Gorton Drive Estate, Swan Hill Chris Dent

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Gorton Drive Estates’ 85-hectare property sits on the banks of Kangaroo Lake in the arid warmth of Victoria’s Swan Hill region. In a zone that is often characterised by yield over character, second-generation owner and viticulturist Chris Dent is changing the script, focusing on soil health and reduced yields to produce high-quality fruit. He employs biological farming methods to build resilience and reduce or eliminate reliance on inputs and chemical control measures for disease and pests, with technology streamlining operations and eliminating an overdependence on irrigation. The grapes are sold to many well-known names, such as Brown Brothers, Il Modo (a creative offshoot from Lethbridge), McPhersons and Casella Family Brands, while also filling the bottles of Dent’s new home range, Countertop.

Gorton Drive Estates have 85.5 hectares under vine in one sprawling vineyard in Victoria’s Swan Hill region. The site was first planted in 1987, with regular plantings occurring over the years both on own roots and rootstocks, now with muscat of alexandria (gordo), chardonnay, fiano, merlot, ruby cabernet, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, durif, lambrusco maestri and malbec making up the varietal mix. Chris Dent manages all aspects of the operation to supply fruit commercially, as well as to produce his own range of wines.

Seeing full ground cover in an arid environment is remarkable. Dent adopts undervine cover-crops to reduce soil temperatures and soil evaporation losses. “We do things a lot different to most in our region. Undervine cover-crops, foliage wires, biological/regenerative practices, pruning regimes, nutritional programs, adoption of ag-tech means we have different priorities to our colleagues in our nearby and broader regional neighbours,” he says, from his green site, that sits like an oasis amid the red-brown sandy loams of Swan Hill, on the banks of the 1,000-hectare Kangaroo Lake. “Combine this with our lovely environs, and there’s not many other vineyards in Australia – or the world – with the characteristics we have.”

Dent employs a range of technologies to refine operations on the site, including the management of their most precious resource in the hot region. “Our biggest challenge in this climate is water,” he says. “While we can’t control how much is available, we have made some significant investment in infrastructure upgrades and new technology, and have modified our practices to allow us to use every megalitre as efficiently as possible.”

“Most grapes from our vineyard and from our region are generally batched up into large commercial volumes that are an expression of many places. So, we have recently created a small wine label with a range of wines made completely of grapes grown on our vineyard. This has been a very interesting and rewarding exercise to really appreciate and understand the potential of the grapes we grow.”

The entire vineyard is drip irrigated, with water privately pumped from Kangaroo Lake, which abuts the vineyard. That irrigation is controlled remotely with probes used to test soil moisture. “Water management is monitored very closely to maximise water-use efficiency and reduce our reliance through the use of moisture monitoring equipment, variable speed drive pumps and cloud-based water scheduling programs. Flow rates, pressures and pump performance monitors are integrated to ensure all irrigation performs as expected,” says Dent.

The success of this program – along with GPS auto-steer controls on the tractors and cloud-based logging to maximise truck loads without overloading at harvesting – has encouraged Dent to further investigate other emerging management measures. “I’m excited to explore more about remote sensing and variable rate technology and how it can fit into our operation and help us achieve our goals. It’s always a thrill to see how integrating new technology into our operation can not only make our lives easier but also help us analyse what we do more closely and identify so many more opportunities for improvement.”

The irrigation system is also used to fertilise the vineyard (fertigation), with applications derived through analysing soil, sap and petiole (leaf stalks) samples. Compost is also applied annually, and the soil is not tilled. Dent employs “biological farming” techniques, with now no insecticide employed, and herbicide use minimised. “The biological approach we have adopted focuses more on vine health, which has in turn reduced our reliance on pesticides. This approach has also resulted in stronger, healthier vines which will continue to grow profitable yields for much longer.”

With many nearby vineyards built around economies of scale where quantity often takes the lead, Dent’s focus has been an unusual one for the region. “The pruning style employed on our vineyard is somewhat unique compared to most vineyards in our region, promoting modest crops of good quality with good air circulation and light inception,” he says.

“Soil management is key to promoting healthy vines and good quality fruit. The use of compost and other soil inoculants and biostimulants assist with strong, healthy vines which produce good crops with great flavours and excellent colour.” That focus on fruit quality over yield also sees regulated deficit irrigation (RDI) employed to enhance the ripening of tannin, flavour and colour compounds in red varieties.

“Our leap into biological / regenerative viticulture was an easy choice for us as we know it is the way to improve our soils and natural environment which leads to healthier grapevines and better fruit,” he says.

Dent’s also working with winemakers to craft wines from the vineyard. “We have trialled various trimming styles/practices to achieve a desired character our winemaker has asked for with our Fiano. Heavy side-trimming has achieved greater phenolics, skin colouring, and more developed characters of apricot, and less citrus-apple, flavours in the wine for the ‘Il Modo Fiano’. We strive for continuous improvement, and so we have installed foliage wires this year as another way to experiment in achieving the desired wine characteristics.”

While Dent’s focus is very much centred around producing high-quality fruit that achieves good prices to maintain the business’ economic sustainability, his vision is much more holistic than that. “While the vines produce the product that pays the bills, the land where we grow our vines is just as crucially important. We have committed to, and seen the results of, healthier soils and healthier ecosystems, not only to our bottom line but to the wider area. It would be selfish not to maintain and improve such a precious and fragile, yet beautiful resource.”

This imperative has become somewhat starker in recent years, with Dent noting that climate change has been clearly evident even during his relatively short stewardship of the family property. “This has brought a whole swag of new challenges to our vineyard,” he says, “but they’re not impossible to either overcome or adjust to. We have planted alternative varieties that we believe are suited to our region and will withstand our new-normal climate. We continue to build soil health, which in turn builds resilience to these new conditions, and we continue to stay up to date with the latest concepts and technologies to help us stay profitable and sustainable under these new climate conditions.”

With many of the grapes from Gorton Drive going to large processors, Dent’s desire to look deeper at the potential of his fruit, especially considering the quality gains of recent years, has resulted in his own label.

“Most grapes from our vineyard and from our region are generally batched up into large commercial volumes that are an expression of many places,” he says. “So, we have recently created a small wine label with a range of wines made completely of grapes grown on our vineyard. This has been a very interesting and rewarding exercise to really appreciate and understand the potential of the grapes we grow.”

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