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Oakridge – Estate, Yarra Valley Steve Faulkner

Top Vineyards

While Oakridge has three Yarra Valley sites under its management, their Estate Vineyard, surrounding their winery and celebrated restaurant, is the centre of the operation. Planted in 1996, the vineyard consists of pinot noir, chardonnay, shiraz, cabernet, merlot and semillon across 9.8 hectares of vines. Viticulturist Steven Faulkner has been managing the Oakridge farming for the last two years, while he also runs a viticulture consultancy business that operates across three states.

“The farming practice we use is called biological farming, which is a focus on the health of the soil via the soil biology,” says Faulkner. “Fertiliser is looked at as ‘microbe food’– feed the microbes, and they in turn feed the plant. We use compost teas to increase the biological diversity of the soil. We have planted an insectarium to increase site biodiversity, and we have started composting our grape marc offsite. The vines spend all year searching the soil for the nutrients to grow grapes, seeds and stems, so it makes sense to put these back to make the vines’ search easier year on year.”

“There are many ways to farm, but I think true sustainability is taking the best part of each system and using them together in a well-thought-out, pragmatic and balanced approach that ensures that our ecosystems, soil and society are safe and have longevity.”

Compost plays a big part in Faulkner’s thinking, even developing a bespoke machine to turn and aerate maturing compost piles. “Putting much more under-vine compost out in the vineyard is the next thing for me,” he says. “I believe putting a well-made compost under-vine is the key to giving the soil longevity and creating a healthy soil biome.”

That biome is further enhanced by the compost teas that Faulkner produces onsite, with their composition carefully judged under the microscope and tweaked for maximum effectiveness. The aim is to create a “disease-suppressive soil”, the health of which he judges by the number of worms turned out in a shovelful of earth. His current count is an impressive 18, but the target is 25. Faulkner is also increasing disease resistance by spraying with calcium and potassium silicate to toughen grape skins, “eliciting a plant immune response to make them harder for fungal infections to penetrate”.

Above: cover crops go right to the base of the vines. “Doing cover crops well, adds nutrients and organic matter to the soil,” says Faulkner. Opposite: Faulkner judges the health of the soil by the worms turned out in a shovelful of earth. His current count is an impressive 18, but the target is 25.

Faulkner delivers his bespoke fertilisation via the irrigation system (fertigation), reducing tractor passes, and therefore soil compaction and diesel use. “We don’t use any synthetic nutrition and rely on fish, seaweed, humic and fulvic acids as foods for the soil microbes who in turn then provide us nutrition,” he says.

“There are many ways to farm, but I think true sustainability is taking the best part of each system and using them together in a well-thought-out, pragmatic and balanced approach that ensures that our ecosystems, soil and society are safe and have longevity.”

That balanced approach means that Faulkner will weigh up economic loss – which impacts the business as well as employment of others – of disease or pest problems that would threaten the viability of the crop. Inherent is the resilience built into the vines through a healthier soil, making intervention increasingly unnecessary, but if a chemical treatment is needed, then he will consider it, while being particular about then addressing any knock-on problems to the soil biology by managing it immediately in a restorative way.

Along with compost and other natural sources of nutrition, Faulkner credits cover crops grown in the mid-rows – which are often plundered for dishes in the restaurant – with changing the site in a short amount of time. “For the last two years, we have cover cropped every second row, and the vines have responded; they are stronger and healthier. Opening up the tractor-wheel compaction with a ripper, then planting cover crops right up to the base of the vines has been incredibly satisfying. Doing cover crops well, adds nutrients and organic matter to the soil.”

This reinvigoration of the soil also has a significant impact on sequestering carbon, a broader environmental benefit that is very much a part of the Oakridge ethos, with the core of sustainability running through the whole operation, from the farming to the message conveyed in the restaurant and at the cellar door.

Above: the insectarium planted at Oakridge to increase site biodiversity. Opposite: chardonnay harvest.

“The way to combat climate change is to increase the soil organic matter and organic carbon in the soil,” says Faulkner. “This stores CO2 in a way that is beneficial to the soil’s sustainability. Organic matter and organic carbon in the soil increase the soil’s water-holding capacity, which enables the vineyard to get through hot dry periods better. At the same time, increasing organic matter also facilitates good soil structure, which enables it to drain more readily after large dumps of rain, another factor of climate change.”

Faulkner is also at pains to point out the essential responsibility he feels for thinking this way beyond better fruit and better wine. “The big picture is wine is a luxury item,” he says. “The wine industry must be as sustainable and environmentally responsible as it can. It must be more sustainable, as wine is not essential to sustain life – debatable, I know. Therefore, we must produce wine with less emissions, less soil loss, less chemicals and the best possible farming methods.”

That climate shift has seen the home vineyard’s suitability for chardonnay and pinot noir diminish, while its aptness to shiraz and cabernet sauvignon has only been enhanced, producing the flagship Oakridge bottlings for both varieties. And even though they are battling both phylloxera (a vine pest that eventually kills vines) and eutypa (a trunk disease), Faulkner believes that they are not just maintaining that quality but are steadily enhancing it, with the efforts “visibly improving the cabernet block significantly”.

“I believe the biological farming has created a stronger more diverse soil ecosystem,” says Faulkner. “By having a system like this, we have healthier vines, we have more nutrient-dense fruit, therefore we have more flavour and more colour. We have healthier ferments, better natural acid, and therefore better wine. That is the impact of working with nature with this farming method. With a close attention to viticultural detail, only growing the bunches we deem to be the best, and biological farming, we are creating some of the Yarra Valley’s best shiraz and cabernet from the Oakridge site.”