For over 15 years, Bryan Martin was Tim Kirk’s right-hand man at the towering icon of the Canberra District that is Clonakilla. That was while establishing his own Ravensworth label, which now twinkles just as brightly in the region’s firmament of stars. Martin now devotes all his time to tending the vines and making wine from his own site, just down the road from the Kirk’s property, as well as from selected vineyards in the Canberra district. That home site has 13 varieties across 3 hectares, with the regional leaders – shiraz and riesling – sharing the spotlight with sangiovese, along with Rhône whites, as well as newer plantings of gamay and nebbiolo. Martin hasn’t used synthetic chemicals for nearly a decade, farming with an unwavering focus on soil health and microbial life to better express the signature of site.
The first Ravensworth estate vines were planted in 1998, with additions coming in 2005, ’14 and ’20. Shiraz is the most planted variety, across four clones, with riesling (three clones) the next most dominant, followed by sangiovese (also three clones). Additionally, Martin has smaller plantings of gewürztraminer, pinot gris, chardonnay, viognier, roussanne, marsanne, ribolla gialla, savagnin, gamay and nebbiolo in the ground, with the total planted area now 3.3 hectares.
Some of those new vines are yet to yield a commercial crop, but Ravensworth’s Estate range features riesling – both still and méthode ancestrale – as well as the ‘Grainery’ Rhône white blend, skin-fermented pinot gris-based ‘Seven Months’, sangiovese and, naturally, a shiraz viognier.
“This amazing soil is not even from this area,” says Martin. “It comes from Queensland… deposited during the last ice age… It’s a sedimentary, windblown soil called ‘parna’ of mostly mineral-rich clays that have a high friability and large water-holding capacity. Murrumbateman is full of this soil. The reason why the original First Nations people were drawn into this cold area would have been the abundant growth due to the land here. Much later, settling sheep farmers would have felt the same way.”
“Sometimes customers think that, particularly in our shiraz blends, that the white grape – viognier, roussanne etc. – is contributing to this heady aroma, but it’s not that… Often the wine will be straight shiraz or nebbiolo. This floral component, I believe, is due to the underlying soil structure. It’s a character that speaks of our land and the changes we have made... It’s early days, but the proof we see in the quality and beauty of our wines, which we also leave alone and don’t use any additives or adjustments, reinforces this belief.”
Martin has farmed his site without chemical intervention for eight years, employing what he refers to as “natural forestry principles”. In other words, he works to disrupt the monoculture that has been the guiding principle of viticulture for so long, trusting the vines’ capacity to compete and thrive, while also benefiting from the presence of other plants, as well as the fungal and microbial life of the soil that such an approach encourages.
“We don’t think vine spacing and trellis systems, variety choices, moon phases or robotics are as important as what is happening underground,” says Martin. “Restoring the land, and allowing the vines own mycorrhizal system to engage, is vital to allowing the vines to meet the challenges of climate change and unsuited agricultural practices.”
All prunings, grape marc and other waste wood are turned into biochar onsite, with a couple of tonnes produced each year. “Biochar is a natural material in diverse plant systems, supports microbial life and retains moisture, nutrients and carbon within its stable structure,” says Martin. “We spread this throughout the vineyard and cultivate into the upper 10 cm, regularly.”
Having traded in his heavy old tractor some years back, Martin uses a lightweight Italian model to minimise soil compaction, but he’s sparing in his use of that, too, primarily employing it as a tool to reverse prior damage. “Our Yeoman’s plough is key – to lift soil, reverse compaction and allow oxygen to penetrate at depth. Only then will there be viable organic life. Vines are able to compete with the diverse life but only with active mycorrhizae. In most cases, vineyards will not support this natural system due to compaction from heavy, unsuited tractors and using fertilisers.”
To open up the soil naturally, Martin also plants mid-row crops that produce long taproots. “Cover crops with deep roots are being established to open soils to more organic material at depth, again to encourage vine’s natural mycorrhizae and build up organic material, which will help with low rainfall and hotter vintages… Maku lotus, chicory, clovers, lucerne, any vegetable really. Our vineyard is more a garden than a pretty golf course.”
Crediting this focus on vineyard biodiversity and organic matter in the soil, Martin is seeing increased resilience in the vines. “The diversity, growth and health we see in our vineyard, even through some tough drought years, is due to understanding that what is happening underground is the most important thing we can learn.” He also firmly believes that the “land can communicate the geology” in the finished wines, so long as it has the chance.
“Our management has been based on removing as many traits imposed by farming and agriculture. Obviously, we are still harvesting the land, but we believe that returning it to what it was – before white people like me got here – has brought out an intensity of flavour, structure and a completeness in our estate-grown wines that wouldn’t be here if we pursued chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and continued with heavy tractors and an insistence on the monoculture of grapevines.”
Martin notes that the wines, across the range, show “an unmistakable floral component”, and it’s one that doesn’t require a deep understanding of the wines to detect. “Sometimes customers think that, particularly in our shiraz blends, that the white grape – viognier, roussanne etc. – is contributing to this heady aroma, but it’s not that… Often the wine will be straight shiraz or nebbiolo. This floral component, I believe, is due to the underlying soil structure. It’s a character that speaks of our land and the changes we have made… It’s early days, but the proof we see in the quality and beauty of our wines, which we also leave alone and don’t use any additives or adjustments, reinforces this belief.”