Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Grapes of Wrath

This weekend was harvest weekend, so we went up Sunday and Monday to pick grapes. The majority of the vines had already been machine picked several weeks ago and sent to a large winery that Dave's family has a contract with. They get to keep about 5-10% of the grapes for personal consumption, so every year they invite friends and family up for a weekend of merriment to help them pick these grapes. Dave's family is working with a local winery to develop their own label of wine, named Wattle Farm after the farm, which they hope to start exporting into America (soo....anyone interested? wink wink). Dave's parents went up on Saturday, and then Dave, his brother, sister, and I came up Sunday. Soon after, friends and family showed up, and everyone got to work preparing for a large bonfire. The womenfolk sat in the kitchen, drinking tea, chopping vegetables and gossiping, while the menfolk did manly things out doors like using power tools, fiddling with electric outlets, lifting heavy things, and shooting small animals (well, not the shooting small animals part). As an honored guest from America, I got to skip the mother-daughter vacuuming session and take part in an Aussie male bonding ritual, which involved driving a four-wheel drive with a trailer down back-country roads and over a dry creek bed into a small forest of Eucalypts, cutting up dead trees with a chainsaw, loading the wood onto the trailer, and then drinking beer. Australia is in the middle of its worst drought on record, meaning that the country around Adelaide, generally fairly lush, is dry as a bone, and there are lots of dead limbs lying on the ground. Even so, there are also a surprising number of trees that are still thriving, and after 6 months without water look like they could go for another 6 months or year. It's amazing when you think about the resilience of native species adapted to live such harsh conditions. On the drive back I saw a Kookaburra, not in an old gum tree unfortunately, but perched on the ruins of an old stone farmhouse, which was almost as good. When we got back I returned to the kitchen to help gossip and drink tea (I attempted to help with the vegetables, but to no avail.) Then as it got dark, we all went up to a fire pit and drank lots of beer and ate cheese while dinner cooked in coals in the ground. Many hours and many bottles of beer later (well, at least the beer made it feel like many hours), we switched to wine, and then several more hours later, dinner was ready. We had a beef stew with potatoes and chicken stew with dumplings, both of which were delicious. By that time it had grown dark and all the stars came out. I wish I knew more about constellations in the Northern Hemisphere so I could be suitably impressed by the differences. Yet even with my ignorance the stars were still impressive. Orion's belt was visible, as was the Southern Cross, the constellation on Australia's flag. Most impressive was the milky way, spread out across the middle of the sky. Dave's brother set up a telescope and I saw the rings of Saturn so clearly it looked as though someone had painted the image on the lens (and for all I know they had.)

The next morning we got up early (though not nearly as early as we had planned the night before) to pick grapes. This year, Australia's wine crop has been a disaster due to a combination of the drought and severe frosts in October. Dave's family lost about 2/3 of their crop, and many farmers have lost much more. In the Coonawara region, one of Australia's main wine producing areas, there were no fewer than 15 seperate frosts in the span of one month, and farmers there have lost on average 70% of their crop, with many not bothering to pick at all. As such, Dave's father was not optimistic about the quantity of grapes we would pick. Yet after we started, we found that there was a surprising volume of grapes, often in clustered in one area along a long row of vines, whereas other areas contained almost no grapes. The bunches of grapes and the grapes themselves were smaller, which actually meant better wine as the flavor would be more concentrated. Dave's family practices dryland farming, meaning they do not irrigate. Underneath the top layer of red soil (the famed terra rossa) lies a thin crust of sandstone, but if you break through that layer, the soil is quite porous, and will soak up lots of moisture. If you get rainwater to seep in and make sure the vine's rootsystems are deep enough, there is enough water there to nourish the plants in between rains, even in drought conditions. Given that the grapes hadn't been watered in many months, I was surprised at how healthy the fruit and vines looked. With picking grapes, you clip off the bunch as close to the top of the grapes as possible, and then send it to the winery. There they put it all in the wine, grapes, stem, and earwigs. Eventually the nongrape parts float to the top and are skimmed off (I think). We managed to pick almost two tons of grapes in about 5 hours of picking, more than anyone expected. There were even a few more kilos left, but after 5 hours we were all hungry and tired and it was beginning to get hot, so we went back and had a large picnic of cold chicken, meats, cheeses, salads, bread, and something called a custard square, which is custard in between two layers of pastry and then coated in vanilla frosting. (It seemed very British to me). Of course, we also had more wine. We went home not long after, tired and sun dazed, with nothing to do except wait for the wine. (As payment, everyone who picks gets a dozen bottles of wine. I'm hoping there aren't too many earwigs in my bottles : )
p.s. considering I spent all day outdoors in the Australian sun I didn't get too sunburned. I was pretty vigilant about sunscreen and hat, though there was one area I forgot: my lips. They're now a deeper red and beginning to peel. It's kind of an odd sensation.


Anonymous said...

We hear that the earwigs add to the intensity of the wine. Is it true that Australian wine has a higher level of protein??


Anonymous said...

Hi dan, how's N.Y.????
aunt nancy

Britta said...

Definitely : ) Actually the new measurement is the more earwigs in the wine, the more premium it is.