Little Sheep and Green Wine

Ξ November 23rd, 2009 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Winemakers, Wineries |

Marlborough’s Awatere Valley is part of New Zealand’s thriving sheep industry and is the home to the historic 1847 Flaxbourne Station, so the arrival of another flock isn’t anything new, however, the latest additions to the region are unusual for two reasons; firstly, they’re tiny – the miniature Babydoll (SouthDown) rare-breed – and secondly, they’re being used as lawn-mowers on a vineyard.
The Babydolls are intended to keep the grass and weeds in check between the vines on Yealand’s Estate based just outside of Seddon, on the North-Eastern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. The goal is for sheep to eventually replace tractors over the whole 1000+ hectares (ha) on the estate, but they’re starting off slowly with just 10 of the woolly grass-cutters in 125 ha of organic Sauvignon Blanc.
Originally from the South Downs of Sussex, England, it was America that developed the breed in the late 19th and 20th centuries, though Yealand’s have imported theirs from Australia at $2000 (US) each and are hoping to increase numbers by another 10-20 over the next few months before starting a 5-year cross-breeding program which is hoped to produce a flock big enough for all the vines.
Adult Babydolls reach only 24” (60cm) when fully grown so should be no direct threat to the vines, although this isn’t the first attempt at replacing tractors on the estate; traditional sized sheep were tried first, but they started to eat the grapes, while guinea pigs (Cavys) proved more successful until hawks in the area developed a taste for them! A local 3news video gives a great summary of the events.
I chanced upon this story after winning a bottle of the Yealand’s Estate 2008 Sauvignon Blanc at a recent tasting. While researching the winery details via their UK importer, Liberty Wines, I saw the Babydoll press release and delved deeper, discovering that it’s not just a PR exercise but part of an integrated and well planned environmental strategy for the new winery set up by Peter Yealand.
In April it became the largest winery certified under the CarboNZero scheme and their website states “we’re creating the first fully sustainable winery in New Zealand” – from its outset the winery started off greener than other established businesses with its use of wind turbines, solar power, water collection & recycling and a host of other initiatives including wetland development.
I contacted the winery to find out a little more about the business and the man who set it up.
It seems that 61yr old Peter Yealand is a true maverick, a self-made millionaire who doesn’t conform to any business template; he has never got round to buying a suit and is more at home behind the wheel of an earth-mover than behind a desk. Peter started off his business life carting hay around South Island before getting into construction, including repairing the marine defences at the end of Wellington airport. His big break came in the early 70’s at the start of the country’s mussel farming industry which he successfully helped develop for nearly 20 years. A spot of deer farming followed which got him into land development and, importantly, an appreciation of environmental concerns (in contrast to his earlier life) which would stay with him to the present day.
It was in 2002 that Peter started his ventures involving vines after buying up a marshy area around Blenheim and sculpturing the land to create a new lake alongside a 20ha vineyard. Soon he had 3 separate vineyards and was selling grapes to established wineries including Montana. The strong, year-round coastal winds prove a challenge to viticulture in the area so he developed a reusable plastic vine guard, the Alto Microclime in 2004 as an improvement to the existing, often makeshift alternatives (such as milk cartons).
Disgruntled by what he saw as poor management, by the end of 2005 he attempted to take over Oyster Bay (Marlborough Vineyards) and ended up in a messy bidding war with Delegat. Although he eventually lost that encounter the idea of running his own winery had taken hold and within 3 years Yealand had consolidated his existing vineyard holdings, purchased new land and spent hundreds of hours behind the controls of his earthmoving equipment – Yealand’s Estate was opened in August 2008.
The winery was conservatively valued at $30 million (US) when it opened and the Estate media brochure claims it is twice as efficient in terms of energy used per bottle of wine compared to the industry standard – in its first year of operation the energy efficiency and alternative production schemes saved nearly 1 million kilowatt hours, equivalent to 120 family houses. From 2010 LPG use will be replaced by a grape pruning oiler and an extra wind turbine alongside the existing wind & solar generators should see the winery completely self-sufficient for energy production and even selling off any excess to the National Grid.
500 ha of vines are currently on-line but full production from total land holdings of over 1000 ha is expected by 2013. The Babydoll sheep are currently roaming around the 125 ha earmarked for full organic operation for the 2010 vintage.
There are 4 vineyards;
Seaview, 1000 ha and New Zealand’s largest privately owned vineyard
Flaxbourne, 100 ha in traditional sheep country – these are both in the Awatere Valley south of Seddon.
Grovetown, on reclaimed marshland
Riverlands?- these make up 50 ha of Sauvignon Blanc on the Wairau Plains, near Blenheim.
The head winemaker is Tamra Washington, born and bred in Blenheim and lured back home by Peter after working in wineries in California, Italy and Australia. No doubt inspired by Tamra’s wanderings, experimental vineyards of Fiano, Gruner Veltliner and Tempranillo hint at future offerings under the Yealand’s banner and in New Zealand a Tempranillo is available under the “Pete’s Shed” label (a reference to Peter Yealand’s eccentric “garden shed” inventor habits). For now Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are available in the US, with Sauvignon Blanc, Vioginer, Riesling and Pinot Gris in the UK (and Marks & Spencers customers may have seen the Flaxbourne Sauvignon Blanc, made especially for M&S by Yealands).
With one of the windiest vineyard sites in New Zealand the Estate vines tend to be lower yielding and with thicker skinned grapes, hopefully leading to a greater concentration of flavours. The planting of 27,000 native trees and flaxes to act as a wind barrier has also encouraged birds and other wildlife into the area and around the wetland areas also set up. This information and much more is available on an enjoyable interactive wander through the 3-page Flash version of the Yealands website – be sure to listen out for the sheep in the background and imagine the patter of tiny feet between the vines!


2 Responses to ' Little Sheep and Green Wine '

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  1. Goyito said,

    on November 24th, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    As if the guinea pig fiasco wasn’t enough… some more proof of Yealands “maverick”-ness: ‘Winery topples tradition with plastic bottles’

  2. Greybeard said,

    on February 20th, 2010 at 11:47 am

    I finally got round to opening up the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc which started me off on this article. I’d like to say I enjoyed it, but unfortunately it was far too over the top in the New Zealand style, extreme funky Gooseberry/Cat’s Pee and a very dry bitter aspect. I’d guess a Kiwi Sauv-Blanc lover may appreciate it, but for me it just scraped 2 stars.

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