July 2020 sees us celebrate a major milestone for our property and wine brand – Poonawatta. 140 years ago a small shiraz vineyard was planted in Eden Valley, Barossa, South Australia. This is the story of the vineyard and how it has inspired our wine brand – Poonawatta.
While drovers and squatters moved through the area from the late 1830s, Poonawatta’s European history began in 1860, when German immigrant Ferdinand Vorwerk settled north of the village of Eden Valley. A well was dug, a home built from local stone, crops sown, and in 1880 a small Shiraz vineyard was established.
The property was named Poonawatta, from the local Peramangk aboriginal language.
In 1890, Poonawatta was purchased by Colonel John Temple, on his retirement from the British army. Temple set about planting more vines, along with a dairy, piggery, fowl house, and geese yard. An old hollow red gum near the creek was used for smoking hams. A pruner’s hut was built to accommodate the vineyard work teams.
The Temples’ left Poonawatta in 1922. The WW1 soldier settlement scheme saw the 250-acre property split into thirds, and sold to Bartholomaeus, Monteith, and Kommler. Bartholomaeus owned the homestead block, and the Vorwerk Shiraz vineyard was owned by Monteith.
Directly east of Poonawatta is the substantial Heggie grazing property, Burn Brae. Settled in 1860 by James Heggie 1st, it was James’ grandson Colin Heggie and great-granddaughter Sue Holt (nee-Heggie) who jointly changed the direction of Poonawatta. In 1966, Sue was living in Adelaide, newly married to husband John, and missing the country life. In September of that year, Poonawatta was on the market and going to auction. Having just started a family and built a home in Adelaide, they were in no position to purchase a farm.
Sue’s father Colin liked a drink, and with a few under his belt, he attended the auction. It must have been a good day; Colin was in a buoyant mood for sure. The auction came and went, and later that day Sue received a phone call from her father.
“How did the auction go? Who bought Poonawatta,” asked Sue.
“You did,” replied Colin. “And you owe me ten thousand dollars!” And that’s how Poonawatta came into the Heggie-Holt family.
In February 1971, Sue and John purchased a 20-acre block of land from Monteith; the block with the original Vorwerk Shiraz vineyard, and the 1880 vines were again part of the Poonawatta property.
The Origin of Poonawatta The 1880 Shiraz
In the winter of 1880, German settler Ferdinand Vorwerk, with the support of some local labour including Augusta Wegner, planted 24 rows of Shiraz vines near a small creek on the eastern slopes of Flaxman Valley. This was the first vineyard planted in the Eden Valley area; then defined by the proximity to local towns, rather than as a region.
Fourth-generation Eden Valley local, Sue Holt, and husband John, purchased the Poonawatta property in 1966, and the vineyard block in 1971. The vines, then in their 90s had fallen into disrepair, with collapsed trellises and cattle roaming freely through the vineyard. Moving the cattle out was easy; the re-trellising more time consuming, and it took several years to bring the vineyard back into production.
It was Augusta Wegner’s grandson, Doug Wegner, who confirmed that the vineyard was planted in 1880. In 1998 Doug came to collect some cuttings from the old vines. He told us how his grandfather had badgered him for years about getting cuttings from the ‘oldest vineyard in Eden Valley’. His grandfather maintained it was during the winter of 1880 when he helped plant the vineyard. So how was he sure it was 1880? Well, that was the year that Augusta married Doug’s grandmother.
140 years on, this is a small vineyard by any standards. Affectionately called “the elders”, the surviving vines are some of the oldest in Australia. The gnarled and contorted vines reflect their years, with twisted and split trunks delivering their precious harvest each vintage.
For many years the fruit was sold to Barossa wineries. In 1991 we started taking a small portion for ourselves. These early winemaking adventures were great fun, but they created more than just wine. An idea was seeded, and that seed grew into a dream beyond just selling grapes. As the years went by the dream took shape, fuelled by a growing sense of custodianship, and a desire to create something meaningful from the soil under our feet.
In 2002 we produced the first Poonawatta 1880 Shiraz, and this wine is now firmly entrenched as the cornerstone of the Poonawatta brand, and the flagship wine of the portfolio.
Poonawatta’s Aboriginal History – The Peramangk People
In 1967, a year after Sue and John Holt purchased the Poonawatta property, the daughters of Colonel John Temple paid a visit. Colonel Temple purchased Poonawatta in 1890, and Gwen and Eleanor Temple hadn’t been back since 1922. They shared their memories of their time at Poonawatta, and the experiences and interactions with the local Peramangk People.
By the time the Temples arrived, European settlement had encroached on much of Peramangk territory, however, encounters still occurred from time to time. They spoke of occasional interactions with the local aboriginal groups, of corrobborees near the river, and of providing flour, sugar and tea to passing clan members.
There was a large camp south-west of the property by the river and a smaller seasonal camp on the creek flats east of the homestead. West of the house a large hollowed red gum was used for shelter and storage. (It was subsequently used by the Temples for smoking ham and bacon.) A few kilometres to the south of Poonawatta are cave paintings, and to the west in Kaiserstuhl Conservation Park, ancient rock engravings.
It is not clear whether the original settler Vorwerk, or the subsequent owner Temple, gave Poonawatta its name, but sisters Temple said the Poonawatta family group visited the area and was possibly the group that camped on the creek flats during Vorwerk and Temples tenure.
“The blacks wander about in the day-time, and at night sleep in a shelter made of the branches of trees … I can hear them singing one of their corroborees… about 100 yards distant from the door. I went the other night to see them and found them all sitting stark naked around the fire … They had been feasting on the fat of a bullock, which we had given them … We found a large lizard beside them, which they had put by for their next meal. They are not, generally, very communicative, as they suspect the white men; but this family appear to be an exception to such reservedness; and I learnt several native words from them.” – A 1842 settlers account describing a native encampment he had seen in Flaxman Valley.
