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Lake Moodemere, Rutherglen Joel Chambers

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Lake Moodemere Estate Vineyard is planted to red soils on an ancient riverbed of the Murray in Victoria’s historic Rutherglen region. The site has been in the Chambers family for four generations, and a long history of focusing on sustainability has been enhanced as the years go by, with a symbiotic relationship with their mixed farming and vineyard operations of mutual benefit, as well as having positive environmental impacts. The fruit goes to making estate wines – sparkling, table and fortified – which are made onsite and served in their lakeside restaurant that is supplied by their farm, using everything from wheat to lamb, vegetables, fruit and honey.

Joel Chambers is the current custodian of the secateurs in the family’s Rutherglen vineyard. “I’m the seventh-generation farmer/grape-grower in the family,” he says. “I have grown up around farming and winemaking and have very strong connections to our home. Our farm and vineyard is incredibly unique, as it’s perfect for both mixed farming and viticulture backing onto a nature reserve that is completely untouched.”

The vineyard was first established in 1886, with the oldest vines currently around 80 years old, and an average age of about 50 years. The 16 hectares of vineyard that are planted to deep red loam soils consist of shiraz, cinsault, chardonnay, cabernet, grenache blanc, riesling and durif. That last variety, a Rutherglen specialty, was recently grafted onto older merlot vines, a sign of the times.

“Changes in viticultural management from conventional to sustainable have had a big effect on our grape quality and water usage. Treating the entire vineyard as an ecosystem of its own has enhanced the capabilities of our red loam soils enabling our vines to access the nutrients they require to produce fruit of distinct character with bold fruit and soft tannins.”
Opposite: Straw stubble from their broadacre crops spread under vine, trapping soil moisture and creating a cooling effect on the soil, which Chambers says can be as much as 10 degrees on their hottest days. Above: A key focus of Chambers has been integrating their mixed farming operations to enhance sustainability.

“Climate change has severely affected Rutherglen and this is evident in traditional varieties like merlot and cabernet no longer flourishing,” says Chambers. “It’s become obvious to us that we need to seek out drought-resistant varieties for the future such as durif, tempranillo, alicante bouschet…” That adaption, though, has long been a feature of the Chambers family’s approach.

The lakeside estate was bought by Arthur Chambers in 1924, just after the phylloxera outbreak that ravaged the region, which was subsequently reworked by his son. “My grandfather Peter Chambers re-invigorated the already 80-plus-year-old small vineyard into a 16-hectare modern, drip-irrigated vineyard with phylloxera-resistant rootstock,”says Chambers. “He was renowned for implementing new viticulture methods and techniques that others where slow to adopt. I was lucky enough to learn the fundamentals of viticulture from him before he passed away at the age of 69.”

That connection to history is important to Chambers, who works with his parents, Michael and Belinda, to further refine an approach that has seen the vineyard flourish for decades. “Now in an ever-changing climate, we have been able to continue Peter’s legacy, creating a fully sustainable vineyard that doesn’t depend on water inputs for yield and profit, however focuses on soil health, water conservation, carbon capture and mixed farming that result in lower yields but higher quality.“

That notion of sustainability is central to the approach of Chambers, with the viticultural side of the business having to stack up against their other farming operations. “Agricultural and viticultural sustainability and drought resilience have been the driving forces behind everything I do,” he says. “I realised early on that a vineyard and farm that cannot grow during tough years does not realistically make a sustainable business. A key focus of mine has been tying our mixed farming operations in with our viticultural operations so that they can complement each other and supply each other with resources.”

“In 2017, I began sowing a mixture of forage cereal seeds – bennet wheat, crackerjack triticale, massive forage oats – in the vineyard mid-rows,” Chambers says. “Through further research on cover crops I also started to focus on carbon capture, water retention, utilising the sheep manure as a natural fertiliser, and straw spreading.”

That approach has seen straw stubble from their broadacre crops spread under vine, trapping soil moisture and creating a cooling effect on the soil, which Chambers says can be as much as 10 degrees on their hottest days. “In 2017, I began sowing a mixture of forage cereal seeds – bennet wheat, crackerjack triticale, massive forage oats – in the vineyard mid-rows initially with the aim to provide extra grazing capacity for our sheep that were running out of green feed due to a snap drought. Through further research on cover crops I also started to focus on carbon capture, water retention, utilising the sheep manure as a natural fertiliser, and straw spreading.”

These practices have seen benefits for the business broadly, as well as positive environmental impacts. Cell-grazing lambs in 2-hectare blocks has improved weight gain in prime lambs while also reducing tractor passes to slash cover crops from four passes to one, which has reduced soil compaction and diesel use. It has also essentially eliminated the need for herbicides, while sheep manure provides phosphorous and nitrogen for the soil. The cover crops have also seen an increase in beneficial insects that help control those less desirable, while water uses has been significantly reduced due to greater soil water-holding capacity.

And while the results are impressive, Chambers can see plenty of room for improvement. “I’ll be experimenting further with cover crops and looking at annual rye grass mixes that will also benefit the sheep,” he says. “I want to roll the covers over and crimp them for summer to protect against heatwaves, and also want to invest in our own straw spreader so that we can spread our straw during dormancy, which we currently cannot do. I’d also like to upgrade our seeder, so that we can sow a wider range of seeds and mixes.”

Lake Moodemere was recently certified by Sustainable Winegrowing Australia. “I believe in sustainability through to my core and believe in committing to it,” says Chambers, who says that having a rigorous audit of their practices was the best way not only to ensure their methods were best practise, but also to send consumers of their wines an unambiguous message. Currently they are the only certified vineyard in Victoria’s North East zone out of 30-odd member growers.

“The big picture for me is producing quality produce from the land available to me that I can be proud of, while also nurturing the land and not pushing it too hard,” says Chambers. “Giving back to the land and soil is as important as its produce.” That approach has also seen an increase in the quality of the fruit produced, with less vine stress paying dividends.

“Changes in viticultural management from conventional to sustainable have had a big effect on our grape quality and water usage,” says Chambers. “Treating the entire vineyard as an ecosystem of its own has enhanced the capabilities of our red loam soils enabling our vines to access the nutrients they require to produce fruit of distinct character with bold fruit and soft tannins.”

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