WINEMAKERS don’t sleep during vintage, do they? There is so much to think about, so much to know, so much to do. It’s 9am on a sunny summer day, February 19, to be exact. In the back of the Margan’s winery complex just a stone’s throw west of Broke, a small team is busy unloading a four-tonne bin of just-picked shiraz grapes, guiding them through the chute where the grapes, skin and juice, are cooled and pumped into vast storage silos.
Andrew Margan – vigneron, winemaker, businessman – is in the middle of it all, pushing and prodding, talking and watching. This isn’t the first load of the day, harvest began at 5am, with shiraz taken from one of Margan’s Fordwich Hill vineyards by the time the sun came up. Standing by the unloading dock, there’s a short chat about the quality of the grapes – there’s not many shrivelled. “Generally in the Hunter with shiraz to get to the level of ripeness you have to shrivel them a bit, and you end up with a certain percentage that are overshrivelled, it’s a matter of balance,” Margan says. “This vineyard, because they are in water, they haven’t shrivelled but they’ve got to ripeness, which is something I cant remember seeing – such good fruit at that ripeness.” Considering the heavy summer rains, it’s a telltale sign of a good red vintage. Margan and I jump into his vehicle and drive five minutes away to Fordwich Sill, where he has acquired four blocks, about 80 hectares in total, over the 20 years he has run his own winery. He stops en route, stepping atop a huge rock outcrop to give me an overview of the location. “These are the vineyards I started with when I left Tyrrell’s in the mid-90s,” he says. “Fosters bought Lindemans and decided to sell off all their Hunter Valley assets . . . Back then they sold off all these vineyards. In ‘96 I managed to pick up one of the blocks. They subdivided into five. Over time I picked up three of the others, so I have four of the five.” He also manages the other block and has been taking its fruit for the last 10 years. “All on this Fordwich Sill, this red volcanic soil, very specific to Broke, with very specific plugs. That’s how this sill concept works. It’s lava that spills to the surface and rolls over a very specific area. So hard, it tends to stay on surfaces. It is quite unusual. And grows very good grapes. “I think Broke Fordwich as a sub region has very much the same influences as Pokolbin, which is the climate, which is the defining part of the style of Hunter Valley wines,” he says. “Eighty-five kilometres off the Pacific, with that Pacific influence. If you were here at 5am this morning it was quite cool, and moist, and that is what it was all night. Today it will get up to 34 degrees. So there can quite often be a 20 degree diurnal variation between night and day. “It’s that sort of climate that gives us the style of wine we have here. It affects the grape vines and the ripening grapes in such a way it gives us high acid, low sugar, ripe grapes. That is what gives us the style of Hunter Valley wine. “And within that, the red soil gives a certain degree of richness and a little more ripeness while still keeping its acidity, and again, a slightly different style, still Hunter Valley. My wines are a little bit different from all the others, not better or worse, just a little bit different.”
The industry and the public are in love with Margan’s “little bit different” wines.Halliday Wine Companion, the bible on wineries for the general public, gives Margan’s its top 5 Star rating. His wines are frequent award winners. And the winery restaurant, managed by his wife and business partner, Lisa, is well-known for its high standard and multiple industry honours. Today Margan has a lot on his plate. He’s been up since before 5am to supervise the machine-picking of one of the shiraz vineyards; now we’re checking on the taste, feel and ripeness of several more vineyards on the Fordwich Sill; there’s a late morning meeting at Margan’s restaurant (in the front end of the winery complex) with his Chinese agent; lunch with representatives of Wine Selectors and wine tourism officials to seal a deal; and the unexpected news his father, Frank, has just had a stroke at his nursing home in Newcastle. “I can only deal with one thing at a time,” Margan says. Margan drives us into a row of shiraz that hasn’t been picked yet. We get out and he selective picks some grapes to taste, suggesting I do the same. “Delicious” we agree. But it’s not that simple. “The thing you gotta look at in red grapes, it’s not just the sugar,” he says. “It’s clearly got good flavour and good sugar.But’s it about skin ripeness and seed ripeness in red grapes. “It’s not about that in white grapes, because it’s about where your tannin lives. Those tannins have got to be ripe. It is losing the skin so it’s got to be ripe. So the decision about when and when not to pick red grapes is based on all those factors. They all change independently.” When Margan tastes a grape, he’s also judging the mouth feel. “I put those berries in my mouth and chew them between my teeth and grind them down and they go without any bit of flavour in your mouth. That means the tannins are ripe basically. And your seeds crunch. “All the vines are trying to do is get the seed ripe so they can drop another seed in the ground and grow another grape. That’s what it’s all about. “Seed’s brown, which means it’s ready. When they are green, they taste green, the tannins taste green. It’s no good, not to make good red wine out of. “It’s all part of the process every day. Because they can change in 24 hours. “I’m out here twice a day every day tasting grapes, waiting for the right moment.” There’s science at play, too, as he’s also using a refractometer to measure sugar content. The combination of a sense of taste and scientific information gives him confidence that he knows what a certain reading tastes like, he knows the taste that signals readiness to harvest. Out here, the only creatures listening are the birds of prey circling overhead. This is a farmer with a passion. “Our vines are very low yielding,” he says. "We get about a tonne to the acre off these old vines. They are 50 years old. It’s very concentrated fruit, lovely flavour.” The subject of shrivel comes up again. There are few shrivelled grapes on these vines. “It’s risky to make a style with more shrivelled grapes,” he says. “But they can and do. “The Hunter is not about dead fruit. You can get that mostly out of South Australia. Our wines show their acidity and regional fruit character, which is different. And that’s what you want. You want wines that show life and lively flavours, not like that dead fruit flavour.” He’s not bagging others, just talking about other environments. “Again, it’s not better or worse, just different,” Margan says. “A lot of people love those big rich reds out of McLaren Vale and Barossa.” It’s a long timeline to reap the rewards of planning in the wine industry, but Margan has been willing to invest time to push innovation. All of the wines he produces are single vineyard. Cleverly, he’s created some blends through interplanting various grape varieties in the same vineyard, like tempranillo graciano shiraz and shiraz mourvedre, both award winners in their first vintage. “I like the Old World and that’s what this is about,” he says. “It’s more about where the wine came from than what the variety of the wine. It comes off this soil which gives you a unique style . . . it’s as much about the terroir of the vineyard as the variety.” This year he harvested and bottled his first vintage of albarino. It looks like he will reap the rewards for that move, too. “Five years ago I decided to bring albarino,” he says. “The Hunter Valley is the best place to produce it. The climate is closest that you get to Galacia, which is north-west Spain. It’s also warm maritime, like we are, which depends on early ripening and high acidity to create the style of wine. It’s a particularly textured, light body wine that has got wonderful mouthfeel. I can see, now that I’ve had my first crop, what it’s going to do here in the Hunter and it’s really exciting.” After 40 years in wine, his enthusiasm is admirable. He saved himself from his own success over a decade ago. “In 2002 we were a hot brand and things were flying. We got up to 60,000 cases and it was just too many,” he says. “I realised I had to employ a whole set of managers and then I’d be doing myself out of all the jobs I wanted to do and become someone who sits behind a desk. That’s not what I want to do. “I want to stay at the right size, around 30,000-case mark. That allows me to get my hands into winemaking and still run the vineyards, still sell it all and be able to do it all on a hands-on basis and enjoy it all.” Wine drinkers can toast that decision.