Raquel and Hugh Jones made their tree change from busy city careers in 2014, buying a Beechworth vineyard and launching their Weathercraft label in 2016. The vineyard had been set up in 1998 for premium wine production. It was a conventionally managed site, but the couple were intent on more natural methods. The shiraz-dominant vineyard has since been tilted towards Iberian varieties, with tempranillo and albariño joining the roster across almost 6 hectares. By focusing on soil health, herbicides, insecticides and pesticides have been eliminated, with natural methods of pest and weed management employed. Once all going to high-end contract clients, the fruit is now all used for the Weathercraft label.
Raquel Jones grew up growing fruit and vegetables alongside her father on the family’s East Gippsland property, while her passion for wine developed in adulthood while pursuing a career in finance and law. Eventually wine and the urge to make it from the ground up took over, and she and her husband bought their 16-hectare property in Beechworth after an extensive search for the ideal site.
The Jones Ridge Estate Vineyard, at 310 metres altitude, had been run conventionally, but Jones was always going to go a different way. With the initial aid of revered viticulturist Mark Walpole, she set about remediating the soil and building resilience in the vines. Today, she manages the site with vineyard manager Alastair Bartsh and her husband, Hugh. The trio are intensely focused on the vines, with renowned plant pathologist and soil microbiologist Dr Mary Cole providing valuable counsel.
“The best way to improve anything is to measure everything, or as much as you possibly can,” says Jones. “The first three years was all about measuring. Petiole tests, bi-annual soil tests, water tests, irrigation tests, etc. Once we worked out our baseline, we could then set goals and work out ways to improve management techniques, remediate soils, etc.”
As they reshaped the vineyard, Jones says that the first couple of years were tough. The vines had been regularly watered, making for a shallow root system, while mosses and poor soil conditions under vine from past herbicide use were problematic. The rigorous testing helped Jones identify the nutritional needs of the site, employing cover crops, compost and soil aeration to enliven the soil, while also replanting and grafting.
“Through varying soil types across the vineyard, the different varieties, clones and rootstocks we’ve carefully selected or worked with, we’ve managed to find equilibrium and the vines don’t just rely on inputs but actively search for nutrients that were previously locked up within the soil by herbicides,” says Jones. Today, the site is planted to chardonnay, tempranillo, shiraz, albariño, mourvèdre/monastrell and grenache across 5.8 hectares of vines.
The Iberian focus began due to Jones’ heritage, but that connection blossomed over significant overseas travel and a deep investigation of the wines of Spain. Australia has been reliant on one clone of tempranillo for some time, but Jones was able to source three clones that were propagated from Ribera del Duero. With six clones newly available, she matched the best suited through exhaustive tasting of wines from sites that mirrored the Jones Ridge Vineyard. Additionally, the clonal mix of other varieties, particularly chardonnay was increased to suit nuances in the vineyard and add complexity to the wines
All wines are made onsite by Jones in their purpose-built facility. “Our small-footprint winery was built from a recycled machinery shed, which utilises heavily insulated panels, reducing our cooling requirements,” says Jones. “Our power use is a low 8 kWh per day during peak season. For Vintage 2022, this will be driven by a 14-kW solar system, with excess power being fed back into the grid. Although we are a small winery, our focus is still firmly on diminishing our environmental impact.”
Jones says that they are constantly looking at ways to improve their systems, especially when they “interfere with nature’s status quo or otherwise have negative long-term effects on the land and the environment”. This approach started with the soil remediation. “With a need for greater disease resistance, we’ve opted for a more environmentally friendly approach to our viticultural practices,” she says. “We’ve eliminated the need for herbicides, insecticides and pesticides mostly by focusing on soil health and building an aerobic environment, with increased microbial populations to bolster the vines’ resistance to pest and disease.”
Cover crops are sown in the midrows to fix nitrogen, though Jones avoids oats, as they attract cockatoos, opting instead for buckwheat and flora that attract ichneumonid wasps, which adds a layer of pest control. The under vine is mowed, and silage is spread around the vines to increase organic matter. Compost and compost teas are made from their own green and brown manure, while grape marc (skins, seeds, stalks) and cardboard waste is also composted. Minimal fungicide sprays are employed, with only organic sulphur used.
“We recover bioactive phenolics from our grape marc,” notes Jones. “Given it’s a valuable source of phytochemicals, we value it highly and use it as a biodynamic fertiliser as part of our composting and as a bio-pesticide when spraying out our compost tea.” Previously, vine nutrition was treated as a blanket measure, with even the low-impact grazing of sheep causing an imbalance that Jones sought to correct.
“We’ve replaced sheep with ducks and chickens, which helps balance nitrogen levels across the vineyard, as sheep tend to camp out in the same place and compact the soil, particularly during wet autumn and winter months,” says Jones. “We aerate the soil at key times. We’ve replaced our tractor with a lighter, less-impactful model, reduced tractor hours on the vineyard through greater hand management of vines. With well-timed, pruning, irrigation, hedging, leaf thinning, bunch thinning and wire lifting, we are able to minimise labour cost and tractor time.”
While the meticulous farming is labour intensive, keeping costs in check is a vital element of the sustainability model at Jones Ridge. “For the farm to be sustainable and to leave it as a legacy, it needs to financially viable and profitable, otherwise it is just an indulgent, passionate hobby,” says Jones. “Profits also enable us to reinvest towards continual improvements to the land, operations and education. Our aim is to reinvest over 20 per cent of turnover back into the farm each year.”
One of those investments is an engineered laser system to scare birds away from the fruit. It’s a good snapshot of the thinking of Jones. Everything was trialled to deter birds, from scarecrows to drones, and while nets are effective, they were hazardous to native wildlife and ended up impacting the fruit development through shading. They were also labour and fuel intensive, with attendant pollution and soil compaction from tractor passes. The laser is an initial cost, but the long-term benefits, both financially and environmentally are invaluable.
The vineyard has subterranean drainage that collects and redirects water across the entire site into a 12-megalitre dam, which is the source of the vineyard’s irrigation. “Particular focus is applied to excessive water usage,” says Jones. “Our dam creates an environment that attracts wild ducks that feed in the vineyard as well as frogs and other beneficial creatures. It’s important to ensure our waterways are free from chemicals. We also have our own wastewater treatment system for the farmhouse.”
The improvement in the site is palpable with Jones noting benefits from their farming in multiple ways. “Our irrigation needs have reduced, soil structure has improved, as has root growth during key stages,” she says. “You can see how our vines are thriving on their own now. We are one of the last vineyards in the region to stop photosynthesising, with leaves remaining green well after harvest, and we’re one of the last vineyards to experience leaf fall. We’ve had issues with frost from time to time and yet our carbohydrate stores are so well stocked that even after pruning back to secondary bud, our growth picks up very quickly and we are still able to harvest a quality crop.”
The first commercial release of shiraz for Weathercraft was in 2017, and in a not entirely dissimilar cool vintage of 2021, Jones says the quality is exponentially better. It’s an improvement she links to the health of the vineyard, and that shows both observationally and through lab testing in the fruit, and it is unmissable in the glass.
“To give you specifics, our YAN [yeast assimilable nitrogen, which influences the quality and effectiveness of ferments] levels, for example, have improved exponentially,” says Jones. “Anthocyanins too have improved over time and the berry’s skins themselves have become thicker and less flaccid, while berries and bunches are smaller, concentrating flavours. The depth of concentration in the glass when observing fruit characteristics, natural tannins and depth of colour is outstanding. Even before being transferred to barrel for maturation, after alcoholic fermentation, the mouthfeel, flavour and aroma of the wine was, for me, exceptional.”