The Orbis wine label was founded by Brad Moyes and Kendall Grey inn 2018 when they purchased an established vineyard in McLaren Vale. The Orbis name references the idea of a self-sufficient system, and the pair anchor everything they do in sustainability, from farming to bottling. The vineyard is managed by Andrew Mackenzie, with renowned viticulturist Richard Leask consulting. Mowing between the rows is largely performed by a flock of babydoll sheep that have been given permanent residence between the vines. The fruit goes to make the Orbis wines at the onsite winery, with contract grapes being sold to make premium products for Penfolds, Wirra Wirra, Hither & Yon and Samson Tall.
The vineyard was first established in 1970 with 12 hectares committed to vines. By the end of the ’70s, the plantings had almost doubled. A small addition was made in 2001, with 3 hectares of climate-apt varieties being planted in 2019–20. Today, there are 26 hectares planted on the 32-hectare property, with shiraz, tempranillo, grenache, nero d’avola, montepulciano, fiano, trousseau, cinsault and albariño making up the varietal mix.
Andrew Mackenzie is the vineyard manager, working closely with Richard Leask (Hither & Yon) as a consultant viticulturist. “Richard needs no introduction,” says Mackenzie. “As a previous Nuffield Scholar, and ASVO Viticulturist of the Year finalist in 2021, we are very proud of his achievements and his leadership with our sustainable practices in the vineyard. His expert guidance and proactive approach to vineyard management has aided our ability to make many of our sustainability goals a reality.”
And those sustainability goals couldn’t be more important to Mackenzie. “Sustainability is what we are all about at Orbis,” he says. “Never before in human history has a sustainable approach been more important. Sustainability isn’t our only goal, either; we want to repair the damage and go beyond this, aiming towards regeneration instead. We want our efforts towards achieving sustainable practices to be an exemplar for the industry – to see others adopt our practices and improve on them!”
Those goals consider the typical economic, social and environmental pillars of sustainability, but Mackenzie says their philosophy is broader still. “Our philosophy for sustainability is based on the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” he says. “Orbis is working towards the goal of carbon net zero, with our management decisions to reduce our emissions and emissions related to our purchasing decisions, as well as increasing our carbon sequestering on site.”
Orbis also farm babydoll sheep, with winter and autumn cell grazing between the rows initially helping with weed management, but the benefits to the soil though their manure and the sustainability advantages became so apparent that Mackenzie now grazes them amongst the vines year-round. “We have almost eliminated the need for glyphosate applications under vine, significantly reduced our tractor use with reduced slashing in the rows, and we can see that with a larger flock we will completely eliminate the need to mow altogether,” he says.
The typical reason for limiting grazing between rows is to stop the sheep eating young shoots or the crop itself, and though babydolls are small in stature, the wires were still low enough to present snacks for the flock. “Our canopy management decisions include lifting the traditional height of the cordon wire,” says Mackenzie. “This lifts our vines away from the zone of reflected heat from the ground, and it allows our sheep to graze underneath the vines, keeping our fruit away from their reach! Although this sounds like a small change, it’s an expensive one. It takes us a year longer than other vineyard to grow our vines up to the wire, and we need to buy taller metal vineyard posts, and taller vine guards. This is one of our sustainability decisions which the long-term gain is beneficial, but in the short term is requires greater investment.”
Hardwood timber used onsite for vineyard end-posts and any building – including a recently completed winery extension – is all sourced sustainably onsite from their own wood lot, while all wood waste is composted with grape marc (stems, seeds and skins left after pressing) and the help of chickens that pick through the piles while contributing their own organic matter. Solar is used to power the winery and electric vehicles and machinery are used where possible, including an electric forklift and Polaris farm vehicles. The farm also produces meat, wool, honey and eggs, further enhancing their independence of inputs.
The sustainability mantra goes all the way to the bottling line, too, with locally produced lightweight recycled bottles used, which are sealed with natural cork that has been individually tested to eliminate cork taint. The production of those corks and the forestry methods involved have been measured to sequester 300 grams of CO2 for every closure, as opposed to the 37 grams emitted per screw cap. Foils are eschewed and the labels are made from sugar cane waste, which is fully biodegradable. They will even collect empty bottles to wash and reuse.
Pesticide – except for snail management – is no longer used on the site, with an increase in beneficial insects helping to control any potential issues. “Through our efforts to grow healthy under-vine pasture, our vineyard has seen other significant improvements as well,” says Mackenzie. “Our insect biodiversity is increased, with predatory insects keeping vineyard pests at lower population numbers; our soils have increased nutrient availability, the soil structure is improved and the vine’s ability to withstand heat has improved as well.
“By keeping the soil covered all year round, the pasture is helping to reduce soil temperatures, increasing the water infiltration rates when we have rain events, and it is sequestering carbon. The carbohydrates from the pasture are also providing a symbiotic relationship with the mycorrhizae in the root system of the pasture and the vines, keeping our microbial life in our soil well fed and diverse.”
Snails have presented a difficult pest issue, but Mackenzie says that plans for an exclusion fence around the property will make management of the problem simple, along with a raft of other benefits. “With the planned exclusion fence, we will have a flock of Indian runner ducks on site, which love to eat the snails and will hopefully eliminate our need to apply snail poison,” he says. “While the fence will be a big investment, we think it’s the next big step for turning our property into a haven for native wildlife. We would like to see the introduction of highly endangered native marsupial species into the vineyard. We could see these species thrive, and we might see the benefits such as keeping weeds under control, soil turning and nutrient cycling, as well as seeing their important roles in helping native plants such as wattles reseed.”
While the Orbis Vineyard is one of the highest and coolest in McLaren Vale, with sea breezes providing further cooling effects, though the impacts of climate change are still keenly felt. “We are constantly undergoing vineyard redevelopment, moving away from some of the cooler climate grape varieties, planting new alternative grape varieties and using drought tolerant rootstocks,” says Mackenzie. “These grape varieties are suited to the warmer climates, they tolerate heat stress, require less water to grow and can be more disease and pest tolerant as well.”
For vintage 2022, Orbis have also appointed a new winemaker, Lauren Langfield. “Lauren’s strengths as a winemaker stem from her background in viticulture, particularly in organics and biodynamics,” says Mackenzie. “And we are looking forward to applying her knowledge and experience into our vineyard management plan. Having her onsite fulltime will be crucial to our continued improvement in the vineyard and the wines we are growing.”