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Easy being green at Valhalla

November 4, 2009
Kim Woods, Weekly Times Now
WASTE collectors have a lean time at the front gate of Valhalla Wines, in Victoria's North East.

Winemaker Anton Therkildsen and his wife, Antoinette Del Popolo, are masters at recycling on their intensive farm.

Sandwiched between wine giant All Saints and the Murray River, at Wahgunyah, the 24ha property is winning a name for itself in sustainable agriculture.

Everything at Valhalla is recycled, from waste water in the cellar door and grape by-product in the winery down to using recycled paper for business stationery.

Cover crops are green manured in the vineyard to increase soil organic matter, and skins, stalks and prunings are used to produce compost for the vines.

Powered by green energy, the winery is built from straw bales while wine boxes and bags are made from recycled cardboard.

Waste water is used to irrigate an agroforestry plantation and to grow fruit and vegetables for the cellar door's kitchen.

Chooks and goats recycle the kitchen scraps and geese are used to control pest insects in the vineyard.

"Our philosophy of environmental sustainability is driven by our personal observations of our vineyard and whole property," Anton said.

"Our aim is to achieve minimal waste in our business at all stages of production."

Each year the couple share their desire to live sustainably by staging The Green Living Fair.

The free community event, held in September, showcases alternative energy and building materials, worm farming, permaculture and regional food and wine.

This year, Anton and Antoinette were blown away when 1000 people attended the fair.

They have since been a finalist in the Pam Keating Environmental Innovation award, presented by Sustainability Victoria, and the Alpine Valleys Agribusiness entrepreneurship and innovation awards.

Valhalla specialises in hand-crafted Rhine valley varietals of shiraz and durif, complemented by viognier, marsanne, grenache, mourvedre and riesling.

Although Rutherglen is known for its big red wine styles, Anton wanted to demonstrate the textural characteristics of the region's marsanne.

"Cooler-climate winemaking is my forte but I have always held a fascination for the fortifieds and big reds found in Rutherglen," Anton said.

He had already established an affinity with the region via family holidays before securing a job at Campbells Winery in 1998.

He met Antoinette, a doctor working in Corowa, and discovered a shared passion for music, food, wine and a rural lifestyle. The couple married in 1999 bought the 24ha farm consisting of a "flat block, a house and 10 trees".

Soil types on the farm range from heavy clay loam to sand.

At first 0.6ha of shiraz was planted in 2002 followed by durif plantings in 2003.

The first harvest was in 2005 using fruit from Valhalla and other selected vineyards and pressed at the nearby Cofield winery.

They now have 2.5ha under vines and crushed 30 tonnes of grapes during this year's harvest.

In the vineyard, Anton uses a rotation of oats, ryegrass and clover-legumes and oats-lupins as green-manure crops to increase soil organic matter and nitrogen fixation.

"We use a lot of organic principles but are not looking at becoming certified," Anton said.

Vineyard nutrient trials are using various rates of fish emulsion, kelp and compost made from winery by-product.

Plant tissue and soil tests use to assess the effectiveness of these products. Mulch and non-mulched vine rows are compared for canopy size, heat tolerance, water retention and weed suppression.

"Our vines did suffer from the heat and we were down to half our usual crop this year (2008-09) but some of the whites were crackerjack, and the durifs looked fantastic," Anton said. Geese free range in the vineyard to control insect pests.

The balance of the farm is sown to grasses and has been left to re-seed over summer, to prepare for a vineyard expansion next year.

The Valhalla winery and cellar door was built in 2007 from cereal-straw bales bought from the western Riverina.

Designed on passive solar principles, the building can have a temperature difference of 20C between outside and inside.

Features include double-glazed windows, a double-insulated roof, night-flush fans to remove hot air and metre-thick walls.

As the only straw-bale cellar door in the North East, the building is complemented by a low-water-use garden and outdoor wood-fired oven.

"It is a lovely building, a beautiful space," Anton said.

Waste from the cellar door goes through a 2000-litre worm farm before it is used to water vegetables, a small orchard and the tree lot.

Winery waste water is settled and then re-used on 3.2ha of native trees, planted as a wildlife corridor to link with the Murray River.

"We use green power in the winery from the state grid and are researching solar power," Anton said.

"Our wine labels are of a low chemical content and our stationery and wine boxes use recycled materials.

"Our passions are authentic to us and our business, if it rings true for you, you will always make it work."

Anton said the next step would involve grazing livestock to supply meat for the cellar-door kitchen.

He has employed two full-time staff in the vineyard to enable him to concentrate on building wholesale sales into restaurants and wine shops.

"We offer people a winemaker-for-the-day workshop at vintage where they can pick, crush and make wine in one day," Anton said.

"Business is about building relationships.

"I would rather have consumers talking to me than have a bottle sitting on a shelf in a bottleshop.

"It's about keeping things in balance and living our philosophy."