One glass at a time: Deciphering perspectives on McLaren Vale’s organic wine

Growing concern over the environment, sustainability and health have all increased the popularity of organic wine. But how has the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020 changed the wine landscape? Reporter Jessica Franzé travels to McLaren Vale to find out. (Image source: Jessica Franze.)

By Jessica Franzé |@franze_jessica

“To be honest, I’m probably the most organic producer out here.” It’s a bold statement coming from someone whose wine isn’t certified organic, but generational winemaker Paul Petagna is a straight-talking guy. Paul is a free thinker and thinks differently to most. While certification allows consumers to easily identify wine as organic, he doubts its value.

At the cellar door Paul calls home, Sellicks Hill Wines, nestled within the Fleurieu, winemakers have long embraced sustainability, making organic wine using ancient wine-making techniques. While there are significant health and environmental benefits to be gained from organic wine production, certification is admittedly where he draws the line.

The Australian wine industry continues to grow, with international travel restrictions boosting domestic demand and wine exports to the United Kingdom and United States expected to remain high in 2021. As part of this trend, organic viticulture is growing in popularity as more and more wine lovers are ‘concerned for the environment, sustainability and health’.

Still, Paul refuses to subscribe to tick-box culture. “I use very minimal sulphates in my wine; just enough to prevent the wine from going mouldy,” Paul tells me at his cellar door.

“A lot of other producers put all sorts of chemicals in their wine and you just don’t need it.”

According to Paul, the future of producing organic wine lies in the past: returning to old-fashioned farming methods. This is something Paul learned from his father-in-law, Modestino Piombo, who taught him all there is to know about traditional winemaking. Piombo’s legacy is passed down from the hilltop province of Sassinoro, Italy, to their family’s property, 25 kilometres southwest of McLaren Vale.

Sellicks Hill Wines is a proud producer of wine by traditional, ‘old-school’ techniques. Image source: Sellicks Hill Wines

But it seems Paul’s view on organic certification is the exception, with the McLaren Vale now boasting the highest number of certified organic vineyards of anywhere in Australia. Just 40 minutes from Adelaide, the McLaren Vale is a prime wine region, with an abundance of local produce, ocean views and walking and bike trails. Here, you’ll find some of Australia’s most prized organic cellar doors.

Joch Bosworth and Louise Hemsley-Smith, owners of Battle of Bosworth Wines, converted their vineyards to certified organic in 1995, the first in the region to do so. This year, they celebrate 25 years since their ‘wine revolution’.

Bosworth Wines now also makes wine under the label of Spring Seed Wine Co. and has established relationships with more than ten countries including the USA, Korea, Russia, Sweden and Japan.

Another is Gemtree Wines and its owners, Melissa Brown and her husband Mike. Melissa is Gemtree’s viticulturalist whose job it is to ensure the health of the soil­ so the grapes grow to provide maximum yield and flavour. Her husband Mike is Gemtree’s chief winemaker and managing director.

It’s been more than 25 years since Mike and Melissa began winemaking together at Gemtree and 40 years since Melissa’s parents, Jill and Paul Buttery, bought the vineyard. The Gemtree story began with Melissa’s grandfather, Ernest Allan Rivers, a market gardener in the suburbs of Adelaide who moved to plant the vineyard in McLaren Vale in 1969.

But unlike the preceding generations who focused wholly on the economics of the business, Melissa has focused more on the long-term wellbeing of the vineyard and the surrounding environment. Mike and Melissa introduced biodynamics—a sustainable and organic approach to farming—in the vineyards in 2008, but not everyone agreed with this decision. The patriarch said they’d “lost their marbles”. Yet this focus—on impact instead of income—has been the catalyst for transforming Gemtree into a world-class organic wine business.

In early 2008, Melissa began growing vegetables organically at home. They were eating a lot of organic food but going to work and treating the vineyards with fertilisers, herbicides and pesticide. This is when they realised it was time to shift this philosophy into the vineyard and winery.

Gemtree now grows 152 hectares of grapes across two McLaren Vale vineyards that first achieved full organic certification in 2011. Full organic certification is something less than 0.5 per cent of winemakers in Australia can claim.

Gemtree’s two vineyards vary markedly in their terroir: their McLaren Vale vineyard is on the coast by Maslins Beach and benefits from sea breezes while their McLaren Flat vineyard is higher in elevation at the base of the Mount Loft Ranges. The varying locations means the vineyards are unique and managed differently.

While Melissa’s connection to her family’s land is what has led them to develop Gemtree, Mike is a talented winemaker in his own right. Having completed two apprenticeships under the guidance of Chester Osborn at d’Arenberg Wines (another certified organic winemaker) and with Warran Randall from Seppeltsfield, he worked two French vintages in the Languedoc and Provence regions. It is this experience that ultimately guided the wine styles Gemtree continues to make.

Melissa’s approach to sustainable farming shines through in everything they do at Gemtree. Inside the cellar door, the bar is constructed entirely out of reclaimed wood sourced from the historic Old Tatachilla Winery, while the floor is made from 70 per cent recycled cork. Outside, the deck is 70 per cent recycled plastic.

