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Babydolls and McLaren Vale’s Other Green Pin-Ups

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29 June 2021. Words by Lieke van der Hulst.

Sustainability is a hot word right now. And one that is hard to pin down. It’s easy for people to talk about being sustainable; it’s another thing to actually live by such principles. In this edition of New Voices in Wine, South Australian–based research winemaker Dr Lieke van der Hulst takes us inside a community of winegrowers in McLaren Vale who are making changes from the ground up.

McLaren Vale in South Australia is the home ground of many devoted custodians of the land, but a burgeoning group of grapegrowers and winemakers are pushing the idea of environmental sustainability just that little bit further in the hope of leaving the planet at least as well as they found it – and maybe even better. Small changes and big revamps are all part of this philosophy in the Vale, with winemakers considering regenerative farming and ‘closing the loop’ to be just as important as making delicious wines.

“Greenwashing, where a producer falsely claims to be more environmentally friendly or sustainable than they really are, happens a lot, and it is very easy for a consumer to get confused. Organic does not necessarily mean regenerative farming – and vice versa, the use of chemicals does not mean something is not sustainable.”

Brad Moyes and his wife Kendall Grey from Orbis Wines, for example, are turning their 32 hectares in the middle of McLaren Vale into a green playground. Orbis (Latin for ‘circle’) is not simply a winery dream come true for Moyes, but a deeply personal decision after reading Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, in 2005. Moyes and Grey wanted to set an example for their daughters by doing their bit to help fight climate change. Simply buying carbon-offsets was not enough for Moyes, though. “I looked into buying a forest,” he explains, “but that turned out to be too big, so we decided on a vineyard with surrounding woodland to live more sustainably.”

Above: Brad Moyes and Kendall Grey at their vineyard. Opposite: An electric Polaris utility vehicle during harvest. “Where possible, our machinery is electric and powered by solar energy,” Moyes says.

When it comes to running a vineyard, sustainability is multifaceted, including elements such as regenerative farming, good waste management and using as little fossil fuels as possible – but also ensuring operations are viable, both economically and socially. To incorporate all of this in practice, it wasn’t until 2018 that Moyes and Grey settled on their first vintage for Orbis Wines.

Orbis Wines combines old-school practices with innovative technology, from vineyard management to vinification. “Where possible, our machinery is electric and powered by solar energy,” Moyes says. “I am looking forward to phasing out diesel tractors when possible!” Having sheep grazing in the vineyard means less equipment is needed to slash and mow weeds, but the animals offer other benefits, too, such as reintroducing good bacteria and nitrogen into the soil. Also, a flock of sheep will not compact the soil in the way heavy tractors would, keeping the soil’s structure intact for good water-holding capacity and soil fertility. Moyes is currently trialling Australian Babydoll Southdown sheep in the vineyard. “These smaller sheep will be able to graze in our recently planted higher-cordon vineyards all year round, whereas the more conventional size might have to be removed at bud burst to protect against nibbling the actual crop.” With wool (and potentially milk) as bonus by-products, sheep even add productivity to the vineyard, which is extremely important for a sustainable mindset, according to Moyes. “We need to find ways of being more productive with less actual labour,” he explains.

Above: Merino cross sheep at Orbis vineyard. Moyes is currently trialling Australian Babydoll Southdown sheep in the vineyard. “These smaller sheep will be able to graze in our recently planted higher-cordon vineyards all year round, whereas the more conventional size might have to be removed at bud burst to protect against nibbling the actual crop.” Opposite: The Babydoll sheep are shorter, and cuter too. Image courtesy of Redwaters Stud.

At Orbis, the carbon footprint of a grape is very small: it travels only a couple hundred metres from the vine to a fermenter, followed by just a small trip back to the vineyard compost heap as grape marc. The surrounding woodland also provides timber for the vineyard’s posts and other winery construction jobs; keeping everything close to home makes it easier to ‘close the loop’ in an environmentally friendly way.

Just 10 minutes up the road from Orbis you’ll find Camwell Wines, a ‘micro batch’ wine company run by husband-and-wife team Brad and Kendra White Cameron. With a master’s degree in environment, culture and society from the University of Edinburgh, Kendra is very excited about the McLaren Vale Biodiversity Project, working on biochar, bird nesting boxes and native tree-planting throughout the region. Biochar is produced by the slow, controlled burning of biomass, and besides being highly nutrient rich, it is able to store carbon instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. Added to compost, biochar can improve soil quality, and given that wine regions are quite often dominated by monoculture farming, Kendra thinks this is another aspect where a sustainable mindset can help reduce ecosystem vulnerabilities. Establishing a diverse range of plants can also improve environments in many ways. “We purposefully planted crawling vines on our winery building at Camwell, to give natural shade and climate control,” she explains, “but we are also planting native bushes and trees all throughout the Vale with the Biodiversity Project to strengthen the local ecosystem and promote beneficial insect populations.”

