The Mornington Peninsula, located an hour’s drive south of Melbourne, is subject to a cool, maritime climate that is accentuated by the Southern Ocean and two bays, which skirt a long length of coastline that juts out, like a boot, from the bottom of the Victorian state. The soils are naturally fertile, thanks to the nearby dormant volcano at the top of Red Hill and the surrounding wetlands and coastal plains. The wines from the Mornington Peninsula are typically lighter, and more elegant, than many of Australia’s warmer winegrowing regions, and it’s especially known for producing delicate pinots, perfumed syrahs, and crunchy pinot grigio, with the latter coming courtesy of T’Gallant, which was introduced and championed by husband and wife winemakers, Kevin McCarthy and Kathleen Quealy.
A winemaking graduate from Charles Sturt University, in Wagga, Kathleen, and her husband Kevin, sold T’Gallant to Fosters. They, then, established Quealy on the Mornington Peninsula in 2004, on the site of the old Balnarring vineyard, which was first planted in 1982. Kathleen manages the Balnarring vineyard without the use of synthetic agrochemicals. However, she is careful to avoid claiming that the vineyard is organically managed, because she doesn’t want to only pay lip service to an organic regime without doing it consistently for a number of years running.
“We’ve never sprayed our property with pesticides, or fungicides,” says Kathleen, “and we stopped spraying herbicides on this vineyard three years ago… (Because of the climate), some growers in the Mornington Peninsula will use botrytis sprays, almost religiously. We only use copper and sulphur (allowed in certified organic viticulture) exclusively on our property… it’s important that we practice organics, but not use it as some marketing tool,” Kathleen continues, ” and understand that it’s so much more than simply not spraying chemicals.”
Quealy is a sloping 40 acre property with 17 acres planted under vine, which includes pinot noir, pinot grigio, friulano, moscato giallo, riesling and chardonnay. The maritime climate makes vineyards in the area particularly susceptible to disease, such as mildew or botrytis, but Kathleen easily combats this by maintaining the width of the the vine rows (before it was a vineyard, the property was originally planted as an orchard), and opening up the canopy by cane pruning, to allow for greater airflow to move through and sunlight to shine onto the vines and fruit.
“The vines are planted to a wide spacing,” explains Kathleen, “and that encourages air flow and sunshine to penetrate through the canopy and dry out any moisture that’s on the fruit. We cane prune to maximise the sunshine on the vines, which I think is essential if you’re only going to use copper and sulphur for disease management. For me, the limiting factor on the Mornington Peninsula, whether you’re making red wine, or white wine, is sunshine, because sunshine gives you ripeness, and will drive your crop to an earlier maturity, which we all want, and it also gives you fruitfulness.”
In a region like the Mornington Peninsula, where cloud cover and cool temperatures are the standard, sunshine can sometimes be at a bit of premium, and Kathleen says that a lot of winegrowers in the region struggle with their fluctuations in yield each year. So, if there’s any way she can maximise the amount of sunbeams falling on to her vines to improve fruit quality and yield, she’ll do it.
“The Mornington Peninsula can have some shocking years,” explains Kathleen. “We’ll usually crush 150 tonnes in a good year, but it can vary anywhere between 80 and 160 tonnes, which can be difficult to manage, from a production point of view, year after year… it’s all well and good to farm your vineyard organically, but it’s even more important that it’s productive.”
Kathleen says that the biggest problem the Quealy vineyard faces is weeds. Weeds are generally seen as unwanted competition in any garden or farmyard, and herbicides act as a quick and easy, short-term fix to destroying them. But, over the long-term, weeds tend to build up a natural resistance to the chemicals they’re sprayed with, courtesy of the unconscious determination of evolutionary biology. Continued use only really ends up making the soils underneath the vines dry, cracked, and infertile, devoid of any beneficial nutrients or biology for the plant to live off. There are many alternatives to herbicide use in order to manage weeds underneath the vines. Some winegrowers will use a combination of high pressure steam and concentrated doses of pine oil; some allow sheep into the vineyard to graze on the grass and weeds between the rows, and others simply learn to live with them. The most common way that organic winegrowers tend to deal with weeds, though, is by using some form of mechanisation, such as an under-vine mower.
“Our biggest problem is weeds,” says Kathleen. “There’s a gate between us and next door, and we let their sheep come into the vineyard each year, after harvest, to have at the vineyard grasses and weeds. They’re a lot of fun, but they do like it if we mow first… We’ve also just ordered this thing called a Twister (company spec sheet), which I think will revolutionise the way we manage weeds in our vineyard.”
Kathleen makes a field blend called ‘Pobblebonk’, made from hand picked pinot grigio, chardonnay, riesling, moscato giallo and friulano which grow on the Balnarring vineyard. Also, a pinot noir called, ‘Seventeen Rows’, which is the standard bearer for Quealy wines, and is named after the wide spaced, open canopied, some 30 year old vines, and is the reason why Kathleen chose not to spray the vineyard with synthetic chemicals, in the first place.
“We have some beautiful old pinot noir vines, which we make our ‘Seventeen Rows’ pinot from,” says Kathleen. “They’re the reason we stopped spraying, because I couldn’t bring myself to poison them anymore, with herbicide.”
Kathleen is reluctant to identify as totally organic just yet, but nonetheless, is continuing to make strides to be so. She believes that the shift to organics is a slow and gradual one, starting with the Balnarring vineyard, and, hopefully, spreading out to the other vineyards that Kevin and her manage, and make wine from.
“It takes an unbroken line of commitment to achieve whatever it is you’re aiming for, ” says Kathleen. “You’ve got to be creative with your problem solving, and you can’t do it all over night. It’s got to be a continuum, because it takes years and years of work. It’s the work that we did five years ago that you eventually taste in the bottle, today.”
“Just because you’ve managed to get away with not spraying certain chemicals for a number of years, doesn’t make you organic,” continues Kathleen, “because it’s much bigger than that. For me, to be able to consider myself organic, I need to get a consistently good crop for a number of years, and I need to be measuring my soil fertility and be confident that it is in good health. And this is my next step.”
D// – The Wine Idealist
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