Andrew and Lisa Margan started their eponymous label in 1996, buying their Ceres Hill Vineyard shortly after, which already had some semillon and chardonnay planted (1989 and ’90 respectively). An early interest in less-familiar grapes saw barbera planted, and later albariño, which have become mainstays for the brand. Today, the 12 hectares at the home vineyard are supplemented by other sustainably farmed sites, but it is the core of Margan Wines. It’s also where the popular cellar door and hugely respected restaurant (Lisa is a chef, WSET Diploma holder and has a master’s degree in science and nutrition focused on organics) is situated. The vineyard is currently in conversion to organics.
“When we bought Ceres Hill 30 years ago, it was a couch-covered monoculture that was largely unproductive,” says owner, viticulturist and winemaker Andrew Margan. “We have turned this property into something that is incredibly productive, with 35 acres of vines, a vegetable garden that feeds our restaurant guests, 50 olive trees and 40 sheep for fat lambs. We employ 30 people and provide immense joy to over 200,000 visitors a year.”
“We have turned this property into something that is incredibly productive, with 35 acres of vines, a vegetable garden that feeds our restaurant guests, 50 olive trees and 40 sheep for fat lambs. We employ 30 people and provide immense joy to over 200,000 visitors a year.”
The vineyard is managed by Margan to organic principles, being in the process of conversion. “If I can provide a healthy environment for my vines to grow in, then the opportunity for them to grow better grapes is obvious,” he says. “If I grow better grapes on a healthy vine and make better wine that speaks of the place it is grown, then I am working in a sustainable space. The soil environment is the key to this, and we are working hard to improve this part of our viticulture.”
Margan uses cover crops, under-vine crops, biodiversity plots and under-vine cultivation, which he says are starting to become more standard practice, though the Hunter still has some very entrenched approaches. “In a very traditional viticulture region where synthetic herbicides and bare earth is the norm, we are challenging this philosophy with a very regenerative approach to farming and we’re seeing great results,” he says.
Alternate weed control is practiced instead of herbicide, with mechanical slashing and cultivation employed, as well as grazing sheep in the cooler months. Waste produced in the vineyard, such as pruning material and tall grasses, is processed and put back into the soil to aid in soil health and fertility. Legumes are grown between rows to fix nitrogen in the soil for the vines to uptake, and chicken manure is employed as a slow-release source of nitrogen. Biochar made from the previous year’s pruning material is applied under vine for a concentrated carbon source, as well as to aid in increasing soil moisture retention and house beneficial microbes.
“I have just done a complete soil health test for Ceres Hill, and it showed that our soils are very healthy and very much alive,” says Margan. “Our goal is to increase the carbon sequestration element of our vineyard soils and to achieve appropriate levels of nutrients and microflora as naturally as possible to put back what our vines take out.”
The soil health in combination with biodiversity in the midrows and around the headlands is key to keeping the vines in a healthy and productive form, Margan says. “Our biodiversity program enables us to use our environment to combat common vineyard pests as well as capture carbon and offset our impact as farmers.”
The Hunter Valley is a challenging place to grow grapes, and given the heat and high rainfall it makes organic farming a challenge due to the disease pressure, but Margan remains committed. “We are currently experiencing the wettest November in recorded history and at the same time trying to stay on our path of organic conversion,” he says. “That combination is an incredible challenge if you want to have any grapes at all by the time vintage arrives. We are working hard using copper and sulphur and trimming and cutting any disease out, but it is never ending at the present.”
Margan Wines is a certified member of Sustainable Winegrowing Australia for both the vineyard and winery. They also have an externally audited environmental management plan (EMP) that is certified to international standards. It is tailored to reduce greenhouse gases, improve energy efficiency, refine water management and reduce waste from all sources. The estate is also on the cusp of carbon neutrality without resorting to carbon credits, with a stand of some 450 trees recently planted that will in time ensure net zero emissions.
“The overall environmental management plan is unique in addressing and implementing layers of integrated systems to have all departments working most efficiently together towards the common goal,” says Margan. “We have planted tree lots and installed a biochar furnace and compost heaps, and we’re recycling nearly everything we use on site. We are just caretakers of land that is over 200,000,000 years old, and all we can do is leave it in a better condition than when we arrived on it.”
Margan has a five-year plan to make Ceres Hill completely self-sustaining, with a closed loop approach. “That involves an evolution of our management practices and the installation of some major capital works,” he says. “To take the whole property off grid and remove the use of fossil fuels as a combined project would be a world first for a business of our size.” They are currently building a farm shed with roof solar power and storage that will charge all the farm equipment, including the first fully electric tractor in Australia, along with a cool room and the irrigation for the vineyard.
“Our biodiversity program enables us to use our environment to combat common vineyard pests as well as capture carbon and offset our impact as farmers.”
The Ceres Hill Vineyard currently has 12 hectares under vine, planted to semillon, chardonnay and merlot, with varieties outside the classic regional staples an early project for Margan. He planted barbera in 1998, with albariño planted in 2014, while his other sites have tempranillo and graciano in the ground. “Ceres Hill is innovative in its planting material with a large component [65 per cent of the vines] of alternate varieties that are suited to the changing climate,” he says. “In addition to that, Ceres Hill was one of the first vineyards in Australia to have planted ‘real’ albariño, and we have some of the oldest barbera holdings in Australia.”
New plantings of chardonnay are in process, with an old local clone being propagated, while some of the merlot is being grafted to the same chardonnay material. The holdings of barbera and albariño are also being increased. “All three of these single vineyard wines are selling out every year at an increasing rate, and we have the opportunity to plant more of the same country that the current vines sit on,” says Margan.
With three main soil types on the property, Margan says they have been able to plant a combination of semillon and chardonnay on the grey alluvial east-facing slopes, while albariño and barbera are on the red sandy loam soils of the flats. “All four single vineyard wines produced from the property speak of the specific block they are cultivated on and are wonderful varietal expressions of their terroir,” he says.
The chardonnay is planted at a high density, which naturally produces lower yields and smaller bunches, resulting in the ability to make high-quality wine, but Margan says that their approach of late has elevated that quality considerably. “Since changing our farming techniques on this vineyard we have seen a direct impact to fruit quality and flavour,” he says. “The fruit represents a sense of place and we have been able to produce new single vineyard wines to showcase each block as its own unique wine.”