When we arrived in the Hunter Valley we found no shortage of wineries, cheese shops and other culinary delights to be had. In an effort to see and taste as much as we could, Amy and I would start each day by mapping out our route. On a Tuesday morning over our morning coffee we scanned the Hunter Valley Map we had picked up from our camper park. I was happy to see that Tamburlaine Winery, only 11kilometers outside Cessnock, was offering a tour at 9:30am. We packed up the camper and set out to start our day. If we had only known then how interesting a start to the day it would be.
When we arrived we discovered that Tamburlaine is one of only three organic wineries in the Hunter Valley. The board just inside the cellar entrance detailed out many organic wine facts. I thought to myself, this is great; we’ll get a chance to better understand the process of growing and marketing organic wine. I was already thinking of questions to ask our tour guide before we found him.
Our guide, Gordon Ballard, a.k.a. Gourdeaux – in honor of his favorite wine, Bordeaux, was more than happy to indulge my questions. Gourdeaux started our tour with an explanation of the water management systems that Tamburlaine has in place to ensure that their irrigation water is not contaminated with pesticides or fertilizer from adjoining farms. He also explained that the relationships with the neighboring vineyards have improved dramatically over the last couple of years. At first Tamburlaine’s requests for its neighbors to refrain from spraying when the wind would carry the pesticide onto the organic vines was met with disdain. Now that the other growers have seen the economic success Tamburlaine has had in a tough market there is more openness and respect for the organic process. I am happy to once again see that the environmentally sustainable choice is also the economically superior one.
Next it was off to the fields to see the vines up close. As it was winter the vines were pruned back in preparation for the spring; however, there was still lots to see and learn. Gourdeaux showed us how the vines are trimmed back, the efficient drip irrigation system and he explained the varied ground cover plants (the weed looking plants between the vines in the picture to the right) and how they are plowed under in the spring to fertilize the soil naturally. Gourdeaux explained that unlike in other forms of organic farming, with grapes you can’t easily rotate the crops every year. To overcome that challenge the choice of ground cover plants and use of organic fertilizer is critical.
Our final stop before the cellar and getting to taste wine right from the barrels was the worm farm, the source of Tamburlaine’s organic fertilizer. This structure is a hyper-sized version of your backyard compost pile. The organic material is fed into the top and the millions of worms fed on it, breaking it down to super nutrient rich fertilizer.
While I am interested in all of the processes and planning that goes into the growing of the organic grapes, all of this is for naught if the wine itself is not worth it. Gourdeaux, never one to disappoint, took us to our next stop, the cellars. Here we tasted Chardonnay and Verdelho right from the tank. We even had the opportunity to taste vertically, meaning multiple years of the same wine. Traditionally this is quite expensive as it is done with older wines. But we sampled a 2009 Verdelho that was nearly ready to be bottled and a 2010 that was not quite finished. I had not had this much fun tasting wine since we were in Mendosa in Argentina. And as we had been with Gourdeaux for nearly 2 hours by this point, the tour was feeling reminiscent of the extended, friendly tours we went on at many wineries in Argentina.
Our tour of Tamburlaine and time with Gourdeaux was a highlight of our three days in the Hunter Valley. If you find yourself there with a couple of hours to learn about the fascinating process of making organic wine, be sure to stop by and see our friend, Gourdeaux.