Craigow wins Tasmanian Vineyard of the Year

Name: Ian Aitken and Dr Barry Edwards

By Mark Smith

The secret to running a successful vineyard is really no secret at all, according to Tasmania's Ian Aitken.

'Record keeping's the key to success,' he told his peers and invited guests during the State's annual Vineyard of the Year field day held in mid-May.

'It's the main thing to worry about once you've got your pruning right and you know what you're going to be doing in your vineyard.'

The Charles Sturt University graduate speaks with the voice of experience. Since 2005, he's been manager of Craigow Vineyard, the 10ha Coal River Valley site judged 2008 Tasmanian Vineyard of the Year.

The venture is owned by Cambridge couple Cathy and Dr Barry Edwards. Its annual business is split between selling winegrapes to local and interstate buyers and producing premium quality, single vineyard wines under its own label.

The Tasmanian Vineyard of the Year award is the island State's most prestigious prize for viticulture and vineyard management. It was initiated three years ago as a means of encouraging world's best practice among Tasmania's 240 or so cool-climate vineyards. Jointly supported by The Royal Agricultural Society of Tasmania, the Department of Primary Industry and Water, and Wine Industry Tasmania, the award is made on an annual basis. It's acknowledged by the presentation of the perpetual Richard Langdon Trophy.

During a four-month period, participants in the 2008 award were visited several times by the competition's judging panel. It comprised Hobart agricultural consultant and chairperson Frank Walker, internationally-renowned vineyard consultant Dr Richard Smart, and Domaine A Stoney Vineyard winemaker/vigneron Peter Althaus. Associate judges Dr Kathy Evans (Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research) and Paul Townsend (Tamar Ridge Estates) also provided advice to the panel.

Entrants were assessed on a total of 43 criteria relating to vineyard management. In 2008, special emphasis was given to environmental management.

'This year's winner has shown that the keeping of detailed records has helped to develop sound management of the vineyard,' observed panel member Peter Althaus.

'These records will carry on into the future and will allow the manager to fine tune irrigation and crop management in the coming years.'

The Edwards family bought their Richmond Road property 27 years ago. It was once part of a larger and more historic mixed farming property established back in the 1820s by a well-to-do colonial physician, James Murdoch. Land that once provided a home to farm labourers and a thriving community with its own bakery, dairy and blacksmith's shop is now tended full-time by a single employee - Ian Aitken.

The property's 20th century incarnation began with a trial planting of 700 vines of Pinot Noir in 1987. Hardly any survived their first 18 months in the site's heavy black clayey soil. In 1989, the owners added 15,000 more vines to set the vineyard on a sound commercial footing. Today, Craigow boasts not just award-winning Pinot Noir (3ha) but Riesling (2.5ha), Chardonnay (1.25ha), Gewürztraminer (1.25ha), Sauvignon Blanc (1ha), and Merlot (0.3 ha) as well.

Recent vineyard additions have been close-planted (mostly 0.8m between vines) with row spacings of between 2m and 3m. In general, trellising here is neat and simple, and adheres to industry standard VSP - except for those original Pinot Noir vines, which are currently in conversion from a typically Tasmanian, 1980s modified-lyre arrangement.

'Disease control is an on-going problem with the lyre set-up,' Aitken explained. 'So is wire-lifting. The biggest issue this year has been weed control. Unless the weather is absolutely perfect, you just can't spray any herbicide into the lyre here. It simply blows through and onto the other side of the trellis.'

Aitken says that when he first arrived on the site three years ago, records were few and far between. Indeed, there wasn't even a rain gauge to be seen. Average crop yields during favourable seasons had been known to exceed 12t/ha, with Riesling approaching 18t/ha in 2000.

'The property was all spur-pruned when I arrived, so the first thing I did was to go through the vineyard and knock off about five spurs from each vine,' he recalled.

'We were still over-loaded with fruit. In the second year, we knocked things back even further and our tonnages began to drop to levels more favourable to premium quality. Now, we're just about where we want to be. In 2008, our Pinot Noir target yield was around 8t/ha, including a 15% insurance factor.'

Aitken believes he's well on the way to eliminating Craigow's long-term bogey of late season botrytis infection. In part, he attributes that to more astute water management. Soil moisture is monitored via a series of low-cost GBug data loggers, manufactured in Australia by MEA. Each records soil moisture tension readings taken at two-hourly intervals from gypsum block sensors buried at 20cm and 40cm across the vineyard.

'Along with collecting our own rainfall data, the use of the GBug system helps us calculate just how much water we need to use to wet up the vineyard during dry seasons. Prior to my arrival, our drip irrigation rates at the start of the season used to be around four hours per day. Now that we're monitoring vine tip growth and plant stress, we're not watering until soil moisture readings really indicate a need for water.

'That means I'm not putting anything extra into the groundwater. We're also starting to see some of the benefits of Dr Kathy Evans' recent research, which indicates you tend to get botrytis outbreaks if you make vineyard soil too moist.'

If you think all that provides evidence of a sharp and analytical mind, you should see Aitken's own unique response to record keeping. His laptop computer is jam-packed with all manner of vineyard data and management resources. They're available at the click of a mouse, thanks to an ingenious software program that Aitken designed and developed himself. It's grounded in tried and proven Windows Excel technology.

Records are created and accessed according to a variety of useful headings and subheadings. Vineyard information, for example, encompasses block sizes; planting densities; row lengths; canopy structures and leaf surface areas; inflorescence, bud, and shoot numbers; phenological stages of development; grape maturity sampling data; spraying times and 'next spray due' data.

This article was first published, and can be found in full, in the July/August issue of Australian Viticulture. To subscribe to Australian Viticulture contact Winetitles on (08) 8292 0888 or [email protected]

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