In the windswept cool of Henty in Victoria’s south-west, Belinda Thomson both tends the vines and makes the wines for Victoria’s preeminent riesling producer, Crawford River. The operation is a family affair, with her parents initially planting the site between 1975 and ’77. The vineyard sits in a gentle amphitheatre on land that has been in the family since 1884, with it predominantly used for grazing both sheep and cattle.
Since those initial plantings, with a primary focus on riesling and cabernet sauvignon, additional vines were added in ’94, ’00 and ’19. Today, across 11 hectares under vine, that focus is still very much on riesling, with cabernet sauvignon leading the reds, while semillon, sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc are supporting players.
From 2004, Thomson split her time between working at the family vineyard and vintages overseas, taking on full responsibility for the vineyard and winery operations a decade later. But her influence was felt well before then, with the beginning of a shift towards organic practices. “I’m pretty chuffed that I stuck to my guns and managed to convince the older generation to allow me to move the vineyard in an organic direction, starting slowly in 2008.”
“I’m pretty chuffed that I stuck to my guns and managed to convince the older generation to allow me to move the vineyard in an organic direction, starting slowly in 2008.”
That change saw an under-vine slasher purchased and synthetic herbicide use ceasing. And with no insecticides having been used for well over a decade prior to that, the vineyard was on the way from what was already a very sympathetic agricultural methodology to the ideal farming model that Thomson is pursuing.
“I’m a fifth-generation farmer on our site, so management of the land for now and the future is crucial. I’d like to think I could leave it in better shape than I received it in,” says Thomson. “So far, so good… Carbon neutrality is something on my wish list. And biodynamics has always been an ultimate goal for me. I need some staff first, though!”
While the Crawford River site is a cool one, the challenges of a changing climate are just as real for Thomson. “Climate change is real, it’s happening – no matter who you think is or is not responsible. …Improving soils for carbon sequestration is important, together with tree planting and the use of efficient equipment… and less of it.”
“I’m a fifth-generation farmer on our site, so management of the land for now and the future is crucial. I’d like to think I could leave it in better shape than I received it in.”
Although the site was dry grown for 25 years, irrigation is now used to manage the drier seasons, but only in support of vine health. Thomson directs this program to set the vines up early, with typically only five applications a season, and she never waters post veraison, ensuring no distortion of natural flavour and balance in the fruit.
“Probably the biggest challenge for us is an old vineyard and a cool site, which means heaven for fungal disease – trunk and leaf,” says Thomson. “I’m working to improve vine and soil health, and balance to create better natural defences, requiring fewer inputs and longer-lived vines.”
This process includes applying organic compost to boost the soil’s biological health, mulching with straw grown onsite and applying kelp solutions to lift nutrient levels. With only organic practices in place, though not certified as yet, Thomson is trialling new methods to manage disease to reduce copper use in the vineyard, with a casuarina tea trial currently in place to reduce downy mildew pressure. Additionally, a renovation of mid-rows is currently underway with the introduction of cover crops and grasses to alleviate machinery compaction of soil and further lift biodiversity.
“Increasingly, since ceasing under-vine spraying over a decade ago, I see a clear change in the acid balance and stability of our wines – particularly the reds.”
“Increasingly, since ceasing under-vine spraying over a decade ago, I see a clear change in the acid balance and stability of our wines – particularly the reds,” says Thomson. “I haven’t added acid to any of our red wines since 2010. Their pH is lower and more stable, and I often find we have numbers that resemble pinot statistics, rather than those reminiscent of the cabernet family.”
Being both the winemaker and viticulturist, Thomson hardly misses out on the considerable attention the Crawford River wines receive, but she does admit to being a little frustrated that “people just focus on the end product and don’t necessarily want to talk about the fruit and growing conditions.” However, she also believes there is a gradual shift with an “increasing demand for knowledge of growing conditions and practices.”
It’s these practices that Thomson credits in the majority for what she sees as an increasingly apparent signature of site in the wines. “While I feel we have always had a lovely sense of minerality on this site, I think it has become more evident since we began an organic spray regime. I believe the phenolic composition and mineral component of our riesling is more evident now than in the past, a pure reflection of soil and season. What I see in the glass is a direct translation of both season and variety, which is incredibly satisfying.
“The same is true of our sauvignon blanc, which I now ferment naturally in predominantly used oak. No acid, enzyme, yeast or fining agent of any kind is used. The wine speaks strongly of the season in which it was raised. It comprises the saline quality of the limestone at its feet, coupled with the richness from the ironstone of its topsoil.”