WISH - The Good Earth
Angus Hughson, March 2016, WISH
Gemtree's natural approach has been a win for the land and for the wine lover.
The year is 1987 and budding stockbroker Mike Brown is working on the floor of the Sydney Stock Exchange. Having spent much of his time growing up in the country watching his father work farms, Mike is loving this new world. The pace, the city, the nightlife - all are intoxicating. But unfortunately not for long. On October 19, the market crashes and this country boy is out of a job. And while Mike doesn't know it, he is about to begin a journey that will t ake him back to his country roots and to Gemtree Wines.
In fact the seeds of the Gemtree story had been sown decades before, starting with the purchase in 1966 of an Adelaide wine shop by Paul and Jill Buttery. Fourteen years later and well before Australian table wines had taken off, they made the leap into vineyards, acquiring a property on Tatachilla Road in McLaren Vale in 1980. Paul also went on to found a vineyard management business, helping to establish and tend local properties. It gave him an ear to the ground and an eye on practices around the region. Soon enough, when high quality new adjoining vineyards came on to the market he would snap them up, expanding the family's area under vine.
But there was still no Gemtree wines. The Buttery family was happy to let the neighbours take the risks of developing new wine brands - they would simply sell fruit to the highest bidder. But the next generation was not so sure, with children Andrew and Melissa launching Gemtree in 1998, with a single shiraz.
After Mike Brown's brush with stockbroking he found himself working in a Sydney liquor store. And it was not long before he got a taste for the business started selling wine. In 1990 Mike enrolled in Adelaide University's Roseworthy Agricultural College for a two-year stint. Then he launched himself into winemaking, working for luminaries such as Warren Randall, Andrew Garrett and Chester Osborn. In 1994 Mike met his soon-to-be wife Melissa Buttery, and was later the natural choice for Gemtree's winemaker.
A seminal moment for Gemtree was the 2006 Great Shiraz Alliance tasting. Mike and Melissa tasted shiraz from around the world, and were struck by a handful of wines - their character, power and brightness of fruit. One feature tied these wines together: biodynamic wine production. Melissa's reaction was immediate: We have to do this. At the time some pioneers were experimenting with natural farming methods but it was far from common and it took a little time for the Buttery clan to come around.
Melissa's brother Andrew had returned from the corporate world in 1997 to launch Gemtree and was not happy. You two are off the wall. If you screw this up, you'll pay the difference, and don't come back to me with any excuses. One key feature of biodynamics is the lower fruit yields and production plus higher labour costs, which Andrew was not convinced could be covered by higher fruit quality. In addition a family that had prided itself on strict vineyard management would now have to keep its vineyards in a more unkempt, natural state without herbicides and pesticides, with natural grasses growing up and down what had traditionally been barren vineyard rows. Yet the changes was made and in 2006 30 per cent of the vineyards were converted to biodynamic viticulture, which grew to full certification in 2011.
Gemtree has further embraced the natural environment with wastewater treatment plants and energy-neutral status due to a large solar panel array. Perhaps the greatest achievement is the increase in biodiversity thanks to the creation of a natural 10ha wetland, surrounded by 50,000 native plants and trees.
Common wisdom would be to distance vineyards from forested areas to avoid predators, but at Gemtree the vineyard is planted next to the wetland to encourage biodiversity. One result of that has been to provide a habitat for the predator of a common local moth, which is no longer a problem pest. Bad news for the moths but good news for wine consumers: while Gemtree is no doubt a leader in the wine trade for biodiversity and sustainability, its wines are also exceptional, and very well priced.
Cinnabar GSM 2014
With a bright, deep cherry colour, this vibrant and open knit Grenache blend has aromatics of kirsch, savoury earth and spice. Dry, full and plush in the mouth, it shows generous fruits and soft tannins to finish.
Stage Six Shiraz 2014
A brilliant wine from start to finish. Dense and opaque in colour, it has intriguingly reserved aromatics of five-spice, plum and dark cherry with a stony, earth edge. In the mouth it is much more dense and muscular than the usual Gemtree style - taut and understated, yet showing multiple fruit layers, chalky tannins and a bright, elongated finish. It will improve further over the next decade or two.
Bloodstone Shiraz 2014
Bright, deep ruby in colour, this is pure McLaren Vale, with layers of ripe, lush dark cherry and blackberry fruits supported by supple tannins, making for a great value, early drinking style.