Josh Pfeiffer, a fourth-generation grape grower, clocked plenty of hours in the family’s Barossa vineyard growing up. But a future in the industry wasn’t always a sure-bet.
“It was more of a chore than a pleasurable thing,” he says. “Dad used to make us work in the vineyard over the school holidays. And pay us rather poorly.”
Pfeiffer decided to carve his own path; breaking from tradition to become the first winemaker in the family. He spent two years at Two Hands in the Barossa and five years at Henschke Wines in Eden Valley before joining the family business, Whistler, in 2013.
Instead of sticking with the formula that had already proved successful, Pfeiffer decided to shake things up. His first step was to step back, introducing a hands-off approach to the winemaking.
“We’ve been organic since August 2013,” he says. “I gave Dad about a month to show me how he ran the vineyard; we were spraying [herbicide] Roundup under the vines to kill all the weeds, and I couldn’t do it. I want this vineyard to be healthy and as natural as possible without adding synthetic chemicals.
“I made a blanket rule that we use no synthetic chemicals; that everything is organic. There are some vines we still buy fruit in for, and sadly the fruit we can source is not organic. But I try to get it from growers with minimal input and minimal sprays. It’s hard. We’re scaling back a little bit so we can source all the fruit from our own property.”
The winery’s unique positioning in the Barossa – just outside the valley floor, on the western ridge – means Pfeiffer is naturally able to spray less than other winemakers in the region.
“A combination of the soil and the contours of the land contribute to greater airflow and not as much dense foliage, and therefore more wind passing through the canopies,” he explains. This means the vines are less susceptible to disease compared with others in the Barossa Valley.
Organic sulphur and copper sprays (two chemical compounds permitted in organics) are still used, “but we only have to do that once or twice a season,” Pfeiffer says. “A lot of people will be more like 10 or 12 spray applications per season. I also use wild yeast and natural malo [a secondary fermentation process] in the winery, and only add a small amount of sulphur to the wines before bottling.”
Pfeiffer will soon introduce biodynamic practices to the winery, which will involve a complete removal of spray applications during the growing season.
It’s the signal of a shift in the Barossa; a place long synonymous with South Australian wine but more recently eclipsed by the vanguard of progressive producers in the Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale.
“I think the Barossa is always seen as being a bit more conservative and traditional – a bit more slow moving – but there’s some really exciting things happening in the Barossa at the moment,” Pfeiffer says. “There are some younger winemakers making some different styles and pushing the boundaries a bit; people like Tom Shobbrook who have been doing it for a number of years now, but underground. He ended up jumping on board with [Basket Range winemakers] Lucy Margaux and Jauma to get traction because there wasn’t enough support around him in the Barossa.
“But now there’s a handful of producers who are either based in the Barossa or source Barossa fruit and making some really kick-arse wines. It’s really exciting.”
Pfeiffer is now forging a new path for Whistler. With him and brother Sam at the helm, the winery is in the hands of the next generation. Whistler’s traditional, single-varietal “Estate” range will sell alongside a new collection of dynamic, expressive and unconventional organic wines. The new range, aptly named Next Gen, includes a white blend (W.T.F.); a dry rosè (Dry as a Bone); a red blend (Shock Value); a grenache (Get in my Belly); a GSM (Stacks On); a shiraz (Shiver Down My Spine); and a shiraz cabernet (Thank God it’s Friday). The names – and the labels – are designed by Pfeiffer himself. “I’m trying to make wine a bit less serious.”
Pfeiffer will launch the new range this weekend at Whistler’s cellar door, with food from Comida and music from Skin Contact DJs. “We’re always trying to evolve Whistler as an offering,” he says. “We recently built a heap of outdoor tables to make it somewhere you want to come, grab a bottle of wine and hang out.”
Whistler’s Next Gen launch is on Sunday February 5 from 11am–5pm. Tickets are $20 and include bus transfer to and from the CBD (departing 10am sharp) and a take-home Riedel Whistler glass.