Interview with Max Mollan on the Great Southern vineyards

  • Howard Park

How long have you been working for Howard Park and how do you think your role has evolved during your time with us?

I Started in November 2009 as a vineyard operator and then progressed to a supervisor position around 2013. In 2017 I was offered the job of managing the Great Southern.  So I pretty much progressed from vineyard operations to supervisor to operations manager. Having said that, I started my career in 1989 with a management role for Hardys.  Good to get back into it.

What vineyards are you involved with down here and what do you think are the unique challenges presented when managing and working in our vineyards in the Great Southern?

The three I am involved in are mainly Mount Barrow, Abercrombie and Gibraltar Rock. Certainly one of the biggest challenges is weather – the drying climate and water supply. All three vineyards suffer from lack of water. Basically Gibraltar Rock is dry grown – it hasn’t had a drink all year and I can see it being an issue for ever more. We get very little run off, for a 500ml-600ml rainfall we basically get nothing in that dam. We need around 800ml-900ml rainfall per year to get a decent fill for one of those dams. I have only seen one of them full and another one half full after 1000ml of rain in 2016.

What did you get this year?

We had 500ml in 2019 and the run off, we would have only caught about 5meg and that main dam hole is 95meg. So we have purchased up to 30meg of water from Water Corp over the last six months. We had about 20meg carry over after last vintage and purchased 30meg from Water Corp which got up to about 50meg which is about half full. We have turned the tap on again now to take the last of our allocation. In addition to that we have spread straw; we did about 100 rolls here (Mount Barrow) this year but we also did 300 at Abercrombie – which is a massive task.

Howard Park Wines is embracing sustainable viticultural practices. In your time here what have you observed and implemented that works us towards a more sustainable approach. What do you think has worked really well in those areas of sustainable vineyards, things like weed control, fertilisers, pest management and that kind of stuff?

We are certainly very focused on the use of compost that comes from Margaret River. More now with the use of straw, just for moisture retention and it will build up organic matter because it breaks down. Generally, it lasts about three years. What we have spread this year we will get about three seasons out of it before it breaks down and disappears and then you will have to redo it. Certain blocks, obviously the biodynamic ones we avoid all synthetic fungicides and chemicals, they are just a sulfur/copper routine, just relying on compost, lime and some of the more eco friendly nutrients like eco vital either through the drip system or the sprayers. Weed control, we generally only try to spray our broad leaf area during the winter and leave our rye grass or clover, whatever is there in the way of grasses, just to block out everything else and to hold the soil together. We want to really steer away from bare soil, especially on the slopes due to erosion. The idea is, for rye grass coverage, what was seeded over previous years is a rye grass/clover blend and when they sprout you see a lot of nice clovers come through.

Which is a typical type of Great Southern scenario, ancient soil, poor nutrition, and you’re just trying to keep all of that in there?

There is some pretty tough soil there, shallow soils, gravelly which doesn’t hold the moisture. We irrigate across that gravelly rocky section up there; you have to pretty much irrigate for two hours and that’s it otherwise it just drops straight out through the roots zone. So it might be three times a week, where as some good soils where you have heavier clay you might get away with one irrigation per week for four to eight hours. But the very free draining stuff – three times a week at least if you have enough water, but only short bursts and at subsurface. That obviously helps you not lose it to evaporation.

Talking about vineyard routine, what are the big seasonal differences in your workload? Do you have a season you most enjoy, and which one do you find the most challenging?

You would have to say harvest because the weather can break early down here and rain and harvest just don’t mix. Last year we got to the start of March and everything was looking sweet and then there was 80ml of rain in March and that just has a massive effect on ripeness.  Definitely, a wet harvest is the most challenging thing. I think in a whole year’s process, it can go from good to pretty much a write off in the space of a week. If you get humid weather and rain you just almost say goodbye to it and that’s near on impossible to control, you can go through dropping bunches but three days later you will see the same thing sitting there. Pruning isn’t a bad time of the year. You know what you need to do now, you’ve got specific blocks set out for spur pruning and cane pruning. A machine comes in, we know how many people we need to cover a certain area in the time frame that Dave wants.  We just work that out, right we need eight people or ten people. We may have to do a bit of training; Ray the supervisor will work with them during the day when we have a bulk of a crew. Summertime, I can generally get away with our regular staff and maybe four other casuals. Pruning is very focused, if they are unskilled labourers it takes a bit to get them up to speed and is a bit of a challenge sometimes because only one in the eight might speak English and they have to try and explain to the others.

As the vineyard matures it all becomes a bit easier because of the resilience in the vines but then you have all of these special blocks.

Yeah, we have been doing these clonal trials with Pinot, and then pulling out bits and pieces and redeveloping with Traminer and Riesling and the others so the last few years we’ve had a bit of an ongoing project of some sort of size. Abercrombie Chardonnay was also added three years ago, we did a little bit of Riesling at Gibraltar Rock just to fill in some space out there. So we always have something new on the go.

