The Chalmers family have supplied vines and fruit to countless growers and makers over the years, with a specialisation in Italian varieties that are revered in Italy but less well known here. The Chalmers Heathcote vineyard was first planted in 2009, with 25 different varieties now in the ground that go both to their own label as well as a suite of top makers, including Momento Mori, Jamsheed, Little Reddie and Konpira Maru. The Chalmers approach, with the guidance of viticulturist Troy McInnes, is one of adaption not just through variety, but also via norm-shattering vineyard layouts and a management plan that places soil health front and centre.
The Chalmers family began their association with Italian grapes as a pioneering nursery enterprise, initially importing a slew of lesser known varieties in 1998. Aside from a love for the wines of Italy, the motivation was very much to find vines that not just tolerated some of Australia’s more arid regions but would thrive in them. That venture quickly grew to making wine under their own label to further pursue those possibilities.
While the new varieties were first planted in the Chalmers old nursery vineyard in Euston in the Murray Darling region, the family had their sights set on a site in Heathcote. That property, in the Mount Camel Range near Colbinabbin on the region’s famed red Cambrian soils, was where they thought a particular cohort of vines would excel, which saw 25 varieties, some with several clones, planted across 34 hectares of the 80-hectare property.
“My biggest challenge is the constantly changing climate conditions. No season or year is ever the same, and the best way to be resilient in all climatic extremes is vine health, doing whatever you need to build your soil and soil structure to achieve healthy and happy vines that will be more resilient when those extremes hit.”
Beginning in 2009 – and continuing in small additions to this day – the Chalmers family have planted aglianico, falanghina, fiano, garganega, greco, lagrein, lambrusco maestri, malvasia istriana, moscato giallo, negroamaro, nero d’vola, nosiola, pavana, refosco, sangiovese, schioppettino, vermentino, piedirosso, sagrantino, nebbiolo, pecorino and ribolla gialla, as well as the decidedly non-Italian grapes malbec, mataro and shiraz – the Heathcote regional star.
Today, the site is managed by viticulturist Troy McInnes, both supplying fruit for their own winery in Merbein, which is the Chalmers current base in the Murray Darling, as well as a list of about 50 top producers. And that list reads like a who’s who of cutting-edge makers: Momento Mori, Minim, Lethbridge, Sutton Grange, Analog, Athletes of Wine, Blood Moon, Musk Lane, Ephemera, Jamsheed, City Winery, Handpicked, Save our Souls, Konpira Maru, Little Reddie, Pyren, Munari, One Block, Santolin and Lo Stesso, to name only a few.
McInnes shuns systemic insecticides and fungicides in the vineyard, only using copper and sulphur, while the soil is managed solely with organic inputs, such as composted cow manure, cover cropping for competition and nutrients, as well as applications of humic acid and seaweed.
McInnes also emphasises that the success of the site in the arid Heathcote zone is as much down to the varieties planted and their management as it is to do with the vineyard architecture. “I am proud of going against what everyone else does,” he says, “in regard to vine orientation, vine density and row spacings, equating to a planting density of 4,545 vines per hectare. With rows running in an east to west orientation and being on an east-facing slope, we have been able to run a very tall and narrow trellis system while still avoiding direct sunlight on the fruit zone.”
This approach is then tailored to the individual variety and clone, with vine structure and management specific to each, and sometimes with the specific needs of grape clients in mind. “I work with a vast array of winemakers,” says McInnes, “and I take all requirements and thoughts that they have on board. Some are informative, some are introduced to meet their demand and others are not practical, therefore not sustainable. My job is to grow quality, well-balanced fruit that requires very little intervention to make high quality wines. I believe the quality of the wine is made on the vine not in the winery.”
But that job is becoming more challenging, concedes McInnes. “My biggest challenge is the constantly changing climate conditions. No season or year is ever the same, and the best way to be resilient in all climatic extremes is vine health, doing whatever you need to build your soil and soil structure to achieve healthy and happy vines that will be more resilient when those extremes hit.”
No matter the impact of those extremes and the measures taken to manage them, McInnes maintains that the vineyard’s composition of varieties that are tolerant to drought and heat, as well as having the potential for making wines that are engagingly different, is the cornerstone of both current and future success.
“We are cultivating wine grape varieties that are more suited to the changing climate, requiring less chemicals, less irrigation water etc., which is all beneficial,” says McInnes, "and we base our future decisions around opening the eyes of the Australian wine industry. The market is always looking for something new and that’s what we do and will continue to do.”
“We are cultivating wine grape varieties that are more suited to the changing climate, requiring less chemicals, less irrigation water etc., which is all beneficial,” says McInnes, “and we base our future decisions around opening the eyes of the Australian wine industry. The market is always looking for something new and that’s what we do and will continue to do.”
Unlike propping up varieties planted in the wrong places with excessive irrigation or other inputs, the idea of adaptability and not forcing things, but rather finding a natural way, has always underpinned the thinking of the Chalmers family, harmonising their vineyard with their localised environment.
“The family have always considered nature in their farming, even before I worked with them in Heathcote,” says McInnes, “with preservation of native flora and fauna, encouraging biodiversity on their properties, which we also do in Heathcote. As a farmer, stewardship of the land and protecting it for future generations is just ingrained, if it’s not at the core of your practice, there is something wrong.”