“There’s no sidetracks, there’s no compromise, we want to be the best biodynamic producer in this region, full stop”, says a determined Mike Brown, chief winemaker at Gemtree Vineyards, in the McLaren Vale, South Australia.
The Gemtree Vineyards were established in 1980, when Paul and Jill Buttery purchased a vineyard on Tatachilla Road, in the heart of the McLaren Vale wine region. Back then, grape growing was a lucrative business and conventional cultivation was king.
“My dad really doesn’t have much interest in organics”, says Melissa Brown, daughter to Paul and Jill, and who is now married to winemaking husband Mike. “He was just running the vineyards the way everybody else did back then”, Melissa recalls.
When Melissa joined the family business in the early 90’s, she brought with her a more environmentally minded way of doing things, and consequently this spilled out into the way the vineyards were currently being managed.
“I really didn’t like the way we were doing things (in the vineyard)”, says Melissa, “because I have a real consciousness about the environment that we live in”. So, after some time learning the ropes, and studying to become a qualified viticulturist, she started to introduce some changes into the way the vineyard was being looked after by establishing a few organic trial blocks, to see if she was able to bring back some signs of life out amongst the vines.
“For my dad, it’s more of a business, whereas for me, it’s more than a business”, explains Melissa, “it’s a lifestyle, it’s a philosophy about the way we do things, and to me, that means a lot more than the money side of it”.
The passing of the baton from father to daughter was not an easy transition, but Mike was an increasing source of support for Melissa, even when the invitations to dinner with Melissa’s parents decreased for a little while.
“We had to prove to Dad that we could (make the conversion to organics) without ruining the crops, and still make money from it”, says Melissa. “Basically”, injects Mike, “‘if you fuck it up, I still need to be commercially compensated’… but once we did that, we were away”.
“We started this project as the next generation”, explains Mike, “so we have taken over from Melissa’s father, who provided a fantastic foundation for our business, and we’ve grabbed that foundation and said ‘we can make a difference here’, because we honestly believe in the principals and practices we’re employing, and we’ll start to see the benefits of what goes on in another decades time”.
Gemtree Vineyards consists of two main sites, with red clay loams over limestone, and sand over clay soils, each providing their own unique set of challenges in order to be successfully organically managed.
“We started with organics, then very soon after, we went biodynamic”, says Melissa, “In the first few years, the yields were low in the biodynamically managed areas, but it’s been encouraging this year because the yields have been the same”.
Gemtree have been running a trial over the last five years, in association with Adelaide University, looking at the differences between organic, biodynamic, and conventional vineyard management practices, specifically targeting soil health, yield, and wine quality. So far, and with a year left to run on the trial, Melissa and Mike have noticed, with empirical evidence to back them up, an increase in microbial respiration in the soil, and now the same yield levels across all vineyard sites. And, according to sensory panels, which have been tasting and testing for wine quality, they have been favoring the biodynamically grown wines over their conventional counterparts in recent examinations.
“Biodynamics is about being in tune with your land, and in tune with nature”, says Melissa, “it’s about acknowledging that there is a relationship with what’s happening between the sun and the moon, and the planets, and with what’s happening here on earth, and timing certain operations to fit with that, in order to build soil fertility”.
At the same time, as Mike points out, “we’ve taken a very pragmatic approach to the transition, and know that it is going to be a work in progress. These systems have to work with your vineyard, so you can’t throw the baby out with the bath water and just all of a sudden change every single regime that you do to centre around what the moon is doing”.
But with a biodynamic regime firmly in place around the vineyards at Gemtree, there has been a significant increase in overall fruit quality from a viticulture perspective, which has spilled over into the winery, and has now created a whole new direction for Gemtree to move towards.
“We’ve gone from 10 tonne to the acre shiraz”, says Mike, “to 2 tonne to the acre, because we used to grow a lot of C-grade fruit”, which was grown to sell and make cheap $10 and $15 dollar bottles of wine, “whereas now, we only grow A grade fruit”.
“With the biodynamic regime we’ve introduced into the vineyard”, says Mike, “we’re starting to see (the site) step up and show (in the wines) what I would classify as the characteristics that match up with the soils… so my job now, in terms of a caretaker role, is to massage the interpretation of what Melissa is doing out in the vineyard”.
With Melissa now providing Mike with a much higher quality fruit from these vineyards, the challenge now, for Mike, has been to match this quality and consistency with the wines he makes.
“By the time the fruit comes into (the winery), without being negligent, it is very hands off”, says Mike, “because when you have good skin condition (in the fruit), what you want out of that is colour. So, I work on the philosophy that we need to work our batches very hard (during the approximately 7 days during ferment), and what I want to see out of that is the purity of fruit be extracted out of the skin, to get that intensity of colour and flavour”.
With the success of converting the Gemtree vineyards over to a more environmentally conscious farming system, using biodynamics, Melissa and Mike now have the foundations, and vindication behind them to embark upon the next phase of where they want Gemtree to be in the consistently competitive world of wine.
Earlier this year, Gemtree started a program called ‘The Fine Wine Project’, which sees them embark on their most ambitious project to date. But, this would never have been possible if it wasn’t for the determination, and purposefulness of Melissa back in the early days when she took over vineyard management from her father.
This acknowledgement that all great wines are made out in the vineyard has made Mike and Melissa’s partnership not just consistent with a mutual love and respect for one another, but also a solid partnership in their winegrowing and environmental endeavors, which is now spilling back over into the business side of things, which will no doubt make Melissa’s father, Paul, a very happy man.
D// – The Wine Idealist
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