Charlie Mawdsay is no stranger to challenges. He lives in the same house in Loxton in South Australia’s Riverland wine region, that his grandfather built. The family is unquestionably local – they were all born in the Loxton Hospital. Now, Charlie oversees a Riverland vineyard that is dynamic and growing: “We’ve had another growth spurt,” he says, playing down the fact that the business has trebled in size in the last five to six years. “We’re looking to expand again.”
The trajectory of the Mawdsay property mirrors the fortunes of the Riverland. In the early years, their stone fruit was dried and the fruit was sold locally and at markets. Then the needs of a burgeoning Riverland wine industry became paramount and grape growing took centre stage. There’s been a patch of Shiraz grapes growing on the property since 1968. Now, Charlie and his brother, Craig, grow Shiraz, Merlot and Cab. Sav. for the South Australian wine company, Dominic Wines.
“Charlie loves the whole sensual process of wine making – the smell of the ripe grapes just before harvest, the colour of the wine as it develops through the stages.”
He devotes himself to the vines. The earth is where it starts – “without good soil you won’t have a healthy vine with sound fruit.” Every season sees him determined to produce the best grapes with minimum intervention. “We don’t use flash new chemicals, we try to prevent any problems straight up”. But as with any primary production, there are pitfalls. If they manage to happily avoid powdery mildew, unseasonal rain may threaten downy mildew. “You can’t let up. You’re on your guard the whole season.” The long heatwave so early in the year in this Murray River region, caused leaf scorch and a moment of mild panic – but vines are resilient and generally forgiving, “The fruit’s good though, the grapes are looking good.”
“You can’t let up. You’re on your guard the whole season.”
The Mawdsays are a tight family business. While Charlie and his brother tend to the vineyards, their mother, Margaret, keeps the books. And, of course, there is the Golden Retriever, Snoopy, always ready to lend a paw. Snoopy works alongside Charlie everyday. He looks for the first sign of movement in the morning. When the work shoes and hat go on, Snoopy bounds for the ute to ‘clock on’ – the work day begins. And Snoopy, his nose in everything, is up for it.
Technology is a Godsend but also a curse. Computerised irrigation systems sometimes crash in the middle of a heatwave, but mechanisation has certainly lightened the physical load.
“I don’t know how we did it before mechanical harvesters. But we did. We worked through 40 degree days, one after the other.” Now, they work through the cool of the night to harvest the grapes.
Harvest varies, of course, but generally it starts around Australia Day usually with Chardonnay. “But, you know, every year is a challenge. Hot weather will speed up ripening. Rain affects the Baume. It’s not easy.” The season is rigorous and strenuous and doesn’t let up until after pruning.
Technology also eases another daily challenge for Charlie. Ten years ago – in the middle of harvest – he was injured in a car accident. After a long stay in hospital, he was in rehab for six months. It was the longest time he had ever spent away from the vineyard. It made him realise where he wanted to be – home – and what he wanted to do.
He has a modified joystick in the cab and a fancy wheelchair. He has Snoopy. And he “just gets on with it.”
The challenge, as I see it, is to strive every day to produce the best grapes possible. Simple.