The Yarra Valley’s Thousand Candles – which was launched to much fanfare in the 2011 vintage – has settled into a long stride, with the benefits of a decade under the biological farming methods of Stuart Proud returning big dividends. The business is built on making their own wines as much as it is selling ultra-premium fruit to renowned local makers, including Levantine Hill, Coldstream Hills and Santolin. While the wine on launch was firmly pitched at the top end of the market, the focus for Proud, who both grows – alongside vineyard manager David Ammerlaan – and now makes, is to reflect fruit and vines in an unadorned, hype-free way, a reflection of place and the season.
The Thousand Candles property extends over a few hundred hectares, with wagyu cattle ranging across the pastures, gorging on the lush grass of the Yarra Valley. The vineyard, which was first planted between 1995 and 2000, then added to in ’11 and ’12, occupies just 25 of those hectares arrayed around an expansive catchment dam, and is planted to pinot noir, shiraz, sauvignon blanc, merlot, malbec, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. “Our vineyard is in a unique part of the Yarra Valley and has multiple slopes, aspects, elevations and soil types,” says viticulturist Stuart Proud.
With vineyard manager David Ammerlaan, Proud oversees the viticultural program, while also making the wine under their own Gathering Field and Thousand Candles labels, along with supplying grapes to many other celebrated makers. The high quality of the fruit and the subsequent and ever-increasing demand for it is a clear indication of the impact Proud has had over his decade there. “Selling fruit, we have been able to nearly double the price per tonne we receive as customers are always happy with the high quality achieved using our innovative approaches,” he says.
“Our focus and understanding of soil health and biological diversity is the cornerstone of our vineyard philosophy.”
The vineyard was acquired in 2010, with Proud employed as the head viticulturist, taking on the winemaking duties as well some years later, a duality that he sees as very natural. “Given how everything happens here on the farm,” he says, “we all chip in with vineyard and winery work so feel like we have a good idea of what works best for us. Making the wine and growing the grapes gives you a different perspective … it’s a symbiotic relationship.”
Biological farming is the central tenet of Proud’s viticultural approach. “Our focus and understanding of soil health and biological diversity is the cornerstone of our vineyard philosophy. A balance of biology, physics and chemistry is what we aim for. We try to look at the whole vineyard and farm ecosystems as an entirety. Looking after our natural landscape and waterways is vital. Avoiding erosion and run off, planting shelter belts for insects, wildlife and soil stabilisation are all part of our program. We want to always be improving in those areas.”
“We have increased soil organic material to over 5 per cent and this has great impact on the depth, balance and flavour of the grapes and wines.”
Proud employs an integrated pest management system, stressing the importance of building biodiversity, both on non-vineyard land and between the vines, with mowing occurring on alternate rows to maintain beneficial insect habitats. He has also discontinued herbicide use in several sections of the vineyard, with enhanced soil life and increased vine resilience already reducing the need for intervention, whether for weed control or nutrition.
That reduction – and near elimination – of herbicide use is critical to maintaining the rich diversity of the soil’s microbial life. “We also make our own compost teas and analyse them using the microscope,” says Proud, explaining that the farm is working towards “a closed ‘loop system”, with compost made on site from their own “grape marc, wood chips, hay, manure and other material,” as well as some locally sourced organic matter. “We have increased soil organic material to over 5 per cent and this has great impact on the depth, balance and flavour of the grapes and wines.
“We have always had a strong focus on building up organic material and the humic fraction of the soil. The constant addition and use of natural inputs such as seaweeds, fish hydrolysate, humic and fulvic acids, plus bioflavonoid complexes helps to feed the vines as well as the soil biology. This means our vineyards are more balanced and require very little extra nutrient inputs, as the system is able to better look after itself. We find the vineyards are better able to cope with tough periods such as extended hot spells.”
“One thing that we and others always notice in our wines is the tannin profile. It’s a regular comment or point of discussion when people taste our wines. The chalky, fine tannins come from our vineyards and the fruit. It’s not from oak barrels, as we used old oak, nor do we add tannin products.”
Like almost everywhere else, those hot spells are becoming more of a threat to quality grape-growing, with Proud mitigating the impact on a number of fronts. “The farming philosophy is aimed at giving resilience and helping us to better cope with some of the adversity we face each year. Forward planning with new plantings means choosing cooler aspects and sites, plus utilising different varieties, clones and rootstocks to our advantage. I always think it’s the tough seasons when our management process pays off. Growing high-quality fruit, no matter what Mother Nature throws at us, gives the whole team a great deal of satisfaction.”
Proud also has many future projects in the wings. “We are currently in the process of reviewing a whole range of things; from machinery and equipment through to choosing new planting material. Assessing and refining our processes is a constant thing.”
Solar panels are planned for the shed roofs, and Proud is investigating using biodiesel for the vineyard vehicles and machinery. There is already a partnership in place with the Yarra Ranges Council Ribbons of Green program and Melbourne Water to plant biodiversity corridors of native species, though a series of public events that was on the table to assist in the process and help educate was put back on the shelf due to COVID-19 restrictions, for now.
While the resilience that has been built into the vines and entire local ecosystem insulates the vineyard against growing challenges, Proud also notes that the management has tangibly built characters in the wines that would not otherwise be present. “One thing that we and others always notice in our wines is the tannin profile. It’s a regular comment or point of discussion when people taste our wines. The chalky, fine tannins come from our vineyards and the fruit. It’s not from oak barrels, as we used old oak, nor do we add tannin products.”
This tannin is a result of the typically thick skins of the fruit, says Proud, a product of calcium release in the soil and uptake into the vines. “Calcium is a vital nutrient for plants as it strengthens the cell walls. Calcium can quite often be low in Yarra Valley soils. Instead of purchasing and spreading lime, we have built up an adequate amount of plant-available calcium through our soil-health program. The broken-down organic matter is mobilised into a plant-available format via soil microbes. We regularly test through independent laboratories and have an ‘ideal’ soil calcium level. It’s a great example of how our management philosophy in the vineyards is reflected in the wine glass.”