The Hunter Valley is not only the oldest winegrowing region in Australia; it’s also one of the hardest places in the world to grow and make wine. When James Busby made the trek up from Sydney back in 1824 and planted the first vines at Kirkton Park, there’s a strong chance he didn’t know much about the challenges future pioneers of this region would face in order to make a good drop of plonk. The climate of the Hunter Valley is mostly sub-tropical, which means hot days and warm nights where grapes ripen faster than many other wine regions. When the Barossa starts sending out their pickers for harvest, we’re already at the pub.
To get the Hunter wine region where it is today took initiative and innovation. Pioneers such as Drayton’s, Tyrell’s and Tulloch forged ahead, despite the challenges facing them, and as a result of their dogged determination they made wines that are unique to the Hunter Valley and are now celebrated by wine lovers right across the world.
This pioneering spirit continues today with four of the Hunter Valley’s premium organic wine producers. Macquariedale, Tamburlaine, Krinklewood and Ascella. They are all certified by Australian Certified Organic (ACO), and despite the small size of the market they each operate in, organics is turning out to be one of the fastest growing sectors in the Australian wine industry.
“Organics is still a small part of the market,” says Geoff Brown from Ascella Estate Wines out near Millbrodale, in Broke. “It’s growing, but it’s still quite small compared to the rest of the Hunter.”
Organic winegrowing means that vigneron’s can’t use any synthetic chemicals on their vineyard to help fend off pests and disease – which is a bit of a problem when you’re trying to grow grapes and make wine in a sub-tropical climate, like the Hunter Valley. Fungal diseases such as powdery and downy mildew can get into a bunch of grapes and wreck havoc on a vineyards crop level, which affects yields and therefore the amount of wine the vigneron can make each vintage. Organic growers need to summon up a little bit of that old Hunter Valley pioneering spirit and work with nature to combat any disease and pestilence that gets thrown at them.
“We harness and employ natures eco-sytem,” explains Pete Windrim from Krinklewood, in Broke. “I think about it more like we’re offering our services to nature. We’ve got 400 permanent staff working here, everyday, and only 3 of them are human.”
As well as growing grapes, Krinklewood raise pigs, sheep and cows on their property. Ascella also raises sheep while Macquariedale raise cows. Encouraging biodiversity is one of the principal conventions of organics, and winegrowers who practice this method of viticulture spend a lot of time developing protocols that help to combat harmful pests and disease by utilising tools that nature has provided.
“The trick with organic growing is to make sure the vineyard has as much biodiversity as possible,” explains Barbara Brown from Ascella Estate. “So, we have sheep which graze in the vineyard in the wintertime and they eat the weeds and the grass under the vines, so we don’t need to use any herbicides”.
“Vineyards are a monoculture and that leaves them susceptible to attack from pests, such as light brown apple moths,” explains Ross McDonald from Macquariedale, in Rothbury. “So, we want to encourage other organisms, like spiders, lizards and lady beetles into the vineyard, because they attack and eat unwanted bugs, like the light brown apple moths.”
Because these organic winegrowers don’t use any synthetic chemicals to grow their grapes, relying instead on natural methods, such as proactive canopy and crop management, means that sometimes their yields during harvest can be lower than normal.
“The viticultural practices (by organic growers) of reducing their canopy and crop levels means they sometimes produce less wine, but in doing so they can achieve better ripening results, which can make for really great tasting wines,” says Greg Silkman, Managing Director of First Creek, who also make their own organic wines, Bianco and Rosso Puro.
Despite lower yields, Ascella, Krinklewood and Macquariedale are still able to offer a significant range of wines to taste and explore. Krinklewood are probably best known for their cool(er) climate Chardonnay and unique blend of Semillon, Verdelho and Chardonnay, known as Spider’s Run White. Ascella produce an refreshing sparkling rosé, as well as their own Shiraz and Merlot single varieties. Macquariedale have a site perfect for Merlot, and in 2012, they made a Pinot Noir from estate grown fruit, which was, arguably, one of their best wines ever.
“For us, we believe that organic fruit means we can make great tasting, beautiful wines that are equal to any non-organic wine,” says Barbara Brown from Ascella, “and we’ve proved that, whenever we’ve won medals or trophies at wine shows where the judges don’t know we’re organic.”
“Our wines are alive,” says Ross McDonald from Macquariedale, “we use wild yeast ferments to compliment the flavour intensity of the grapes we grow to make wines that are true to the Hunter region. Organic viticulture helps us make wines that have unique aroma and flavour profiles, and represent our place in the Valley.”
“There is an unknown quality that a lot of our customers comment on,” says Pete Windrim from Krinklewood, “and they always say that there’s something different about our wines… in a good way!”
Just like the pioneering family’s that colour the Hunter Valley’s rich past, and made winegrowing a thriving industry throughout Australia, the organic winegrowers in the Hunter today are forging ahead and writing the next chapter of this beautiful region’s story with delicious wines that one day, might also be celebrated by wine lovers right across the world.
D// – The Wine Idealist
Links and Further Reading
**This article was originally published as ‘The Big O’, in Issue 3 of Hunter Valley Magazine, 2014.