Bunches of juicy green-golden orbs hang still on the air above ancient grey sandy soils.
Today is the day that, for the 50th time, they will be harvested; crushed into a juicy pulp - called must - before being gently squished and squeezed by a slow-moving basket press.
Until then, though, the grapes hang still and silent, but for a fitful hint of wind which occasionally moves the odd speck of dust and sand from its current resting place.
The orbs hanging overhead, now dappled with rising sunlight, move in apparent sync and sympathy; animated, as if excited to have finally ripened and reached their imminent opening act, beginning this morning.
Vintage rolls around just once a year. One moment in a myriad of minutes over the course of a mere matter of months to pick, and to (hopefully) get things right. One shot in a series of shots to judge, to decide what to pick and when; unless Mother Nature, in her mercurial manner, has made that decision for you. One crucially important day over the course of an entire calendar year. Harvest day.
At two of the Hunter wine region's most prominent wineries, Tyrrell's and Lake's Folly, that day has arrived. One picking whites, the other picking reds. Chardonnay from Short Flat - the anonymous vineyard just across the road from the Tyrrell's front gate - and cabernet sauvignon, that most mysterious of wine grapes grown in the Hunter, here on an east-facing slope beside what once was dubbed the Hunter Valley's own Opera House.
Arrangements have been made. Teams assembled. Plans drawn. War room set.
"These are from the first block aren't they?," Pete Hickey, Tyrrell's vineyard leading hand, calls out across the old vine rows of chardonnay.
"Yeah mate," comes the reply, loud enough to be heard over the low rumble of an idling tractor that's dragging behind it the '5205' picking bin which is rapidly filling up with juicy, green-golden bunches of chardonnay grapes.
"Perfect," yells Pete.
Vineyard picking crews are dressed in lime-green and orange high-vis. An array of broad-brimmed cane hats from BCF, Billabong and Bunnings can be seen, moving above and between the vines.
They space themselves down along the vine rows, snips in hand, ready to pluck ripe bunches from the vine before tossing them into a bucket at their feet.
Hickey is the vineyard conductor, directing the logistics of the pick throughout the oldest patch of chardonnay vines on the Tyrrell's Short Flat site - the very same one that Murray Tyrrell planted in 1968 from cuttings "borrowed" off the old HVD vineyard just up the road.
"That was the first planting of chardonnay on this site," says Bruce Tyrrell, standing as overwatch between two vineyards of chardonnay, "which we call the Old Vines, on that side, and that there's the Well Block, because ... well ... that's where the well is."
The vines themselves look thick and strong, weathered, gnarled and resilient, after 53 years of being dry-grown (unirrigated) throughout heat and drought and wind and rain and all seasons in-between. They're there for one reason and one reason only. The wine these vines give is wonderful. World class, in fact, which is why getting that picking decision right is so vitally important.
"I hate to say it, but that's what the quality comes down to, getting that decision right," says Rod Kempe, Lake's Folly's winegrower for the past 20-odd years. "The decision to pick, today, right now, is the single biggest decision I ever have to make, every year."
Dark purple fruit comes streaming down the chute that begins its journey up among the rafters and steel beams which hold up the roof of the "Hunter Valley Opera House". The journey ends pointing down into one of six great concrete vats filling up fast with dark purple fruit.
Assistant winemaker, Peter Payard, stands upon the narrow landing, high above the vats, behind the crusher-destemmer that whirs as it goes, shearing berries from their stalks, sending them tumbling down the chute. For now, his job is to tip bin after bin of this pristine fruit which has just been picked off the Block One site - the first of the Folly vineyards to be planted to cabernet sauvignon by Max Lake himself, in 1963 - into the whirring crusher, before gravity does the rest.
"Is that full?," calls Kempe, shouting up to his offsider, standing on the landing.
"Yep ... That's full," Payard replies.
"Righto, I reckon we go across to this one, then," Kempe yells back.
After some eight months of meticulous farming - planning, preparing, responding, reacting - the fruit is finally in the house.
"It's always a nervous time of year," says Lake's Folly vineyard manager, Jason Locke.
"Waiting for things to ripen, looking at the weather forecast, hoping that the rain stays away. You often hear people talk about a normal season here, but I really don't know if there is such a thing."
At Short Flat, the picking bins continue to fill up, fast. Bruce Tyrrell now stands on the back of the tractor, hands in the picking bin, sorting out bunches of chardonnay, assisting the full-timers, Tamara and Marine. He strips off any berries that don't look quite right, and has a taste of the ones that do.