So is it probably just after harvest where you get that little bit of a breather sometimes?

Yeah, I can normally say I budget for a month holiday in May. Might be April this year the way things are going.

What are the differences between working with the old, mature vines we have in Abercrombie and some of the younger vines that are starting to mature in Mount Barrow or some of the stuff you are trialling? What are the contrasts between these vineyards and how have you managed the old vine and new vine combination?

Some of the old vine at Abercrombie is a challenge to prune. They’re pruned dual cordon and its quite intense pruning and labour. Its quite costly to prune those, its almost like pruning two vines. Taking over that vineyard, it was a pretty rundown situation, we have been through and re-trellised, put in a new drip line in and replaced irrigation lines. Young vines are certainly easier to work with.

It’s just time spent keeping on top of them and training them. The Abercrombie process, that renew has taken four or five years from 2014/2015?

There is a section down there that we actually chain sawed off and retrained just to get some vigour back into the vines, only a small leave it and grow section. Yeah some grew and others didn’t come back at all but we have dug them out and replaced them with two year old rootlings. The ones that did come back are now up on the wire and cropping. That was just a trial to see what would happen. They didn’t want to do the whole vineyard just in case the worst happened.  Pretty much the two sections of the old, dual-cordon – the really gnarly old stuff, we have been told don’t touch it. Just keep spur pruning it, keep letting it sprawl, let it do its thing. That five or six tonnes is destined for Abercrombie on a good year and its not too bad to manage because it’s sprawl,  it pretty much does its own thing, it’s not hugely vigorous so it grows to a certain length then just hangs out there. You’ve got a 50 year old grape vine down there so it would have a massive root system.

What do you think of the notable events and improvements in the vineyards here? What stands out? What are you proud of having played a role in?

What we have done over the last couple of years with the new developments and seeing those new blocks get up and growing and being able to say next year we will be able to get a crop off a three year old vine. I have seen vineyards before where people, five or six years later are struggling to get a crop out of it so I’m quite impressed with what we’ve been able to do with the new plantings. They’ve focused on Pinot, I’m not sure about Riesling, you can’t twist my arm with Riesling, there is enough of it here already! Certainly the different trials with the different Pinot clones are really interesting and hopefully now with the certain amount that can go into a winery – half a tonne in each batch. That will be good to get some feed back on it from either Mark or Janice. Actually getting feedback to us would be quite beneficial for the guys to know where that fruit has gone and is that clone a good one or isn’t it, what are we going to use it for?

I know Pascal Marchand is interested in that as well, so you can talk to him about which ones are going to work here ultimately not just in the vineyard, its also got to work in the winery as well.

Yes it would be good to get some feedback about where it all goes. We know the 115 clone is probably Marchand & Burch over off F block over there. Certainly the different clones have been a challenge to get them going and to get it done. But to now get a crop out of it and see where it ends up is interesting.

For this year what’s your take on how the growing season has gone and what are your expectations for the next few weeks for harvest?

I think it has pretty much been ideal growing – it has been warm and dry, even from right back in September, we had a couple of 30 degree days which is almost unheard of. Fingers crossed, if we get no rain for the next three weeks, everything should run pretty smoothly. There are light crops, there’s Chardonnay that just hasn’t developed very well in terms of volumes of bunches. I wouldn’t think anything’s much heavier than last year, a couple of them maybe a little bit. Nothing outrageous as far as heavy crops, its still going to be a light cropping year. But at the moment the quality of it I would say it is on par with 2018 and if it stays dry then definitely.

What’s your favourite wine? What do you like to drink? Do you have anything that is your go to or a variety or a particular wine of ours?

I’m actually pretty keen on Pinot now, after tasting the various wines between Mad Fish and Flint Rock and Marchand & Burch. I did prefer Cabernet, I have never been a great fan of Shiraz but have developed an interest in Pinot now.  It’s interesting to see how many people around here who are actually starting to do Pinot.

There has always been a bit of Pinot here but I think we probably injected a fair bit of interest into it?

There has been a lot more focus over the last few years and certainly on the different clones. It’s definitely taken off in a big way really.

We’re in a similar position. It’s going to be really interesting to see where it goes. We can make great Pinot here and it’s only going to get better I think.

A cooler climate is more ideal, but these hot days could tend to turn it a bit jammy and cook it, but it is what it is. I think it’s come through pretty quickly, because they are not huge crops, we are only talking maybe three-four tonnes per  hectare at best out of any of the varieties so anything that only has two or three hectare in this weather is going to go pretty quick. The Gibraltar Chardonnay is at 12 Baume already, which first week of February is unheard of!  Normally it’s the first week of March and it’s struggling to be there. I know through the Porongurup they have picked Chardonnay already.