Kalleskes take organic grapegrowing to heart

Name: Kym, John and Troy Kalleske

Growing grapes organically is all the Kalleske family has ever known. Sure, they only became certified organic 10 years ago, but synthetic compounds haven't been anywhere near the Kalleske vineyards near Greenock, in South Australia's Barossa Valley, since the family of Prussian migrant Johann George Kalleske established the first family plantings back in the mid 1800s.

Some of those initial plantings are among the family's 49ha of vines that exist today, which are managed by John Kalleske, and his son, Kym, and wife Lorraine - a four-times national grapepicking champion, but that's another story.

A fifth-generation grapegrower, John has nearly 50 years' experience tending the vineyard while Lorraine herself has been hand-harvesting grapes on the property for going on four decades. Following in their footsteps, their three sons, Kym, Troy and Tony, are eager to uphold the organic practices established by their forebears. Indeed, Troy and Tony have taken the enterprise one step further in recent years and established their own wine business and wine label, building their own organically-certified, 300-tonne capacity winery in 2002 and releasing their first wines in 2004.

During a recent interview with Australian Viticulture under the verandah of the Kalleske homestead on a pleasant summer's day, John, Troy and Kym revealed that their family's preference for organics extended beyond the vineyards and other parts of the farm to influence aspects of their life such as the food they eat. And according to John, the desire to be organic has to come from the heart - as opposed to the hip pocket - for organic agriculture to be successful.

'People in the organic industry all have the same goal which is to improve the environment,' John said. 'Most people are not doing it [growing organic produce] for the financial rewards and those that are haven't got the right mindset. It's got to be in your heart otherwise it won't work for you,' John maintains.

Which begs the question, why, after growing grapes organically for more than a century, did the family seek organic certification having been content to sell its grapes to the likes of Southcorp for years without receiving any recognition in return?

'We didn't certify the vineyard organically for financial gain,' said Troy, winemaker for the Kalleske label.

'Being organically certified simply shows that we're genuine about being organic. It is clear now for everyone to see that we abide by organic practices. The wineries have always told us that we produce high-quality grapes; perhaps now consumers can appreciate why that might be.

'When we first started selling wine we didn't mention it was organic. We wanted people to buy our wine on its own merits. While the organic logo is now on our back label, we still don't use it as our main selling point. First and foremost the wine has to be decent,' Troy said.

Coupled with their beliefs that a chemically-free vineyard is not only good for the vines but those who work among them, the Kalleskes' desire to remain organic also stems from their conviction that grapes will only give a 'true expression of the site, soil and season' if they are as unadulterated as possible.

'If we were to pack on the water and artificial fertilisers then our grapes would taste similar to grapes from another vineyard putting on the same things. We don't want those sorts of things pulling the fl avours out of the grapes that the site, soil and season have put in. We want to make Kalleske vineyard wine, not just Barossa wine,' John said.

It will come as no surprise that 70% of the Kalleskes' vineyards are planted to Shiraz - the variety for which the Barossa is most renowned. Grenache, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mataro, Petit Verdot, Durif, Viognier, Zinfandel, Tempranillo and Chenin Blanc make-up the remaining 30%. The vines are split between the 42ha that surround the family homestead and a second 6ha vineyard on the outskirts of Greenock. Ranging in age from the initial mid 1800 plantings to as recent as last year, the average yields in the older vines are 1-1.5t/ac while cropping in the younger vines, particularly the reds, is kept to around 2-2.5t/ac.

Last vintage, the Kalleskes kept half their production for their own label. This year, they are expecting to extend their share to two-thirds.

The vines are all trained to a simple single-wire trellis with John and Kym yet to feel their canopies need 'fancy foliage wires'. 'The vines aren't overly big so we haven't gone to a VSP,' said John. And while the Kalleskes have access to supplementary irrigation, waterings are kept to a minimum to avoid growing big berries. 'We hang off irrigating the vines for as long as possible,' John explained. 'Then we only give them a minimal amount of water so that the vines use it to grow grapes, not foliage. The maximum we'd put on is 1ML/ha. Some of the older vines are still dry grown.'

Being unaccustomed to a good soaking has meant the Kalleske vines have 'coped well in the drought'. John also attributes their hardiness in the dry to the aerobic soils, which are primarily sandy loams over red clays. It has been some years since a fullscale soil test has been carried out in the Kalleske vineyards. But John said the abundance of earthworms living in the topsoil and the multitude of spider webs that can be seen glistening across vine rows at first light is sufficient confirmation that 'there's life in there' and the soils, therefore, are in good shape.

He adds that the biodiversity both in and above the soil has improved considerably since the family made the decision to apply the theories of American soil scientist and organic pioneer Dr. William Albrecht who believed a balance of nutrients was needed to create a proper environment for soil biology.

The Kalleskes grow a covercrop of legumes and cereal - mainly beans and oats - between their vine rows, the seeds for which they grow organically on the property. In the event of a particularly wet winter and spring, the covercrop is not slashed until late in the season so it pulls as much moisture out of the soil to avoid an overly-vigorous canopy. 'Shiraz, especially, tends to put too much vigour on if it gets too wet,' noted John.

John and Kym also apply home-made composts to maintain the health of their soils. These applications have included chicken manure, composted grape marc and a hay compost made from the straw bedding of their commercial chaff mill.

'We mainly put out a compost on an annual basis but we only do every second row,' explained Kym. 'We haven't put anything on some of our blocks though for years.'

Kym and John keep powdery and downy mildew at bay through the application of two to three sprays of worm oil, fish kelp and molasses each season.

'How often we spray is determined a lot according to the weather,' said Kym. 'Our canopies are quite open and the vines aren't all that big and dense. And it's pretty breezy here too so our disease pressure is fairly low.'

John admitted their hardest battle was waged against weeds under the vine rows and acknowledged that it's this war that holds back other growers from turning to organics.

The full article can be found in the March/April 2008 issue of Australian Viticulture.

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