Ultimate Winery Experiences Australia

Melissa Brown wins Woman in Organic of the Year

We are thrilled to see Melissa Brown of Gemtree Wines in McLaren Vale take the crown for Woman in Organic of the Year at the 2021 Australian Organic Industry Awards. It is wonderful to see Melissa recognised for her passion and commitment to leaving the land better than she found it for future generations.

As Chief Viticulturist and co-owner of Gemtree, Melissa’s care for the land spearheaded the transformation of her family’s vineyard from conventional to biodynamic and was key to shaping Gemtree’s growth and success as a family business.

In light of this well-deserved recognition, it felt like a good time to sit down with Melissa and discover what drives her to live and farm by an organic / biodynamic philosophy.

Firstly, congratulations on winning this prestigious award. What inspired your dedication to biodynamic and organic farming? 

In 2006, eight years after establishing our own wine brand, Gemtree, Mike and I started to venture down a more natural path of growing grapes, steering away from high input conventional farming methods. Living in one of Australia’s most celebrated natural regions has given us a mindfulness about the environment and the earth. We were growing organic fruit and vegetables in the backyard and, knowing there had to be a way to sustainably grow and farm grapes, we decided to take that philosophy into the vineyard. 

This was strengthened by a growing personal belief to grow better quality grapes whilst minimising detrimental impacts on the environment. Farming should focus on soil health and increasing biodiversity.   

Experimentation with a few select blocks of Tempranillo ensued. After much trial, error, grit, determination and some choice swear words, I started to see more life in the vineyards and a better quality of fruit flavour. From this point I was determined to farm all Gemtree’s blocks organically. Gemtree earned full organic certification in 2011.

Do you believe growing grapes in this way is a lot more difficult or challenging than conventional methods?

 Yes, in some ways it is more difficult and challenging, but it is also more rewarding. In the beginning, there were many changes to be made, but most importantly we needed to have the support of the whole team of these physical and philosophical transformations across the entire business. For success there had a to be a change in mindset and moving away from a reliance on chemicals to fix a problem.  Over time we all learned to work with and control the vegetation in the vineyard without the need for herbicidal sprays. 

When we began these new weed management practices an input of capital was required which included fencing for sheep, purchase of a dodge plough and an undervine knife.  One of the biggest hurdles for farmers to get over when considering a change to organic farming is how to deal with the weeds. Viewing the weeds as part of the biodiversity and ecosystem and learning to manage them rather than seeing them as an enemy and wanting to completely eradicate them is a challenge for many.

Managing pests and diseases was simpler than managing the weeds.  When the vineyards were farmed conventionally, we had a lot of problems with powdery mildew, light brown apple moth and mealy bugs. Our vines are so much more resilient than they used to be and the high level of biodiversity in the vineyard, which includes mid row swards and even weeds, provide habitat for beneficial bugs that control pests. 

What’s the most satisfying thing about life at Gemtree? 

At Gemtree we are proud that all our 125 hectares of vineyards are certified organic and biodynamic. We are especially proud of our Gemtree Eco Trail. The Eco Trail is the regeneration of 10-hectares of previously degraded and barren land that has now been restored to natural native beauty with over 50,000 native trees and shrubs planted. This space is free open space for the public to enjoy with a barbecue and playground facilities. We see ourselves as custodians of the land and we firmly believe it is our responsibility to improve the land for future generations.

The other most satisfying thing about life at Gemtree is that our region is the best place in the world to live (and visit)! We are on the Fleurieu Peninsula and our beaches are surrounded by beautiful cliffs with soft white sand and clear blue waters. The McLaren Valley is surrounded by rolling hills and ranges. Vineyards are prominent and some of the region’s Tasting Rooms have stunning views, Gemtree included, which take in a view across the vines all the way to the sea.  Small villages like McLaren Flat and Willunga add character to the region. We not only grow great wine here, but also amazing produce and we have some of the best restaurants in South Australia in our locality. 

Click here to find out how you go beyond the cellar door at Gemtree to discover the practices behind biodynamic farming and explore the Eco Trail.