David McMaugh is an interesting man with a diverse professional past. He has worked as a soldier, dentist, university professor and CEO, among other things. Following a six-week tour of Australian vineyards in 2000, he and his wife, Sue, decided to establish a vineyard in the Scenic Rim. The first grapes were planted in the Bunjurgen Estate Vineyard in 2003, on a sixty-acre property only ten kilometers from Boonah. The vineyard now sports 2200 vines, protected by hail and bird netting. Bunjurgen is known for its chambourcin rosé, medium dry red and a range of barrel-aged ports, as well as its versatile pink verjuice. Visit the Bunjurgen Estate cellar door and be warmly welcomed by David, and you’ll likely leave with an irresistible bottle or two. (www.bunjurgenestatevineyard.com.au)
What inspired you to plant grapes?
I’d met a guy from South Australia in the army a long time before, and we became good friends. His father, Dr Lloyd, bought a vineyard called Coriole out at McLaren Vale. Suzi and I went down to see him in 2000, and we checked out about seventy-three vineyards on the way there and back, as you do. So, by the time we arrived home … ‘Oh, yeah. We’ll build a vineyard. That’s easy.’
I’d gone to university in New England, so I had a bit of a background. I went down there to the ag department and sat in the library for about a week.
I read all of the student assignments and got my head around what you needed to do. So, anyway, we bought the vineyard. We planted the grapes in 2003 and made our first wine in 2005.
Can you tell us about a typical day?
I am programmed to get up with the sun. As soon as the sun shines in the bedroom window, I wake up and I do my stretching exercises. I shower, shave, shampoo, and have a really good breakfast. I’d be outside probably quarter past to half past six and doing something, whatever the task is. It could be pruning, it could be fixing the trellis wires, it could be putting the bore on, it could be slashing, painting, mowing, bottling, whatever. I’d have first smoko about two hours later. At about half past eight, nine o’clock I’d come in, have a cup of coffee, then go out and give it a bash, depending upon where the UV curve is. Probably about nine-thirty, I’d be in here bottling, computering, Facebooking, electronic PR, accounts, go for a drive into town to do the banking, shopping …
Then, when it gets really hot here, the house is fully air-conditioned. The whole place is solar powered. This entire rig is run off the sun and the house just stays at twenty-four centigrade all the summer, the whole day and night. Might go up and have a camp for a couple of hours. By then, it is about quarter past three, half past three, and you would have thought of what you’re going to be doing. My tractor is all fitted up with LED lights, so — let’s say we’re spraying potassium bicarbonate, which knocks off fungal spores — I’d get out and I’d run that until it gets dark, which might be seven, come in and have some dinner, and, if it is a job that I hadn’t finished, I’d finish it by the LED lights. So, I’d do that at night, no sun. It is nice and still, which is really bloody good because it is more effective. Then, that’s about it.
What does the name Bunjurgen means to you?
See that long ridge over there? It runs up onto Mount French … That’s south Mount French you can see over there. When the Aboriginals lived here, their tribe was the Ugarapuls, and their word for that ridge and the area running up onto south Mount French, they called that ‘Punjargin’.
They call this general area around here ‘Coochin Coochin’, because their word for a swan is ‘Coochin’, and place of many swans is ‘Coochin Coochin’. So, the full name of a red-billed black swan is ‘Mooroo Coochin’. Anyway, the Mooroocoochin [Bunjurgen’s 2008 chambourcin], that wine came on the truck, and we put it in the cool room. Sue and I were sitting here having a drink — we’d just opened a bottle of it — and what flew past? Two black swans!
How did you choose which variety of grapes to grow?
If you were going to go and grow grapes somewhere, first thing you do is go and construct a thing called a homoclime analysis. Imagine a matrix. Across the top, January to December, and down the side, all the parameters of grape growing: hours of sunlight, rainfall, temperature, wind, humidity, and so on. So, the matrix is now filled in — all the squares are filled in — that’s a homoclime analysis. So, then you get your little template for chardonnay, and you put that over the top of it. ‘Oh, it doesn’t fit too well.’ You do the template for here — two varieties stand out: one, chambourcin, two, shiraz.