"This is all for quality control, you know. You can never be too meticulous at times like this," he says, spitting out the seed.
"In fact, Andrew (Pengilly, Tyrrell's vineyard manager) and I say that we always agree on one thing, that there was nothing wrong with the fruit when it left the vineyard."
Picking bin '5205' has already been sent up to the winery and passed through the crusher-destemmer, breaking the berries into a soupy must that gets collected directly into the stainless-steel basket that otherwise sits within the blue, Italian-built hydraulic basket press; the one with the Skeletor bobble-head guarding the controls.
"Not really sure who started that, but he's been our mascot at vintage time for a while now," Chris Tyrrell explains, flicking Skeletor's head with his finger.
"Acids are up, this year. It's been a cool summer, almost the exact opposite of last year, with lots of cloud cover and a fair bit of rain about. So, the fruit has had lots of hang time, out on the vine. That generally means nice flavours should develop."
The smell from the freshly crushed fruit is practically intoxicating; sweet, lemon blossom florals. The basket is lined with a shade-cloth-like material to filter out any solids and only allow the grape juice to pass through. A large, flat, stainless-steel ram slowly drops down onto the must, applying gentle pressure from above, squishing the fruit, squeezing out the juice.
The juice then drains down into a collection tub, to pool, before being pumped away into an empty and awaiting tank, somewhere back within the winery itself. This is the juice that will soon ferment - that virtually magical process - whereby the yield from the vine is transformed into wine by tiny, hungry, microscopic yeast, all frothy and foamy; guided, of course, by the skilful hand of Andrew Spinaze, Tyrrell's chief winemaker since 1989.
"We used to use the wooden one that's still there in the old winery until it broke," Spinaze says.
"So we bought this press from Italy, because I wanted to keep using the basket press technique. It really suits our chardonnay well. For one thing, you get less colour pick-up, which can sometimes be an issue in warmer regions, like the Hunter.
"The other thing is that it keeps the acids in check, more naturally, because it's just a gentle, static push. That just means I don't have to adjust too much later on. The finished wine is that much finer, more elegant, I suppose."
A few days later, underneath the angular eves of Lake's Folly, enough time has passed for the yeast to have enlivened themselves to begin to leaven the juice and, slowly, transform it into wine. All six vats within the Folly winery are now full of fermenting red fruit. A cap of skins, seeds and the occasional stalk sits firm on top, shielding what preciousness lies beneath; a pretty pink foam of thick froth and bubble; future wine, in time.
"Doesn't that just smell beautiful, I mean truly ... and the colour too is just gorgeous," says Kempe, smiling, while plunging the vat to release carbon-dioxide and any trapped heat in order to even out the temperature.
Cap management is the way winemakers extract colour, flavour, and tannin in red wine. Typically, Kempe and Payard take turns to perform this technique, three to four times per day, which helps to yield more colour and tannin, and maintain temperature control, so that the fermenting wine can develop at a slow and steady pace. Punching down, using a long-handled pole with a small disc attached at one end is a gentle way of disturbing the cap, releasing heat and, essentially, making great wine, like the distinctive Lake's Folly Cabernets.
"This is the easy bit, to be honest with you," Kempe says, still punching and plunging the cap.
"Most of the hard work has already been done, out in the vineyard. The trick, now, you see, is to be careful, to be deliberate, and try your best not to stuff it up," he says, chuckling over a bubbling patch of pink effervescent.
The final act
Soon enough, both these wines will be put to rest in various barrels, to age and mature, slowly but surely, over time. Then, in a further few years' time, these two wines - Tyrrell's Vat 47 Chardonnay and Lake's Folly Cabernets - will be ready for their release dates.
Both wines will be available to purchase and either be opened and drunk right away, or stored and stowed for even longer, some in grand cellars, storage sheds, or specialty wine fridges, others in boxes, under the stairs, in a drawer, or at the bottom of a cupboard, protected by jumpers. All, however, waiting for that one special moment in a myriad of moments, which come and go over the course of a calendar year; the all-important picking decision of when it's to be opened and enjoyed with a partner, with friends and family members - the ones with whom you want to share such a fine tipple of wine with, and appreciate all the time and energy it has taken, just now, just to get to their lips.
To sip, to savour, to sit back and sink into the joy and pleasure that wine brings.
Then, in that final act - when the wine is tasted and its meaning is unlocked - that crucial picking decision will come to fruition, and all of this hard work will have all been worth it, in the end.
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