THE warm summer sun beats down on the neat lines of vines, a light breeze rustling the leaves now and then.
The rows of vines curve gracefully down the side of the hill, as Tony Hatch wanders up a row, carefully and methodically weaving tendrils of the vines behind wires as he goes.
Right now the grapes are small green buds in the dappled shade of the leaves, but Mr Hatch is already dreaming of the beautiful Italian vintage they will become.
For Mr Hatch, who owns Vale Creek Wines near Bathurst with his partner Liz McFarland, all the research and hard work that has gone into growing premium cool climate Italian wines has been worth every second.
Mr Hatch, a retired pilot, was looking for something ‘to keep him busy’, when the idea of growing wine began to ferment.
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He bought a 120-hectare farm near Bathurst, “with wine making in the back of my mind”, in 1995, and first ran sheep and cattle, as well as growing lucerne.
But Mr Hatch dreamed of seeing the paddocks turned into vineyards, and after trips to Italy and developing a love for Italian wines, it was time to make a change.
A trip to Bruce Chalmer’s vineyard and nursery on the banks of the Murray River sealed the deal.
But to learn the intricacies of growing Italian wine, Mr Hatch needed the advice of an expert.
And this was where Dr Alberto Antonini from Tuscany, Italy, helped guide them to build the thriving winery they have today.
Dr Antonini is an expert in growing Italian wines, and his advice proved crucial in setting up the winery for success right from the beginning.
“He told us the kind of vines we should grow here, depending on the climate and soil,” Ms McFarland said. “It was important that we had good quality clones to grow the fruit from.”
Cuttings from the best vineyards in Italy were brought to Australia, and after a lengthy stay in quarantine, were available from Mr Chalmers’ nursery.
“It took a lot of research, but it definitely paid off. The clones proved to be very reliable,” Mr Hatch said.
And from this stage, they have never looked back.
They began planning for their vineyard in 2002, and began growing vines around 2003.
They followed Dr Antonini’s advice devotedly, even to the point of planting the vines much more closely together than is often done.
The vines at Vale Creek are grown 2.4 metres apart, with a metre between each plant.
It was an exciting moment when they produced their first vintage in 2005 with fruit from a vineyard in Mudgee, and in 2008 they made their first vintage using their own fruit.
They now have 11,000 vines over 6ha, and grow Arneis, Pinot Grigio, Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Barbera and Rosato.
They also produce Vermentino, Lagrien and Moscato with fruit from Mr Chalmers.
And their most popular wine?
“Barbera is the most unusual variety, but the Sangiovese is the most popular,” Mr Hatch said.
The busy year in the vineyard begins with pruning in winter, and then the wait begins for ‘bud-burst’.
“Then you spend a few weeks panicking,” Mr Hatch said.
The threat of frosts at this crucial stage is a big worry.
In 2013, a huge black frost wiped out much of their fruit.
They then spray the vines with sulphur and copper to stop mildew.
“We don’t use any pesticides in the vineyard,” Ms McFarland said.
In November they focus on cutting out suckers, but one endless job is training the vines.
The vines are constantly trained with the help of three wires which are gradually lifted to help support the canopy.
During a vigorous season, they will also thin the thicker areas of leaves so the grapes have plenty of access to the light.
But these devoted growers aren’t the only ones keeping a keen eye on the blushing fruit.
Once the pea-sized fruit start to ripen, wattlebirds and crows are keen to have a taste, so nets must be placed over the vines.
“The crows eat the fruit, but the wattlebirds just damage the fruit, which is worse,” Mr Hatch said.
The frenzy of harvest takes place in March and April, depending on the season.
A team of around 20 pickers start in the cool of the morning to pick the fruit, then stop during the heat of the day.
The sugar content of the grapes is checked so they are picked at the right time.
The white wine grapes are destemmed and pressed, while the red wine grapes are not pressed, so the skins give the wine its lovely colour.
But all their hard work has paid off.
Their 2017 Pinot Grigio claimed a silver medal at this year’s National Cool Climate Wine Show, and their 2015 Dolcetto snagged a bronze.
Vale Creek Wines hosts events including lunches and jazz events, in which Mr Hatch plays.
- This story first appeared on The Land.