Below the deck, a dam is used as a barrier to divert and store water for irrigation, which otherwise would flow downstream. As one of the early users of the Willunga Basin Water Scheme, recycled wastewater is pumped to the vineyard from the nearby Christies Beach treatment plant. The scheme, used by some 140 growers across 2000 hectares of vines, gives them access to more water while reducing the over-use of groundwater resources and the River Murray.

Gemtree’s winery, cellar door and vineyard are all powered by three separate solar systems that not only give greater control over energy but also large reductions in operating costs. In the nearby paddock, sheep are used for weed control.

Majority of Gemtree’s power is generated by three separate solar panel systems while a reservoir behind the dam provides a free and sustainable water source. (Image source: Jessica Franze)

In 2001, Melissa’s parents purchased an old dairy farm to plant vines on. When an area of the property, situated at the rear of the cellar door, was not suitable for planting, they decided to devote the area to native flora and fauna to increase the vineyard’s biodiversity. They installed six interlinking dams, with the first planting comprised of 19,000 native plants. In 2011, they added the Gemtree Ecotrail walking trail along with picnic shelters and a public barbecue.

On my visit to Gemtree, I was greeted by Genevieve, cellar and farm hand. Hosting my wine tasting experience, Genevieve guided me through five organic wines on their tasting menu. Highlights included the Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, deliciously dark and silky smooth with smokey and dark berry tannins.

“The Cab Sav and Grenache are both hand-bottled and labelled,” Genevieve explains. “Rather than oak or steel, the wine is fermented in concrete with an egg-shaped vesicle, a holding space which promotes the wine to stir during fermentation. The egg shape ensures the yeast falls naturally to the bottom. This is different as you would leave it or stir it yourself usually.”

The Uncut Shiraz is a 2018 vintage made using biodynamic processes. Clean cut and fruitier than your average, Genevieve calls this her “Tuesday wine”. Next was the Phantom red blend, a rough and ready 2019 vintage with subtle notes of Mourvèdre (Mataro). Genevieve tells me Mike paints himself onto the bottle label each vintage. Each year, he chooses a different theme and blends himself into the background of the image.

Left: Gemtree’s Chief winemaker, Mike Brown, paints himself onto The Phantom’s label each vintage. Right: Gemtree’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache are fermented in concrete. (Image source: Jessica Franze)

After the tasting, we make our way down to the biodynamic hut where Genevieve shows me the lunar calendar and gives a private tour of their vegetable patch and worm farm. The lunar calendar is used as a guide to planting and picking and helps determine the level of moisture in the soil and air. These biodynamic practices, Genevieve says, were established by the late Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian academic whose winemaking principles blend science with spirituality.

Science and spirituality combine in Gemtree’s biodynamic hut. (Image source: Jessica Franze)

Gemtree was one of the first growers in the McLaren Vale to embrace biodynamic principles, with the first trial of an all-natural approach occurring on their 2007 Tempranillo crop. While converting to the practice of biodynamics has involved a lot of trial and error, the benefits have been profound.

Outside Gemtree’s biodynamic hut, a series of stations showcase steps in biodynamic preparation, complete with worm farm. (Image source: Jessica Franze)

Soon after the change, production quadrupled to 100,000 cases of wine a year, which allowed them to diversify their business and accept more private label deals.  While much of Gemtree’s output is Shiraz, they also grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Grenache, Mourvèdre (Mataro), Savagnin, Chardonnay, Verdehlo, Albarinno and Fiano. About 40 per cent of Gemtree’s wine is exported, in large part to China.

But the onset of COVID-19 in 2020 dramatically changed the wine landscape. Like most other growers in the McLaren Vale, Gemtree’s production cycle slowed with the loss of prime export markets, China and the US, and the cellar door forced to shut. The strict border closures and limited travel options meant Genevieve and the other workhands had no choice but to stay put.

“Typically, I would work one vintage in the northern hemisphere, in the US, and one vintage in the southern hemisphere, in Australia. But now, with travel restrictions and the ability to extend my visa for another 12 months, I am working another vintage in Australia,” Genevieve says.

Even though sales to China have slumped, there is a silver lining for Gemtree: their relationship with German supermarket giant Aldi has gone from strength to strength as retail wine sales continue to skyrocket.

But making organic or ‘low intervention’ wine is less about the financial benefit as it is a labour of love.

Organic viticulture is typically more labour intensive, with farming practices such as pruning, composting and harvest carried out by hand. Being more ‘hands-on’ in the vineyard enables the grapes to develop a flavour more reflective of the terroir, climate and vintage. Likewise, there is less intervention in the winery, with the winemaking process largely free from adjustment and winemakers using traditional techniques. These include, foot crushing, basket presses, skin-contact and fermentation vessels made of oak, amphora clay and concrete.

Although some organic wines are now becoming available in supermarkets like Aldi, immersing oneself in the sights and sounds of the cellar door is an experience that simply cannot be beat. This is something that all organic growers, whose methodologies may vary, can agree on.

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