ONE of the special eco-conscious management tools used at Ensay Winery, in Victoria’s Alpine country, is a flock of Dorper sheep grazing in the vineyard all year round.
The suite of eco-conscious management tools value-add to the enterprise, which began in 1992 when David and Jenny Coy planted six acres of vines into granite loam soil on a steeply sloping block, 220 metres above sea level.
They planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Cabernet and “a bit of” Merlot varietals.
“The soil type and weather conditions all pointed positive to growing grapes,” David Coy said.
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“Autumn breaks were rare and apple orchards were growing well in the area – apple orchards require the same temperate growing conditions and good ripening climate as vineyards.
“And the soils are hungry, so the grape vines don’t grow too vigorously and we don’t have to trim excessively.”
The Dorper sheep graze year-round in a four-cell system in the vineyard, running up to 35 head of ewes with lambs.
“They graze between the rows, they graze the suckers and they graze under the vines, up to the hot wire below the crown of the vine,” Mr Coy said.
The couple had a strong background in their chosen career, working on a Red Hill vineyard on the Mornington Peninsula, where Mr Coy was assistant winemaker.
“At the time, this area was predominantly growing sheep, but we only had 19 acres of steep country so we had to do something intense to make money,” he said.
To establish the vines, they initially installed drip irrigation but have turned it into a largely dryland vineyard, annually deep ripping to encourage water retention in the clay pan.
“We water only negligibly in extreme heat, so in the past couple of decades we’ve only watered twice,” Mr Coy said.
“These days the irrigation system is mainly set up to offset frost burn.”
A ‘flipper’ system on the trellises of the vines was set up to spray water over the bud-bursts and grapes, from late frosts the region is notorious for in November and December – since set-up, there has been no need to use it.
“Frosts can totally burn off the fruit and then you get secondary growth and late grapes that don’t ripen,” Mr Coy said.
Growing grapes in the region is a constant challenge – managing against smoke taint from bushfires and burn-offs, frost burn, drought – but also a pleasure, mostly because of the climate but also the community.
“Soil makes a big difference in taste, but so does climate and we get a lot of sunshine in the growing season,” Mr Coy said.
We don’t need herbicides because we want the sheep to eat under the vines. Since the grazing regime started, we haven’t slashed or cut suckers.
“Flavour is a science project because of the variables of climate, rainfall and episodes like severe smoke taint from bushfires and government-regulated fuel-reduction burn-offs.
“We’ve built a strong relationship with the local department guys responsible for fuel reduction burns, they ask our advice about the weather conditions and if their work might affect our grapes.”
Trial and error has shown the smoke taint is carried through the leaves into the vine and from there it affects the grapes, so weather conditions are a paramount consideration.
“It doesn’t take much at all to produce smoke taint in the grape. Shiraz and Cabernet can probably wear the taint better than other varietals.
“In January and February, smoke can really infuse into the berry via the leaves and the vine,” Mr Coy said.
Fertiliser was used heavily during establishment and foliar sprays are applied twice during growth. There is no need to use herbicides.
“We don’t need herbicides because we want the sheep to eat under the vines,” Mr Coy said.
“Since the grazing regime started, we haven’t slashed or cut suckers.”
Must – left over from producing wine from the grapes – is composted and applied back on the vines.
Grape production averages 3t/acre or 18t annually. Merlot is the only varietal blended, with Cabernet; although a seasonally larger volume of production might cause a Shiraz Cabernet to be made.
Sales are provenance driven, predominantly at the cellar door but also wholesale to East Gippsland restaurants, hotels and independent grocers.
The large rammed earth cellar, with its honeycomb cells, has a multi-focus – wines are produced in the vats and stored in barrels before decanting into bottles; cellar door sales occur on weekends and public and school holidays; and local community groups host workshops and regular dinners – including paddock to plate food events in the space, furnished with hand-hewn local hardwood tables.
“We use meat from our own sheep and cattle and source some of the best vegetables, fruit and seafood in Australia from the East Gippsland food producers, for paddock to plate events,” Mr Coy said.
“We’re fortunate to live in a region that produces some of the best food in Australia; and some excellent chefs in the district who like working with the ingredients to create food experiences.”