With the vineyard situated in McLaren Flat, the Gemtree mission is very much an ongoing quest to improve wine quality, but their ethos is inseparable from a desire to have a positive environmental impact both locally and globally. With an eye to the future, viticulturist Melissa Brown has planted varieties suited to an ever-warming Mediterranean climate – like nero d’avola and fiano – alongside the Vale classics of shiraz and grenache. The 123-hectare vineyard has been managed using biodynamic methods since 2007 – with it certified for a decade – to encourage a ‘living soil’ and build resilience in the vines, while an eco-reserve has been established to restore native flora and fauna, as well as to educate visitors.
After a period of study and travel, Melissa Brown returned to the family vineyard in 1994 to work amongst the vines. What followed was both onsite training and a formal education as a viticulturist, which eventually led to an interest in organic practices. Starting with a single block of tempranillo, Brown was encouraged by the life that was returning to the soil and the vines, along with improvements in the fruit, and began managing all the vines organically, with biodynamic practices implemented from 2007. The whole Gemtree vineyard was certified (ACO) in 2011.
“Climate change is our biggest challenge, which has an impact on the quality of our grapes in terms of flavour and tannin ripeness,” says Brown. “I’m changing to varieties that are better suited to a warmer climate and also will be trialling techniques for mitigating the negative consequences of excessive temperatures, such as canopy cooling.”
The vineyard has been progressively planted since 1968 to now occupy 125 hectares, with the varietal mix nuanced over time to address a warm region that is getting warmer still. While the region’s lead varieties – shiraz, grenache, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay – are all represented in the vineyard, so too are mataro, nero d’avola, savagnin, fiano, verdelho, albariño, tempranillo and zinfandel, with a suitability to the Mediterranean climate key to their inclusion.
“Climate change is our biggest challenge, which has an impact on the quality of our grapes in terms of flavour and tannin ripeness. I’m changing to varieties that are better suited to a warmer climate and will be trialling techniques for mitigating the negative consequences of excessive temperatures, such as canopy cooling,” says Brown, though she notes that tackling the larger issue is the real challenge. “We are doing our best to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions… I wish I had access to electric 4WD utilities and tractors.”
There is no doubt that Gemtree has been a leader in McLaren Vale – and the country – in applying and promoting organic and biodynamic methods, and on a large scale, but Brown notes that the region is not lagging behind, and it is that kinship of spirit that helps drive further progress.
“The bar is set high here in McLaren Vale,” she says, “with over 37 per cent of our vineyards being certified organic and biodynamic, and we also developed the SWA [Sustainable Winegrowing Australia] program with a very high number of participants. There is a healthy level of competition, but we all support each other as well and are happy to share information for the benefit of others and our region.”
While vine health and fruit quality are very much a driving force for Brown, Gemtree is a holistic endeavour. “Economically, collectively with the wine business we employ over 40 local people, providing an income and stable employment with a big focus on making our employees feel valued and a part of the larger Gemtree family,” says Brown. Additionally, there is a good deal of emphasis placed on addressing and educating about organic and biodynamic practices, as well as broader environmental issues.
“From the conversion from conventional to biodynamic practices, we saw a gradual improvement in soil and vine health, but we didn’t see it transform the wines until around 2017, after 10 years,” she says. “From that vintage on, we saw a noticeable difference in thicker skins, more colour density and flavour.”
“I’m hugely concerned about the state of our planet, and I feel compelled to do something,” says Brown. “It’s what drives me. I think of myself as a passive activist – I lead by example. I am privileged to be in a position to influence my team, as well as customers, through education about what we can all do to help our planet, so it’s important to me that I maximise that opportunity.”
That ethos has seen the development of an onsite native reserve and sanctuary. “The Gemtree Ecotrail is a unique site of 10 hectares that was once a degraded piece of land that we have restored and revegetated with the planting of over 50,000 native trees and shrubs,” says Brown. “This contributes to the biodiversity of our vineyards, as well as providing a safe habitat for native animals. It’s also a beautiful space for the community and visitors to enjoy.”
The site includes a koala gunya, or shelter, where rescued koalas rehabilitate before release, and in 2021 Brown introduced a cultural tour hosted by Senior Custodian and traditional owner Karl Winda Telfer from the Mullawirra Meyunna (dry forest people) of the Adelaide Region. “’Tirkandi’ takes people on a journey throughout the trail learning about the importance of connection between land, sea, sky and country to the Aboriginal culture,” says Brown.
The focus on native vegetation isn’t limited to the Ecotrail, with large sections of remnant vegetation maintained across the vineyard, which encourages biodiversity, as well as fostering beneficial predatory insect populations. A grass sward and cover crops are maintained throughout the mid-rows in the vineyard, which are rolled rather than cultivated, while weeds are managed with under-vine mowers, a dodge plough and through rotational grazing of sheep.
Gemtree’s power needs are also significantly supported by solar power, with irrigation pumps, the winery and cellar door (which was constructed out of recycled and sustainable materials) all fitted with their own solar units. Gemtree is also a member of Cleanhub, helping to fund the collection and effective disposal of nonrecyclable plastics worldwide, as well as having personally removed and recycled over 11 tonnes of old irrigation lines, amongst other initiatives to reduce the environmental impact of the business.
“I would like our business to become carbon neutral or even better, carbon positive!” declares Brown. “We’re managing climate change by focusing on soil health, which has an on-flow effect of resilience in the vines, as well considering our actions to try and minimise our greenhouse gas emissions and pollution in general. This year I have started applying compost tea brews to the soil to build up the soil microbiome, which is all important to soil health and nutrition for the vines. We are testing and looking at soil samples under the microscope to measure the results of these applications. The end goal is to eliminate tillage on the vineyard.”
It’s certainly a long-game approach at Gemtree, both for the wines they make and the bigger-picture environmental goals, but Brown is nothing if not patient. “From the conversion from conventional to biodynamic practices, we saw a gradual improvement in soil and vine health, but we didn’t see it transform the wines until around 2017, after 10 years,” she says. “From that vintage on, we saw a noticeable difference in thicker skins, more colour density and flavour.”
This has resulted in wines – made by her husband Mike – that Brown believes are now more vibrant and with a natural harmony. “The vines are producing grapes that are more balanced and the wines ferment cleaner, meaning they don’t require fining to remove unwanted compounds. The wines now have an energy about them waiting to be unleashed in the glass.”