Clockwise from above: Brad and Kendra White Cameron replacing olive trees with native plants as part of the McLaren Vale Biodiversity Project; native tea tree plantings at a local vineyard; regenerative agriculture specialist Richard Leask holding biochar; making the biochar.

These ecologically friendly examples of modern viticulture practices still fit within the rustic and rural image of winemaking. But the least sexy part of production is a very important one to consider environmentally: packaging. Moyes explains that a whopping 70 per cent of the carbon released to make a bottle of wine is in the glass it comes in – given that large amounts of energy are needed to produce the glass in the first place, and large amounts of energy are needed to recycle it again. That is why he is delighted to let his customers return empty bottles to be refilled with their wonderful wines. It isn’t just the bottles that add to waste and carbon emissions, but the foil wraps and screwcaps they’re sealed with as well – so Moyes decided to do away with them altogether and keep the traditional cork closure for another environmental win. “Corks,” he explains, “are actually carbon-negative, as cork forests sequester carbon.”

Other winemakers have also put their minds to the problems with modern packaging. Charlotte Hardy of Charlotte Dalton Wines, the 2021 Young Gun of Wine, screenprints her labels directly onto bottles to reduce unnecessary paper waste, and advocates reusing her bottles for decorative purposes. Young Gun of Wine 2021 finalists Andrew Wardlaw from Edenflo and Matt Purbrick of Minimum Wines opt to only use locally produced or lightweight bottles. Former winemaker Jordy Kay was appalled at the amount of plastic used for wrapping wine pallets for shipping, and is now completely engaged in producing his own fully compostable pallet wrap.

South Australia’s Riot Wine Co pushes sustainable packaging even further by producing their wines specifically for distribution in cans or kegs. In doing so, Riot’s winemaker Tom O’Donnell tackles yet another aspect of wine wastage. “I hate it when you get a glass of wine in a pub from a bottle that has obviously been open for some time,” he says. That all-too-common scenario of stale wine being tipped down the drain got him thinking, and in 2016, he started Riot to make wine that would go straight on tap and give punters a drink that will be just as vibrant from the very first sip to the very last glass. O’Donnell feels challenged, but not burdened, by the winemaking choices he needs to make to ensure the focus is on fresh, bright wines in can or keg. “We do not work with varieties that have tannins that need to soften up, or need oxygen ingress over time to age. We work on ageing our wines in tank and concrete eggs to provide a drink-ready wine as soon as it goes to keg.” It does mean that not every variety or wine style is available to O’Donnell, which is why he is most excited about the sparkling wine that Riot will release soon. “Roughly 15 per cent of sparkling wine poured on premise in Australia is wasted, as an opened bottle just does not keep well.” Cans are also easier to recycle than glass, and along with the use of stainless-steel kegs, fits within Riot’s core values of sustainability.

Above: Riot wines go into keg or can. Cans are easier to recycle than glass, and along with the use of stainless-steel kegs, fits within Riot’s core values of sustainability. Opposite: Riot’s winemaker Tom O’Donnell, “We do not work with varieties that have tannins that need to soften up, or need oxygen ingress over time to age. We work on ageing our wines in tank and concrete eggs to provide a drink-ready wine as soon as it goes to keg.”

Whatever environmental changes wineries make, being truthful about their sustainability progress and educating consumers are the biggest steps to take. “Greenwashing, where a producer falsely claims to be more environmentally friendly or sustainable than they really are, happens a lot, and it is very easy for a consumer to get confused,” says Kendra. “Organic does not necessarily mean regenerative farming – and vice versa, the use of chemicals does not mean something is not sustainable.”

With more dedicated producers than ever making inroads, there’s reason to be positive. As Moyes says, “We don’t have to be perfect, but I think we are showing that we can re-tool the industry. Small changes can bring about some big long-term results.”

Babydoll sheep, image courtesy of Redwaters Stud.

About New Voices in Wine:
Applications are open for New Voices in Wine – our mentoring program to fast track the development of aspiring wine writers and publish their works at younggunofwine.com. The process includes mentoring sessions designed to help develop a piece of writing, as well as provide the opportunity to tap into the broader wisdom of some of Australia’s very best food and wine writers, such as Richard Cornish and Sophie Otton, who were the mentors for this article. We want to find new voices to join the more familiar ones, to give new writers and communicators a chance to provide their own unique take on the world of wine. New Voices, we want you – apply now!

About Lieke van der Hulst:
From the Netherlands, Lieke van der Hulst came to Australia 10 years ago with the intention to stay for only a year of study, but she caught the Australian wine bug and completed a PhD in smoke-taint research at the University of Adelaide. She is now a research winemaker at WIC Winemaking Services – a joint venture between the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) and the University of Adelaide, focusing on ‘pilot’ wines. For Lieke, winemaking is the ultimate blend of science and creative flow.