Brett Hayes bought his Stone Well Vineyard to form the basis of Hayes Family Wines, launching the label in 2014. The Stone Well Vineyard is a modest site of 4.5 hectares populated mostly by vines planted over 70 years ago, with the farming now certified organic, along with the onsite winery. The Stone Well Vineyard is the lone source of the organic Hayes Family Wines Estate Range, with varietal shiraz, grenache and mataro bottlings, as well as a blend of the three. Hayes oversees the management of the site, with the grapes now all going to his wines, though the shiraz was previously sold to Grant Burge to make ‘Meshach’, their flagship wine.
The Stone Well Vineyard was first planted in 1948, with the Barossa stalwarts of grenache, shiraz and mataro more recently being joined in 2019 by some bush-vine grenache blanc planted at high density, along with marsanne and clairette. “The vineyard has a long history of being farmed by hand with minimal intervention,” says owner and viticulturist Brett Hayes. “The blocks were expertly planted with the right varieties, on their own roots, with the right orientations at a time when little was probably known about the soils, clones etc.”
Even with that history of intuitive vineyard architecture and sympathetic farming, Hayes has taken things a step further, converting to certified organic farming (ACO), as well as being an active member of Sustainable Winegrowing Australia. “We have taken a broad approach,” he says, “yes being certified organic, but also helping to build an ecosystem that protects itself in what is essentially a monocultural region. Balance in the vineyard ecosystem has undoubtedly got easier to manage as nature has found its balance, and our inputs have been reduced without a noticeable impact on quantity or quality of the output. Our vines do seem to have built more resilience and crops have become more stable. The bigger picture is critical; without a balanced ecosystem, we would fail.”
Naturally, in line with the organic methods, Hayes no longer uses any synthetic chemicals, but he has also drastically reduced the use of sulphur and copper in the vineyards to ensure this local ecosystem thrives. Predatory insects are part of his integrated pest management strategy, encouraged by the planting of native flora, with the minimised use of copper and sulphur serving to promote and maintain their habitat. Native grasses amongst the rows are boosted by native trees and plants on non-vineyard land as insectary plantings.
To further aid in the fight against pest insects, Hayes has installed boxes for microbats, which devour masses of bugs in one feeding session, as well as raptor perches to allow birds of prey to better survey the territory, warning off birds intent on feasting on the ripening grapes.
The vineyard has been dry grown for much of its history, with drip irrigation now in place to support the newer plantings, as well as to supplement in severely dry periods. Their use is minimised, though, with the mid-row grasses helping to drop the localised temperature and maintain soil moisture by reducing evaporation, while their drought-tolerant nature means they don’t compete with the vines. Soil probes are used to assess moisture levels, while soil carbon and microbial health are frequently measured. Hayes also recycles wastewater and solar power accounts for much of the electricity use.
In keeping with the site’s history, vineyard practices are exhaustively manual, with the soil not tilled and mid-row vegetation slashed or mowed when required. “The vines are expertly pruned and managed with quality in mind,” says Hayes. “No shortcuts, with quality always sought above yield. The vineyard has always as far as we can assess been managed by the owner of the property, which is now me.”
Reflecting on climate change, Hayes notes that, “weather conditions seem significantly more unpredictable. Building ecosystem resilience will be essential for us managing the changing climatic conditions.” And while this future proofing is a big part of the mission, so too is fruit and wine quality, with the results through their enhanced practices palpable. “We have seen a noticeable improvement in grape quality, ripeness and flavours at lower Baume. This translates to better quality wines made with minimal additions.”
Hayes sees this work in the vineyard as being integral to better expressing their site, both lifting quality and refining expressions. “Historically, the grapes have been sold, most recently to the same customer for more than 30 years. Now used for our own wines, the opportunity to value-add means that we can continue to invest in the vineyard.”
And this focus on the health of the vineyard is not just about wine quality now or in ten years’ time. “There are some very old vines in the valley, but they do seem to have aged more in the last 30 years then in some cases the prior 100 years,” says Hayes. “We treasure our old vines, but for these vines to continue to grow and prosper we need to consider the soils, the ground cover, the minerals, the inputs generally to do our bit to ensure they are there in another 100 years.”
Hayes notes that all 13 vineyard blocks are “managed, picked, fermented and matured separately,” and that the individual characters in those block wines is increasingly more expressive, something he puts down to “taking a more holistic view of the vineyard ecosystem.” That is no more evident than in Block 8, he says, which makes their field blend wine.
“The block has interplanted grenache, shiraz and mataro,” says Hayes. “Tough soils. Low water retention. Old vines, own roots, organically certified. Very, very expressive fruit. The resultant wine is unique. Notwithstanding changing years – with different varieties dominating in different years – there is a character, a five-spice character that runs through the vintages of this wine. The block with its old vines provides a consistent character that transcends the vintage year. The wine could come from nowhere else, and now, with a number of vintages behind us, we can honestly say the wine is a truly unique reflection of our site.”