After a decade or so of conventional growing (heavy reliance of artificial fertilisers, herbicides, chemical pesticides) we noticed that our soils were deteriorating, and our vines were requiring more and more inputs to stay in shape – we were chasing our tail.
While the dogmatism (and bureaucracy) of pure organic growing didn’t appeal to us, we knew there was much to be learned from more traditional forms of farming, and modern adaptations of these practices. To my grandfather, a dairy famer in southern Western Australia, recycling manure back onto grazing paddocks was simply the way things were done.
So we spent some time looking at what others were doing in both viticulture and broader agriculture to improve soil health and sustainability. It’s a jungle (pun intended!) out there! SO MANY OPINIONS, so little proof, so many with something to sell, but some common themes begin to emerge, and some elemental truths revealed themselves:
- Stop feeding the plant directly, and allow the plant to feed itself
- Nurture biodiversity
- Build your soil carbon (and hence soil structure)
- Intervene only when necessary
Although it sounds simple, this takes a while to work through, and apply to your own land, crop and circumstances. Goals are one thing, putting practices in place to achieve them is another. Over a number of years, we put in place:
- Permanent Vineyard Sward – nurture soil microbiology and create a home for “beneficials”
- Composting Program – accelerate the natural carbon cycle, boost soil microbiology, allow the vines to feed themselves, recycle “waste”
- Minimise artificial inputs – reduce impact on soil microbiology and other “beneficials” and improve sustainability by minimising the use of herbicides, artificial fertilisers and harsh pesticides.
The last one seems to be the most controversial – you’ll notice it says “minimise” not “eliminate”. We now use less than 10% of the herbicide we used to use, mainly to control invasive weeds such as blackberry and serrated tussock (a huge problem for local graziers). In a dry year, we may use an early season contact herbicide on some blocks to keep competition for resources (water, nutrients) down for the vines. While this isn’t pure organics, it certainly reduces our diesel use!
It’s been almost a decade since we put these practices in place - so what’s changed? Has it been worth the effort? There have been some setbacks (Cabernet DOES NOT LIKE competition for water and nutrients), but on the whole we have seen a huge leap in vine health and fruit quality. The most visible signs are:
- Vines that find their own balance (fruit/leaf ratio) in any given year – time spent looking after the soil is offset by less time spent mucking around with canopies.
- Vineyard resilience – improved soil structure and water holding capacity means the vines are able to deal with dry spells and hot conditions much better.
- Improved biodiversity – the vineyard is full a bees, moths, bugs, spiders, lizards, and heathy soil microbiology quickly breaks down organic matter.
- More vibrant wines (now we’re getting to the relevance!)– flavours, colour, sugar and acid are coming together earlier, resulting in more flavourful, better balanced wines.
A friend of ours, interested in what we do, said “so if you’re not organic, and your definitely not bio-dynamic, what are ya?”. I think we’re rational farmers who want to produce the highest quality wines we can, while leaving our soils and farm in better shape for the next generation. But that’s hard to put into a natty label, isn’t it?
Best way is to come out and taste the difference for yourself. We love people who care not only how their wine tastes but how its made!