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DYING ON THE VINE

27 October 2022

DYING ON THE VINE

Mahmood Fazal

The preservation of regional history through winemaking is a sensory journal of place and time.

In central Victoria’s notorious Bar Merenda, Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers spins as winemaker Joshua Cooper nods along to Protect Ya Neck. Behind the counter, barman Andy Ainsworth uncorks a bottle before slinging two burgundy glasses across the table. They both peer into their glasses, hunting with their senses for the feel of a place they're trying to see.

Wine hounds employ the language of vision like blind drunks who always find their way back home.

“I’ve only had one of the original Flynn & Williams,” says Joshua. “They're quite in the same vein as like Virgin Hills or the very old Granite Hills wines - like from the 70s and 80s.” It’s after hours at the bar and the doors are shut. An old local peers through the window, hoping for a tipple.

Joshua tells me the Flynn & Williams vineyard, a historic site in the region, is about to be bulldozed. He has been asked to make wine from the site’s final vintage. The owners reached out to Josh because he was producing the finest Cabernets in the region. He stresses, “I drive past the place on most days.”

Nestled in the cool-climate Macedon Ranges, Joshua’s first reaction was grounding; “It had seen better days. I was a bit sad, and melancholic I guess. It was the general feeling of Tim’s family who would visit all the time when it was run properly by Laurie.” He adds, “It is a thing that happens to vineyards.”

We travel to the lush site, cold winds flow up the aisles of vines as a light rain showers across the property. The interplay of weather, soil and fruit will eventually distill the life of this terrain into a glass bottle. Two crimson rosellas fly overhead before perching on a concrete structure beside the vineyard. There’s a weathered spirit soaking in the dirt.

I recall the words of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam, “Place it on my tab, O Cupbearer! For life is fleeting, and death is final!”

Over the past decade, Joshua Cooper has been making elegant wines under his eponymous label sourcing grapes from established vineyards with respected pedigree from across the Macedon Ranges.

“I tried to think of something else I'd rather do,” laughs Joshua, when thinking about how he fell into wine. “Seriously tried to think of something that I prefer to do. Like design type stuff, architecture, maybe cooking? I guess, to make sure I'd be happy doing it.”

As a sole operator, he was drawn to the diversity of the wine industry; rotating roles from farming to dealing with clients. The core of his practice stems from his blood. “It's like normal life to me, I guess,” says Joshua. “It's like what I've grown up around. My dad’s side are all farmers so the agricultural lifestyle appealed to me.” 

Joshua’s parents Nelly and Alan, the founders of the renowned Cobaw Ridge winery, raised him to the tune of the seasons. “Vintage is always very exciting, the whole season leads up to that time of the year. It can be really stressful, but it should be a celebration as well.”

He recalls the nostalgia of the Cobaw Ridge site, through the senses. “The smell of stuff like foaming red grapes fermenting,” says Joshua. “I’d taste the grapes growing up and I picked up on the varieties pretty early on, the flavour of cabernet doesn’t taste like pinot does.”

In 2017, he travelled to South Australia to study viticulture and oenology.  “I think having a scientific foundation is really good for knowing why you’re doing certain things,” says Joshua. The elements of the winemaking process are the bones of the operation, some of which didn’t apply to Joshua’s conditions. “The uni course [in Adelaide] is geared around big production stuff in warmer climates. So it's pretty different to the small scale, cold climate, viticulture in the winemaking here.”

He began working in wineries, getting to know himself as much as the variables and parameters he was working within. “I guess, the biggest lesson was the general style of wine I like.” Joshua worked at Tyrrell’s in the Hunter Valley with friends who have become his closest comrades. It was there that he decided he wanted to make wines for himself. “It's much more fun if you make wines that you actually liked to drink rather than making it for a commercial reason - not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

In South Australia, there was a close proximity to winemaking. “One great thing about South Australia when I was at uni is that heaps of random people like guys that I used to play footy with had worked vintage before, just because there's so many wineries around.”

Joshua wanted to get closer. He travelled to Burgundy and began working vintage on his favourite vineyards. “I realised how part of the culture it is like everyone knows about Montrachet or the hill of Corton.” There were some differences in the process, “They may be a bit less technical. The places where I’ve worked in France were smaller-production. Not that it isn’t artisanal, but they just leave the grapes be. They don’t try to add stuff or manipulate the grape because there’s such a reverence around the site tasting like the site.”

Joshua was refining and articulating what it was about wine that he enjoyed, unveiling the roots of the wine he was hoping to articulate and see.

“The wines that I like to drink are made that way as well. They’re not messed with too much. They’re meant to taste unique, they don’t taste like anything else. You can have the commodity type that’s consistent, it tastes the same all the time which is fine too but it’s more like a beverage rather than a cultural thing.”

The philosopher Roger Scruton writes, “The qualities that interest us in the wine reflect the social order of which we are a part.” Through taste, we find those that appreciate seeing wine in the same light as us and from the same vantage point. For Joshua, wine can be experienced as a cultural interaction specifically when purists take their hands off the process so that the senses mirror the feeling of standing on their farm at a specific moment in time.

“It's all well and good to say, ‘Oh, this one's going to age for 40 years’, but most of the time, it's not how it turns out. Most of the time, they just look old and tired. When you do get a good one, you ask, what were they doing then? How were they making the wine? How was the farming?”

Winemaking is essentially about letting go and giving in to the powers that be. It’s why Cistercian monks were so well tuned to the channel of vignerons, they understood their hands were at the mercy of nature. It’s why Plato writes, “nothing more excellent or valuable was ever granted by the God’s to man.”

“When you started with fruit that's good, you don't have to do too much,” adds Joshua. His first barrel was chardonnay with fruit from Cobaw Ridge. “I always wanted to make wines from around here, especially the Pinot and Chardonnay. A lot of them I know one way or another. The first vintage of Pinot in 2014 was from the Dougs Vineyard in Romsey.”

Joshua traces the region, journalling the spirit of the vineyards through the process of winemaking. He scours auctions for rare wines from across Central Victoria, trying to place what the region represents by seeking out patterns of tannin, aroma, and flavour. His efforts have led him to work with sites like Flynn & Williams, to preserve the feeling of history.

Sadly, there’s no saving the vineyard due to trunk disease on the vines. “It’s a management thing with the dieback. Eventually, you have to replant. It’s colder and wetter here, so there’s more risk of the Eutypa happening. Cabernet is quite susceptible.”

Joshua’s process for this final vintage is focused. “I’ll probably be picking slightly on the earlier side. So trying to get proper tannin and structure without it feeling overly ripe. Keeping all the elegance in the wine, which are just the style of cabernet I like drinking,” says Joshua.

When the last vintage was pressed, it took Joshua by surprise. “It's quite concentrated but without being heavy. It’s very elegant and there’s plenty of tannin. It’s bright, there’s lot of fruit and it’s very aromatic.”

Driving home from the vineyard, Joshua adds, “I’ll probably do heaps of big bottles, like magnums and six litres - just for posterity.” We listen to John Cale’s Dying On The Vine, while winding down the slopes of the Macedon Ranges.

Visit www.joshuacooperwines.com.au for more.

Wine poems by Mahmood here.

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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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