Winter 2011 Seasonal Notes

The Good Oil
Our last season report was after vintage, looking back on one hell of a difficult summer season. Now, looking back, we can only say, thank god for Canowindra’s heavenly mild winters. Since the end of the grape harvest, its just been beautiful here. The olive harvest was the main remaining task, beginnning with the olive oil varieties. Like many growers this year, we had a big crop of water-laden fruit. More tonnes on the truck, but less oil coming back form the press. The unfiltered oil has slightly more acid in it than last year (0.3% FFA) but the flavour is deliciously mild, fruity and with a nice little pungent zing at the end. It has a lovely green colour and a nice cloudy hue of goodness that many of our customers ask for.

We have been bottling the oil for the last few weeks, having a few issues with new bottles and closures, now sorted. We have been labelling this week with our beautiful new labels featuring the Gold “O”.  If you are an oil lover, why not order a four litre tin or a 6-pack of bottles for friends?

The kalamata harvest normally takes place a lot earlier than it did this year, in early July. This was mainly due to the late and wet season, and the heavy rain in spring leading to some over-cropping in the kalamatas. This means the fruit was smaller and greener than we like at the normal June harvest date, so we just had to sit and wait. By July, the majority of the fruit was ripe, and we picked a big crop but with a lot of over-ripe fruit, extra rich in flavour, which will be made into olive paste. This is in contrast with last year when the very dry summer ended with heavy rain that caused swelling of the fruit, then shrinking again during another dry spell. Oh, the joys of olive growing – always so much to learn, and so much depending on luck as well! Due to this years late harvest, we dont expect to bottle much before Christmas, which probably means we will run out for a month or two. We have already run out of 2 litre jars.

Sky Symphonies
Its early September, and it raining… If only you could bottle the sound and smell of rain falling on dry ground. The flashes of lightning illuminating the darkness and the rolling thunder behind the driving rain. The mini blackouts adding to the excitement of water giving life on the land, where drought and blackouts actually have a lot in common – reminding us of the fragility of modern life without either water or power. We are hoping to reduce our dependence on both, as we are living in times of climate (and other) change. Despite the deluge of 2010-2011 summer, we seem to be back in the “just enough” rainfall pattern that was typical of the early drought years here in the late ’90’s. Yes, there was enough rain to grow a crop of wheat, but only enough to keep the surface foot or so wet and keep the crop going. This winter we have really only had one big rainfall event of 35mm, about 2 weeks ago. The subsoil is dry, and the sound of rain on the tin roof is far better than any music in our house.  Lets hope we get a good inch of rain tonight!

Next week’s forecast is more frosty weather, and whilst the vines are still mainly dormant (only the Chardonnay stirring in the bud), I say “bring on the cold weather”, to delay the budburst and reduce the risk of frost damage later, to prolong the wet early spring weather, and hopefully stave off the spring heatwaves that can fry up so much of this lovely rain and burn the olive flowers. Whether or not we end up with another wet spring, we should find out very soon.

Overall, the winter has been good to us. Apart from having some time off to renovate houses or do some well overdue travel (Florence and Richard visiting relatives in France), we have been pruning, mainly, and slowly getting the vines up to a higher cordon (130-140cm above ground level). The Chardonnay and Shiraz are all done, now just the Semillon, Merlot and Cabernet are still being extended upwards in the aim, long term, of running sheep under the vines during the growing season, as well as the winter. Running sheep in summer would mean keeping the summer weeds down, but also keeping the vines trimmed up to save manual trimming, and to improve air flow.

“Under Cover Crop” Trials

Direct Drilled

We have also been experimenting with cover crops. Oats and vetch, an old favourite of ours. The oats acts like a nice trellis for the vetch, a leguminous vine, to climb on and create a big biomass. Half the vineyard we sowed with cultivation, and half without. The results have been surprising. Where we cultivated, we didnt muck about. First we ripped with the Yeomans plow, getting down about 30cm and getting some nice soil fracture (ie creation of cracks beyond the actual boot of the plow, to allow more water infiltration.). We then disc plowed twice, scarified twice and sowed with a disc seeder. A lot of passes, too many for our liking. However, it did feel good to “turn the sod”, burying a lot of old surface debis in the deeper layers, and especially to expose the roots of the perennial khaki weed (bindi-i) to the frost. Bindi has been a real challenge here, as its all along the valley. We were hoping that by not cultivating, other plants would grow and out compete it, but alas, a decade later, the truth was the clearly opposite – in some areas the bindi-i took over completely. Hence the desperate act of cultivation.


The other half of the vineyard we sowed without cultivation – also known as “direct drilling”.  This is a really nice concept, and it has worked for us in the past when done nice and early, like in February. This is not easy when you still might not have harvested the grapes in April. Anyway, it was May by the time we sowed, so later than ideal. The machine was built by a couple of other organic vignerons in the region, and we gave it a go. The idea with direct drilling is that by avoiding cultivation you dont destroy the soil structure – the little balls glued together with humus and microbes, which are destroyed and oxidised by light when plowed.

Oats and vetch

Now, four months later, the results of this trial are interesting. Where we cultivated, we expected the soil to have less life in it, and to be harder under the shovel by now. We found the opposite last week when, digging up a healthy oat plant with bio-agronomist Anthony Foo, we found much more active root activity and mycorrhizae in the cultivated plot. We also found the soil to be much better structured, deeper and softer, and the oats and vetch much bigger and healther. Wanting to know more, Anthony is organising concurrent soil and tissue analysis on both blocks to see better what is going on, but initial observation says that cultivation, occasionally (every few years) could be beneficial.

The Progress of Life

Our little organic community, Rivers Road Organic Farms, is maturing into a peaceful island of life and friendship. We have partners coming and going, but always the nicest people. We have more and more wallabies (eating our cover crops!) and birds. The native tree strips are getting seriously thick trunks and good height now. Herb and Jenny have planted lots more this winter, too. We are improving our irrigation control system using wireless technology. Greg has planted a heap of yummy garlic in the veggie paddock (Block 11). We have renovated the old cottage and are getting more and more guests onto the farm as well as some great WWOOFers. We have a new tractor (a blue one!). We have three kids under five and they have a great grandmother still living on the farm. And as of two days ago, a new puppy.

We have a lot to be thankful for, and are ready to hit the 2011 summer running. 

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