David and Lesley Robertson are the owners of Thistle Hill Vineyard, a 42.6 Hectare NASAA certified property just 10 kilometres west of Mudgee, NSW, producing quality varietal wines from Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. They have owned the property since 1976 and have been farming organically since 1993. David's interest in viticulture and winemaking began as a hobby, but has become his main activity.
David had always wanted to have land as a child. After losing a leg in a motorbike accident in 1972, it looked for a while as if his dream would not come true. But he has not let his disability stop him from leading an active life, and he does much of the work in the vineyard and winery himself.
The decision to purchase the property at Mudgee was made after David prepared "Climatograms" of the major viticulture growing areas. David decribed his selection of the Mudgee area as "a compromise between ideal grape growing conditions and not living in an isolated area, such as the Coonawarra, Margaret River or Tasmania". David was still running a business in Sydney at this time.
He continued "I was also attracted by the scenic beauty of Mudgee".
"The Climatogram was based on rain and temperature, but you can build in frost and wind factors too."
"We purchased the property in '76 and started planting in '77, but it was still a hobby until 1984, when we started making wine. I became full time here in 1990."
"I had some health problems in 1988, including angioplasty, and Lesley suffered from chronic fatique. Influenced by that, and the possibility of a lifestyle different from the busy Sydney rat race, we moved up here in 1990."
"We really needed to subsidize the development of the vineyard with our well paid Sydney jobs, and we could not have developed all this without that assistance."
David studied to complete a Bachelor of Applied Science at the Riverina College in Wagga, in the late 70's. Originally intending to study viticulture, he transferred to the Wine Science stream part way through the course. He had started making some of his own wine during the late 70's and 80's, when there was not much interest from anyone else in buying his grapes.
Even in these days, David thought that organic growing looked good, but the industry had not yet established. At this stage the winery was two-thirds red and one-third white wine grapes, with 50% Cabernet, but the white wine boom was beginning to appear.
When David first came to Mudgee, the Thistle Hill property lacked trees. It had rabbits, hares and roos, but not much diversity of bird life. He says "we mapped the contours, and planted 3,000 trees early on. There was a huge increase in the number of insect eating birds, like the blue wrens." The brightly coloured male and several female wrens were hopping around us as we spoke, sitting at the heavy wood slab table outside the winery. "There are also lots of magpies, which we love, because thet discourage other birds, and because they are important moth eaters."
"The magpies are very territorial and they hate crows and starlings."
David has developed the basis of a wild life corridor, linking to the local National Park, and has influenced some of his neighbours to join in the planting.
In 1993 David traveled to the UK, to the London Wine Trade Fair, to promote Mudgee wines. The tour was largely organised by Gil Wahlquist, who was the founder of Botobolar Winery, and the first certified organic wine producer (Robinvale was certified earlier for Biodynamic wine production). Gil had already sent some wines to the UK, and was experiencing the beginnings of a new wave of interest on organic wine from Europe.
David said "we focused on the UK and made our initial sales in 1994 and '95. Since then, Asia has emerged as a very important market for our wines."
David originally sought certification after Gil's encouragement. He says facetiously, "Gil wanted an ally".
David says that "for domestic sales, organic labelling is not very significant. It could be important in the future, depending on how it is marketed."
"We have so much quality wine, and Australian wine drinkers are very spoilt. We don't have people promoting organic so much, because the general product really is good."
"In Europe and Japan, the market is really becoming organic."
Thistle Hill now produces around 60 tonne of fruit per year from mainly dry-grown vines. There has been very little irrigation until now, but a new dam is now full and will allow drip irrigation of vines in the future. Probes monitor soil moisture and irrigation is automatically scheduled. This quantity of fruit will produce 4,000 cases of wine.
Every second inter-row is sown to cover crops each year, and mown. The under-vine area has been treated with an under-vine weeder (offset disc), but is more often brushcut. As we look out across the various blocks and rows of vines, the importance of correct timing of weed control operations becomes apparent. Some rows are much more weedy than others, due to small differences in scheduling of mowing or brushcutting.
Soil tests are sent to Pivot every two years and petiole analysis is conducted in the alternate year.
Compost is made from locally sourced animal manure and weeds. David estimates 200 tonne compost per year is used, plus Terra Firma Organic Life pellets.
Disease control requires the use of copper hydroxide or Bordeaux and wettable sulphur products such as "Kumulus". Bacillus thuringiensis is used as a spot spray for caterpillars when necessary. Many predatory insects were evident as we walked through the vines, including wasps, spiders and a very large assasin bug.
And what does David do to discourage the birds that are not dissuaded by the magpies. "We use a 'Flash Harry' weather vane, with spinning a iridescent disc, and a humming wire, such as is effective on yachts or at marinas, and a kite which soars like an eagle and is visible to 300 metres. We also use a 'Razzo' scare gun, which sends a projectile up a pole. As it winds down, it makes a noise like an injured bird."
"All of the devices unsettle the birds. The flash Harry is particularly good. As it turns around in the wind the reflective discs set up an array of colours and shapes, something like strobe lighting."
"The starlings don't actually eat much fruit, they just peck at the berries looking for water. We leave a dish of water on every 10th end post, and they drink there instead."