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Above: Chris Spence at his Norton Estate Vineyard. Picture: Greg Scullin.

HAD THE SPENCE family accepted a consultant’s report that said the soil was no good for vines; Norton Estate Wines would not have become Horsham’s first vineyard in a century reports The Weekly Times.

Don and Wendy Spence and their son, Chris, were so keen to try viticulture on the 35ha farm in the Lower Norton area, south-west of Horsham, that they ignored the consultant’s advice.

In 1997 they planted a 1ha patch of Shiraz grapes “to see how they would go”.

“We thought it might be a good site for grapevines,” Chris said.

“As it turned out it’s frost-free during the growing season, which is a bonus.”

What spurred them on was the presence of north-south ridges of an atypical soil type.

Chris said soils in the cropping areas of the Wimmera were traditionally self-mulching clays.

“We’re up on a rise with loamy buckshot topsoil,” he said.

“It’s got buckshot gravel through it – little black stones which expand and contract in size according to changes in temperature.

“This helps with drainage and aeration of the soil. Underneath it’s a red sandy clay profile with fragmented limestone through it and has a neutral to higher pH soil the vines enjoy.”

So remarkable was the soil that Wimmera Mallee Water commissioned a feasibility study to look at the potential for new irrigation development in the area, known by many locals as the “little Mallee”.

The final report released in 2004 identified 760ha of land suitable for development into vineyards producing premium, cool-climate grapes.

Chris said a CSIRO soil scientist involved in the study said it was one of the best potential sites he’d seen for viticulture in Victoria, if not Australia.

Existing landholders expressed interest in the scheme, but were put off by estimates of $1.65-$4 million to build a water supply and drip-irrigation installation costs of $6500-$7500/ha.

The report said other constraints included uncertainty over the reliability of water supply due to drought, a lack of expertise in both irrigation and viticulture, and uncertainty over the future prospects for wine on the local and export market.

Chris said an orchard and vineyard with a small winery operated in the 1870s and 1880s near the Wimmera River not far from his house.

Drought ended that in the early 1900s, making the Spences “the first in almost 100 years to try viticulture in the Horsham area”.

Drought also took a toll on their enterprise, but they persevered through 13 dry years, planting more grapes and making wine when they could.

The Norton Estate vineyard now totals about 5ha, with half planted to Shiraz, and the rest to Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.

It is watered from two large catchment dams and an irrigation right from the nearby Wimmera River, and for the past three years has had access to the Wimmera Mallee pipeline.

Chris said they learned a lot from farming through drought, when they were forced to buy in truckloads of water.

“Our first commercial release of wine in 2001 was Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz made under contract by Best’s at Great Western,” he said.

“We started producing wines and then we were caught up in drought, which taught us how to manage the vines during dry periods, but also made us re-evaluate crop levels and gave us some very high quality fruit.

“We continued with that program until drought-breaking rains came in September 2010.”

In bad years, such as 2009, they lost all the fruit to heat damage, but other years have been much better.

Chris recalls 2004 was “a very good vintage” as were 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2010, especially for the red varieties.

“We have a five-star rating with our winery, which puts us in the top 14 per cent of producers in Australia,” he said.

Now retired, Don does the bookwork and operates the cellar doors at weekends.

Chris’s brother, Peter, continues to operate his own biodynamic vineyard and boutique winery, Spence Wines, at Murgheboluc, west of Geelong.

The Norton Estate vines continue to be cropped at a low rate, with yields restricted to about five tonnes a hectare.

This minimises water usage – irrigation is usually about one megalitre a hectare for the season – and emphasises grape quality.

And all work in the vineyard is done by hand: from pruning vines and rolling canes to thinning bunches and picking grapes.

A second vineyard was established on the next hill in 2005 by Chris and Sheila McClure.

They have 2.4ha of Merlot, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Vermentino grapevines and sell wine under the Barangaroo label by mail order or through stores and restaurants in the Grampians area.

Chris Spence said there was still huge potential for viticulture in the area.

“It’s just a matter of people being prepared to do the hard work to put it in,” he said.