.  2) hard work (more the better).  3) persistence. It’s a lot like life, but with more wine!

WineSeek: In a recent press release you talked about 'the waiting game' - the debate with yourself as to when to release the wine, in this case the 2008 Shiraz. What is it about the wine that finally allows you to make that decision with some confidence? Is there a single or set of characteristics that present themselves?

Dudley Brown: The Waiting Game beats the crying game! Seriously, every vintage shows and teaches different things. In 2008, we felt the wine warranted additional barrel ageing (twenty-seven months that vintage). Then we bottled. Once in the bottle the wine goes through what is known as "bottle shock" for six weeks or so. Then, we just wait until we're happy with the overall balance and integration that bottle ageing provides. Screw cap closures are a bit maddening in that they slow down development just as the reduce spoilage. So, in an effort to reduce bottle variability and spoilage due to cork taint, we also slow down development. Sometimes a wine starts to look smart after six weeks, sometimes much longer depending on a lot of variables.

While there are no "right" answers, I just take the point of view that I don't offer things until I’m happy that they are representative of all the years of work that went to get them to that point. In the case of the 2008, I thought the oak tannin from the new French oak we used hadn't settled into the fruit as completely as I would have liked but have seen it integrating and ageing beautifully in the last six months. My guess is that it will improve for another 8-15 years in bottle before reaching its best. Just another question of balance!

WineSeek:  I note you are intending to plant Mouvedre/Mataro, Grenache and Cabernet this year.  Do you have any wines in mind such as a straight cab or a GSM or will you just wait and see how things develop.

Dudley Brown: We are grafting a 2 acre block of Viognier to Mouvedre and Grenache. When we planted the block originally, we were kicking ourselves that we didn't plant reds in it because of the geology profile we discovered (think two metre holes just to put in a post because we had to remove so much ironstone!) while planting. But, once planted, the vines had to mature to a point where they could be grafted. Then we had a three year drought, etc... They're finally ready.

WineSeek: How much influence does current consumer popularity of particular varieties have on your decision as to what to plant and what to make?

Dudley Brown:  For better or worse, we think in terms of best varieties for the site and not immediate market opportunity.  We're committed to growing extraordinary fruit and then figuring out what to do with it. We know the site is great with the best Grenache previously grown in McLaren Vale on the next hill over with a similar aspect. Unfortunately, that old block died for lack of water in the drought. We'll have to see what St. Vincent (patron saint of vine growers) gives us before we can decide what becomes of the fruit in two years when we get our first crop. As a single vineyard only brand, blends and straight varietals will all be considered.

We are keeping another patch of Viognier so we can continue to produce a wine that we think is improving dramatically every year but can't use as much as we have planted. We know we can't produce Condrieu style wine from it but are increasingly excited about new ways we are finding to produce a style in the 12's instead of the 14's of alcohol.

One acre of Cabernet will be grafted into a patch of Zinfandel / Primitivo that is too vigorous because of its low lying (water runs downhill apparently) topography (think bunches the size of footballs!). Cabernet loves wet feet so we'll give that a crack too. I grew up on great Californian and French Cabs/ blends in the States and am stoked to grow some but it will be a funny looking block with Zin and Cab in the same rows! We'll have to handpick the lot but it’s about getting the right fruit in the right places to make great wine.

WineSeek: Is there any reason your only white plantings are Viognier? Have you ever thought about Riesling, Chardonnay or Pinot Gris or do you feel a closer affinity with reds such as those you grew up with in America ?

Dudley Brown:
The Viognier was planted under contract to a winery. Unfortunately, this wasn't a smart decision for the long run of our vineyards by us. The site is best suited to reds - it is thin sandy loam over ironstone, calc and clay. We just have too much Viognier for our production needs now so we are using this as an opportunity to provide a better range of wines for our site and customers. Generally, McLaren Vale just doesn't get cold enough in winter and is too warm in summer to produce the level of white wine we want to produce. We want to produce stunning wine, not pretty good wine. There is plenty of pretty good wine around already.

Viognier is well suited to the site temperature-wise and we are considering some other whites - Savignan, Albarinho, Rousanne, and Marsanne for some of the remaining Viognier block. We think the varieties you mention are better suited to other sites. We could never compete with the quality of Clare and Eden Rieslings for instance.

WineSeek: Thanks, Dudley for giving us a fascinating insight into Inkwell and the creation of fine wine.  Good luck with the current vintage and may Saint Vincent be with you!
If your interested in more information on Dudley's wines visit Inkwell Wines
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