Tamburlaine – Borenore, Orange Mark Pengilly & Clayton Kiely

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Tamburlaine is a touchstone for organic wine in this country, having been certified for over three decades. Starting with a Hunter Valley base, owner Mark Davidson expanded into the cool Orange region in the late ’90s when he established the Borenore Vineyard. Organic certification is bolstered with biodynamic practices, with Mark Pengilly and Clayton Kiely managing the farming. The vineyard quickly established itself as the flagship of the Tamburlaine portfolio, producing gold medal wines from all the varieties on the property, along with a significant collection of trophies. The vineyard produces wines across the range, from more everyday offerings to the Reserve and ultra-premium Marlowe bottling.

Tamburlaine was founded in 1966, with Mark Davidson and a group of family investors buying the 14-hectare Hunter Valley vineyard in 1985. An early focus on organics has seen that vineyard certified for over 30 years, marking Tamburlaine as one of the leading Australian pioneers of organic viticulture, and perhaps even more notably for the scale of the operation. With some 300 hectares now under vine, Tamburlaine has shown that organics on a large scale are achievable.

Around a third of those vines are in the Orange region, with Davidson expanding the operation in 1997 to the contrastingly cool zone. The Borenore Vineyard encompasses 88 of those hectares – with a 100-hectare site acquired in 2017 – with the vines planted in three stages: 1997, ’98 and ’99. The vineyard is planted to chardonnay, riesling, semillon, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, merlot, malbec, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot, pinot noir and grenache, with vineyard manager Mark Pengilly and viticulturalist Clayton Kiely overseeing the farming.

“The Borenore vineyard aims to be managed sustainably through the management practices that encourage less reliance from outside influences,” says Kiely. “We have been actively practicing biodynamics for the past 12 years with annual applications of certified preparations. It is through the use of both organic and biodynamic practices that the vineyard has become quickly known as the flagship vineyard for our company.”

The vineyard has become something of a magnet for students to conduct case studies, says Kiely. “The vineyard welcomes students from primary school, high school and universities that have an interest in agriculture and sustainability as part of their curriculum. All activities, including mixing and applying biodynamic preparations, are demonstrated to give them a better understanding of how it works. These visits have been ongoing for 15 years and provide a wealth of information to the students.”

Sheep graze amongst the vines during winter and early spring to control weeds, having access to the whole site, rather than selectively grazing in cells. “In the early days of our biodynamic management, we only had enough preparation 500 to apply on 5 hectares,” Kiely says. “We made the decision to spread this on a block in the back corner of the vineyard. Four weeks later, when the sheep arrived, they were unloaded allowed to graze freely. All the 400 sheep proceeded to the back block and only graze on the land that had the preparation applied. The next year we only applied the preparation to a 10-hectare block in the middle of the vineyard. That year, they only grazed that section. It was from these observations that the decision was to apply the preparation to the whole property [and not just the vines].”

Kiley talks about the property as a “single unit”, which he believes helps to drive fruit quality by treating the non-vineyard land with the same care as that planted with vines. “The Borenore vineyard has a 5-hectare native tree area that was planted in 2001, containing densely planted eucalypts and casuarinas,” he says. “This allows native animals to seek shelter and provide habitat for them from predators. At the back of the vineyard is a large native bushland area that is used as a wildlife corridor, again for native animals to seek refuge from not only predators but also encroaching urbanisation.”

The other areas of the property have been contoured with a yeomans plough to “help stop degradation issues due to rain and also helps to keep the soil cooler and microbes alive longer. All the waterways on the vineyard that flow to the dam are grassed to prevent erosion and also act as filter for the water that is later used for irrigation.”

The vineyard uses a recycling sprayer for their organic and biodynamic treatments, which prevents overspray and reduces usage. A second sprayer will soon be added to more effectively cover the vineyard, while a low-fuel-usage tractor has also been purchased, with a second one on the cards. They are also using equipment that allows two operations at once, such as trimming and slashing, which further reduces diesel use and compaction from less passes.

Kiely also notes that they are pursuing autonomous options, as significant rain events make tractor use impossible or potentially damaging, while the need to address mildew issues becomes more urgent. “We are currently in talks with a company to provide multiple drones that have the ability to swarm a vineyard and cover large amounts of ground very quickly for fungicide spraying. The same company also has a ground-based drone that has the potential to be used as [organic] herbicide units. We believe that drones/autonomous machinery are the way of the future and the key to smart farming.”

Grasses are encouraged in the midrows, with the grazing keeping them down in winter, while during the growing season rye grass is allowed to thicken before it is slashed to provide mulch for the soil. During summer, that mulch acts as an effective coolant between the rows, reducing heat absorption in the soil and increasing water-holding capacity. The minimal irrigation employed is applied from the mid-afternoon, which helps to cool the soil further and in turn results in a cooler canopy temperature.

Naturally, the philosophy at Tamburlaine is a vineyard-first one, with wines made from the ground up, but Kiely points to responsive practices that means they can elevate the quality even further. “We have noticed that in mid-October each year a standout variety can be pinpointed,” he says. “At this time of the year, one or two varieties will revel in the growing conditions more than the others. The canopies will look healthy, shoots will be growing strongly, and bunch size will be increased compared to other varieties. This early season advantage allows us to put extra effort in shoot and bunch thinning with the hope in creating trophy-winning wines.”

While Kiely notes that it is very difficult to translate how changes in management practices are precisely reflected in the glass, the quality lift is undeniable. “When standout varieties are pinpointed, and that follows through to the winery, it is very humbling to know that your gut instincts were right. The vineyard has produced gold medals for all the varieties grown. The vineyard has produced 53 gold medals and 38 trophies, which just go to show that organic wines can hold their own.”

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