You look at the vineyard. What we have done is open up all of the rows by an extra metre, and we have planted our grapes one-and-a-half metres apart. Most people would plant them three-quarters of a metre. No secret. Do that, you get more air and less mildew. If you pick the right varieties, you don’t have to use insecticides, pesticides, systemic fungicides … We don’t use them. I don’t have them in my store.
The net over the vines, is that for birds or hail storms?
It is bird and hail netting on the top, and bird netting all the way around. If you did not have bird netting here, I could safely say you’d lose seventy per cent of your crop to birds and the rest of the crop would be damaged. And, most importantly, parrots have these talons that when they land on my grapevine and they’ve come from yours [Brenda] and you have botrytis, I’ve got it! Then, when they’ve come from mine and go to yours [Christine], you’ve got it. So, join the family. Happy days. We’ve all got botrytis and it is going to cost us $25,000 to control it. No bloody birds can get in there.
What are the challenges?
The biggest single issue would have been underestimating the effects of birds, which led me to putting that netting up. We planted the grapes in 2003 and it was evident we needed the netting, and the netting went up in September 2005. That was clearly an issue I had to respond to.
The second issue is really the passive control of mildew by adopting a pruning technique, which ensures that no leaves are below one metre, and you match the vigour of the vine with the method of pruning. We’ve got that right now. I have a top-of-the-range French electric pruning device, a big battery pack that sits on your back, and you just go along and touch a button and bang. It cuts through sixty-five millimetres. Cuts through wire. I wear a big, steel glove. You cannot cut your fingers; you have to watch it.
Probably the third thing I’ve learnt as a consequence of those two: I’ve become very adept at forecasting the weather and I’ve developed my own long-range weather forecasting, which is very accurate, based on what’s happening as the weather systems go past South Africa.
Tell me about the winemaking process.
What we do with the winemaker: the winemaker can tell me what specifications he wants from the grapes. He can say, ‘This is the degree of ripeness, this is the degree of sugar, these are the tartaric acid levels, this is the pH.’ It is my job to grow the grapes to match those specifications. So, then, the job is to pick the grapes in that window of time when those specifications are right. The grapes then go up to Ballandean Estate, to Angelo Puglisi’s winery. The winemaker is a guy called Dylan Rhymer and Dylan makes the wine, the verjuice and the port, essentially to what I know the clients who come here like. Really simple.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I guess the underlying thing is, clearly, I am very cognisant of good health, and, clearly, we don’t use bad boy chemicals. Many people have said to me, ‘You could do this, and you could do that.’ Of course you can. But Sue and I only drink our own wine. It would be very rare for us … If we were chasing a white, we might get something from around Orange or Bathurst — you know, those cold-climate NSW whites — but we don’t drink very much of that. We prefer a chilled rosé. We’re only drinking our own wines, so that’s really important.
The second thing is, I have always seen myself as a bit of a steward — a steward for whatever country the family have owned. I think it’d be nice if, in a couple of generations time, someone was here having a talk with someone they said, ‘David McMaugh was a good guy. He didn’t bugger the place up and didn’t use agent orange or something on the place’, you know? So, I’ve got a bit of a sense of that. That’s why I get a little intolerant of people who tend to stereotype farmers as being uneducated and irresponsible. A lot of that goes on, and I am well aware of it. I think that’s another thing I strive to do, to counter that stereotyping. People come out here and say, ‘Oh, you haven’t planted on the hill. Why?’ ‘Because we slash it all.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because it holds more water.’ ‘Is there a big difference?’ ‘Bloody oath.’ Once upon a time we used to put eight million litres a year in, now we put in a million and a half; we save — right — six-and-a-half million litres of water simply by cutting grass for ten years on the crown of the hill so it can become a water reservoir. Cuts down the erosion, all that sort of stuff. That’s a very simple example.
The other thing here: we have kangaroos, we have all the birds. That hill over there now has sixty-two koala bears on it that come across here. Conservation and sustainability, I think is really important. Anyway, end of rant. You’ve got to run your flag up on some pole.