Sustainability and the Environment
Poonawatta takes its name from the Peramangk Aboriginal people, poona meaning “good/healthy/fertile”, and watta meaning “a person’s land or country”. Terms that sit well with the environmentally sustainable approach in managing the Poonawatta property.
Our environmental management commitment is the framework for our sustainable farming practices, founded on continuous improvement of environmental outcomes.
Biodiversity starts with soil health, the understanding of the importance of soil biota, and the use of organic soil improvement practices. Native grasses grow between the vines, and the vineyard hosts a variety of beneficial insects. Wind-breaks are planted to local native species, along with fruiting trees that ripen at the same time as the grapes, acting as a natural diversion to visiting birds.
Fungal spraying is minimal and in line with organic principals. Weed control is largely managed through mowing and under-vine mulching, along with sheep grazing post-harvest. Watercourses and hillsides have been replanted to native vegetation, creating habitat for wildlife, reducing erosion and improving water quality.
Using the principal of the “canary in the coal mine”, we actively monitor the bird species on the Poonawatta property. Pleasingly, our bird list continues to grow, with wrens, robins, lorikeets, and butcher birds joining the more typical species seen in the vineyard.
The under-vine ecosystem supports a plethora of insects, reptiles and all-important worms. Kangaroo’s call the vineyard home, and echidnas are evident along the creek lines and revegetation areas. Eastern brown and red-bellied black snakes are common. Bearded dragons are often seen in the vineyards, with blue tongue and shingleback lizards in the revegetation areas, along with long-necked tortoises in the dam. Concerningly, frogs are not as common these days, but we still see several species on the property.
“We are custodians; every decision is balanced between the now, the next year, the next decade, and the next generation.”
The 1880 Shiraz vineyard was, to the best of our knowledge, the first vineyard established in the Eden Valley area (then defined by proximity to the nearest town.) We will probably never know where the cuttings originally came from, but we do know where some subsequently went.
The 1880 has borne several local vineyards over the decades and is believed to be the source material of numerous others, if not directly, then from cuttings of cuttings.
Adjacent to the 1880 vines is the Langmeil Pure Eden vineyard, planted from 1880 cuttings by Charles Angas in the 1890s. Further north, the vineyards of Roeslers and Schutz owe their existence to the 1880, and west of Poonawatta the old vine vineyards of Steinert and Stevens share the 1880 DNA. To the east is the relatively young Lehmann vineyard, planted in 1998. And who knows how many more.
On the Poonawatta property, we have two vineyards established from cuttings taken from the 1880 vines. The oldest of these is called The Cuttings; a few rows planted each year from the late 70s into the mid-80s. In 2007 we established the Insurance Block, from 1880 cuttings grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock, to protect and insure the 1880 clone.
The evolution of a label
Designing a label is never a simple process. Hours and hours of work, tweaking and fine-tuning, dressing bottles, seeking trusted opinions- then back to the beginning once again. The usual goal is to create a label that will appeal to the wine consumer- to compete for attention on the shelf, to attract potential buyers, so that they pick up the bottle, read the label, and connect emotionally.
It is a little more complex when design goals are driven by one’s emotions. Connection to the land, to the small old vineyard, to family heritage and history, and the fuzzy distortions of a decade long dream.
Appealing to the wine consumer was never really a factor for us. Not through arrogance, and certainly not through a surety of success. All we wanted to do was convey the history, rarity and specialness of this tiny vineyard, to tell its story as best we could through visual presentation. That was the beginning.
It becomes a process of evolution, of settling on a starting place; loving it, liking it, disliking it, then starting again. It is “our baby”, and as the years pass, the baby grows and matures, the messaging gets a little more sophisticated, emotional biases soften, one listens a little more to feedback and the label evolves.
And hopefully, through each incarnation, the label gets a little closer to that undefinable emotional ideal that first emerged all those years ago.
“At some point, you must accept that if you continue to strive for absolute perfection, the project will never end, as it is you, the creator, who’s emotions cloud the path to completion.”
The springtime enemy, its icy breath reaching further and further into the warmer months, destroying buds and burning new growth. According to local wisdom, November 11th was the end of the frost season in Eden Valley. For the first decade of our winemaking journey, we found this to be true. Then things began to change, with declining average rainfall and drier years, frosts were occurring later.
On October 20th, 2003 we lost 70% of the crop, picking just under a tonne. We couldn’t justify the cost of a frost fan, so we invested in a sprinkler system that projects droplets of water along the rows, wetting the vines, and encasing them in ice. The water releases energy when it freezes, the ice insulating the vine from the harsh exterior temperature, protecting the new growth from damage.
These days the frost season runs to mid-December. The sprinklers work well till mid-November, after which there is more foliage to protect, reducing the coverage and effectiveness of the sprinklers.
We run the sprinklers only when frost is settling in the vineyard. In a good year maybe 2 or 3 times, in a bad year maybe 10 or 20 times, with many cold sleepless nights spent fixing blockages, bursts and breakages. For all the long, cold nights, the frost system has saved the 1880 crop on many occasions.
On the 28th of November 2015, we woke to frost. It wasn’t forecast and we were unprepared. We lost the entire crop.
On 27th November 2019, we started the frost sprinklers at 3 am. Due to advanced foliage growth, the sprinklers were unable to achieve the coverage required. We picked 700 kilograms from the entire vineyard.
Frost is one of the many factors we need to manage and mitigate, and it is one that can change fortunes in just a few hours. But it can also turn the vineyard into a winter wonderland of icicles and starbursts, at least until the sun rises.
“Rip them out! They always get hit by frost. You’re wasting your time!” – Ed Roesler, Flaxman Valley, 1972.