Less is more

Kim CousinsCountryman

When it comes to farming, Swan Valley couple Deborah and Duncan Harris follow an old Chinese proverb - the best fertiliser is a farmer's feet.

The couple run Harris Organic Wines, one of only a few organic wineries in WA and the only certified organic winery in the Swan Valley.

"We put a lot of hard work into it," Duncan said. "We walk the rows, we check things.

"The love we put into it is rewarded by the wine in the bottle."

Deborah and Duncan bought the land in 1998 and opened the winery in 2001.

"There were just a few fruit trees and snakes when we moved in," Duncan said. "We pulled out the fences and cleaned it all up."

Growing and harvesting the 10 tonnes of grapes they produce each year involves a lot of manual work and research into different methods.

Leaf plucking is carried out to open the canopy, grapes are hand picked and Duncan ploughs the vineyard himself.

Fruit is sweetened by keeping skins on a little bit longer.

Duncan's bible of organic farming is The Handbook of Horticulture and Viticulture of Western Australia, by Adrien d'Espeissis, a book Duncan reproduced in 2007 when his original copy fell apart.

"It was written by the original settlers in WA and has helped us set up," he said. "The information is all about sustainability.

"We don't irrigate. During the drought we removed a lot of the fruit so the vines would survive."

They also use no pesticides or herbicides, combating pest issues occasionally with sulphur spray or Bordeaux mixture.

A problem with garden weevils was a challenge but they won in the end. Collars placed around the trunks of the plants made it difficult for the insects to feed and lay eggs. "We got them early," Deborah said. "They didn't come back."

It is these simple but effective methods that have ensured the success of the Harris' winery.

They say that organic farming is no dearer or more difficult than conventional grape growing, a claim backed by research on New Zealand's Mission Estate.

"The cost of chemical goes up and glysophate changes soil structure," Deborah said.

"We've had very little input over 13 years, we leave things alone," Duncan said. "For me it's about building soil, getting the carbon levels up."

The couple chose their grapes carefully.

They now grow eight varieties - including Shiraz, Chenin Blanc, Verdelho, Muscat, Pedro Ximénez and Madeleine (named after their daughter) - on two hectares of sandy loams over clay. "Some grape varieties do very well here because of the rich soil, others do well near the hills because it's gravelly," Duncan said.

Duncan has been making wine since 1994 and in 2001 became a full-time vigneron. He describes his style as "very Australian".

"Most Australians have a normal palate - I like something a little bit sweeter," he said. "We make our wine to be full-bodied."

Duncan also makes brandy, the only organic brandy in Australia.

"Any waste from the grapes or wine is fermented and boiled to extract the spirit," he said.

"In true cognac style, it's fermented twice. We had excess grapes and thought it would add another string to the bow."

For now, the couple are kept busy grape picking and harvesting certified organic watermelons, which they deliver to Organic on Charles.

"The rains (of 2011) pushed things, we have got another 18 1/2 (in 2012)," Duncan said. "A bit more in February will mean a bumper crop."

Duncan and Deborah will be displaying their wines at Fremantle Chilli Festival, on Saturday, March 10, to Sunday, March 11, as well as at A Vintage Weekend in the Swan Valley, on Friday, March 16, to Sunday, March 18.

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