Organics, energy efficiency, wine and sheep

Tuesday, 31 May, 2011

Australia’s largest producer of labelled organic wines - Tamburlaine Wines - has been pushing the boundaries of innovation since it was established in 1966 by then local Cessnock doctor Lance Allen. Not realised by Dr Allen at the time, the establishment of a new winery using new oak barrels brought local success to some of his early wines compared to the predominantly old oak maturation wines which were then commercially available from other winemakers. The advantages of new and better oak handling have become part of the Australian wine revolution since that time.

The Pokolbin-based operation was purchased by its current owners, a small group of friends and relatives led by Managing Director and Chief Winemaker Mark Davidson, in 1985 and has undergone significant expansion in the 26 years since. The company introduced rosé into its range in 1988 when it was not at all fashionable and developed a following which has continued until today, saw the possibility of promoting regionally suited varieties like Verdelho and Chambourcin in the early 90s and were the first Australian winemaker to release aged fortifieds only in 375 mL rather than the traditional (and less marketable) standard 750 mL bottles.

Tamburlaine now harvests fruit from the Hunter Valley and Orange region of New South Wales, and in 2010 80,000 cases of wine were produced in the company’s winery. As much as 70% of the total crush comes from Tamburlaine’s 93-hectare vineyard at Orange, which was purchased in 1996 and planted to vines two years later. During the 2011 vintage a further 30 Ha of vineyard in Orange has been contracted by the company. As well as some of the expected varieties grown in a cool region like Orange, remarkably good results have been in achieved with Malbec, Marsanne and Grenache grown on their vineyards as well.

Tamburlaine’s environmental mindset continues well beyond its conversion to organic production.

What waste?

All organic waste - including plant material, grape skins, office paper, food scraps, manures and leaves - is composted and recycled in the vineyard - fertilising the vines while reducing waste heading into landfill.

Water is a highly valued resource at Pokolbin, with rainfall collected off the winery roof and re-used. Winery wastewater is screened to two millimetres, with resulting greywater pumped to an aerobic treatment dam, where bacteria work to break down the dissolved nutrients, reducing potential BOD and eliminating associated environmental impacts. After periodic settling, the treated dam water is pumped to other storage dams and used as irrigation water or for cleaning winery floors after a further filtration and ozonation.

Smart thinking slashes power bills

Reducing energy use in the winery can deliver both financial and environmental rewards to producers, and with a tax on carbon in the pipeline, cutting back is becoming increasingly beneficial.

After an energy audit as part of the New South Wales Government’s Energy Saver Program, Tamburlaine found that minor changes to the way it uses electricity has cut the company’s annual energy consumption in half, saving about 700 megawatt hours, almost 740 tonnes of carbon pollution and more than $110,000.

“And there is more that can be done,” Tamburlaine Wines Managing Director Mark Davidson said. “Our business is not just feeling better about pumping 740 t less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, but also what this is worth to our bottom line; the easiest way to improve business performance is to save large unnecessary costs.” The winery’s refrigeration systems, responsible for about 75% of the company’s electricity use, offered the greatest potential savings. Compressor control system improvements, running time and thermostat settings, upgrading heat exchangers, and pipe work modifications and insulation all contributed to a huge cut in energy usage. The payback period has been less than one year.

Run by the NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (a department which has just been ‘re-located’ under the Premiers’ Department by the new NSW Government), the program offers a subsidised energy audit and free technical support to help businesses measure and understand their energy use, cut power bills and reduce carbon pollution. Davidson said the biggest obstacle preventing more wineries from cutting their energy use was time, with many managers finding it difficult to break from their busy schedules to analyse their energy consumption. The Energy Saver Program was the trigger that helped Tamburlaine break wasteful energy habits.

“Getting professionals to look at specific areas of energy use enabled us to make extremely well-informed decisions about where we should invest money to achieve the best return,” Davidson said.

“Every business person knows you’ve got to have good information to make good decisions. We got a depth of information through DECCW, which allowed us to make the right decisions for the right reasons. The refrigeration engineer we work with and the energy consultant from DECCW said we are not unusual. Like many other businesses, we were spending way too much on energy.”

Sheep keep vineyard income flowing

The Tamburlaine philosophy of using all resources to their full potential extends well beyond the winery and into the vineyard. Most vineyards provide income for operators for only a small portion of the year when the grapes are harvested. However, Tamburlaine’s viticultural team, including Orange vineyard manager Clayton Kiely, has turned to sheep as a way of extending the vineyard’s earning potential into the winter months.

“A vineyard is basically dead money in winter,” Kiely said.

“We’ve got all this grass growing and basically just before budburst we would usually have to slash the vineyard anyway, which costs money. If you can run sheep during winter and sell them in spring, you’re benefiting with little input, and each year we save on a slashing pass. I’m surprised that every vineyard doesn’t run sheep - conventional or organic. They just sit there in winter not making any money, so any opportunity to make some seems like a good idea.”

A flock of approximately 300 crossbred ewes is introduced to Tamburlaine’s Orange vineyard each year after harvest and roams about the vine rows until the October long weekend. Sheep are also used in the company’s Hunter Valley vineyards. “We bring them in when the last truck leaves and they just chew their way through the vineyard for about six or seven months,” Clayton said. “It was important to run sheep in sufficient numbers to ensure they stay on top of weed growth. They eat underneath the vines right out, which is an advantage in organic production because obviously you can’t spray herbicides in the vineyard,” he said.

Grapegrowers want to try and get their grass area down to a minimum underneath the vines to try and maximise airflow through there. If growers set up to concentrate the sheep to areas of the vineyard they can get them to clean it right up.

“With high summer rainfall keeping soils moist and promoting mid-row growth, Kiely said he was looking to significantly increase sheep numbers in the vineyard this winter. However, high prices were proving restrictive.

“It makes it very hard when you’re trying to buy stock to put on the vineyard,” he said. “Six years ago you could buy sheep for $1 each, but now you’re looking at up to $150 to $200. Because sheep are that expensive to buy at the moment, we’re going to try and see if there’s an organic grower out west that might have about 1000 ewes that we could put on agistment. Because they’re certified organic we could just bring them straight in and run them for about two months, then once they’ve eaten everything down they can go and the crossbreds can chew through the rest of it.”

Kiely said he was looking into the merits of introducing Dorpers and Babydoll sheep to the vineyards. Dorpers are a low-maintenance breed, do not require shearing or crutching and are not prone to flystrike. Babydoll sheep grow to a maximum height of just 60 centimetres, meaning they could potentially be run in the vineyard all year round. With low breeder numbers making the breed difficult to obtain - a waiting list of interested owners already exists - Kiely is determined to thoroughly investigate the breed before making a purchase. He said he had heard reports from New Zealand, where Babydoll sheep have been run in vineyards, that the small yet crafty sheep somehow managed to reach and eat the grapes, possibly by standing on dripper wires.

Tamburlaine continues to push the envelope in the winery, in the vineyards and in international markets. According to Davidson, even though the industry has a long tradition, constant development, new technology and a changing world market are what continue to make the wine industry so challenging but fascinating at the same time.

Tamburlaine Wines

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