Farming and viticulture in Marlborough, Tyntesfield

May 2006
In 1997, 2655 hectares of Marlborough was planted in grapes. Thats now increased almost fourfold to 9877 hectares. Vineyards occupy areas which previously finished stock and grew crops, pipfruit and stonefruit.

Marlborough is extremely drought-prone, and for many farmers grapegrowing has kept them going through some really difficult seasons. Generally, while drought years are devastating for farm income, they are good for grapes with less disease challenge and intense flavours developing.

Brothers Edward and David Ensor with their wives Helen and Karen own Tyntesfield Estate Limited. The company includes both a 2760 hectare pastoral farming operation managed by David and 40 hectares of vineyard, managed by Edward.

This is dry country, with rainfall averaging around 635mm at the vineyard to 760mm out the back.

We wouldnt be very well off now without the vineyard the brothers say. Its been very dry over the last six to seven years and lack of feed has made farming livestock pretty difficult.

A third income stream for Edward and Helen is horses. Their company Zactac is independent of Tyntesfield, currently producing equine mineral supplements.

Tyntesfield vineyard is 50 hectares; 60% Sauvignon blanc and 20% Pinot noir, 20% Riesling.

The Ensors planted their first six hectares of grapes in 1994 on flat, stony riverflats which had been problematic for sheepfarming. The soils struggled to grow grass and even lucerne, but proved ideal for grapes.

Since then, about six hectares of vineyard has been developed a year, which suits the Ensors from a labour perspective. There is a lot of work in tending young plants, and this can be done in the early part of the season before the major work on productive vines begins.

Including Edward, the vineyard employs five permanent staff filling any gaps with contract labour.

For a hill country property in dry Marlborough, it has been a bonus being able to diversify into a crop that thrives in local conditions. Grapes werent the Ensors first choice; initially they looked at buying more land but the figures didnt stack up compared with establishing a vineyard.

At the time people warned that the grape bubble was about to burst, that you could not grow grapes that far from Blenheim or at that altitude and that there would be labour problems that far from town. All premonitions proved incorrect.

Tyntesfields first crop went into a Villa Maria Reserve Sauvignon blanc that won the company a trophy at the London Wine Challenge.

This success, plus an income that was well beyond what was being earned from livestock provided the incentive to progressively expand the vineyard. A 120,000 cubic metre dam is now being built to enable an eventual doubling of the area. This will take water from the Omaka River during winter, storing it for irrigation use.

Until now, water for irrigation has been pumped directly from the Omaka River, now oversubscribed with no more permits being allocated. Further expansion of the Tyntesfield vineyard is dependent on the dam being built.

It has taken two years to get through the Marlborough District Council resource consent process.

Originally it was thought that grapes would be a sideline to the main farming enterprise, with contractors employed to do most of the work. However, Edward became interested in wine and established and managed early vineyard areas himself with advice from Villa Maria.

Nowadays, the vines keep him busy year-round apart from a month or so (sometimes less) between harvest and pruning.

Winegrowing is in many ways more satisfying than farming for meat and wool, says Edward, as you are so much closer to the end product with greater opportunities to influence quality.

You are still at the mercy of the weather, but there are things you can do about it such as irrigating when its dry and applying botrytis sprays when its wet. Personal input is what can make the difference between success and failure.

The Tyntesfield vineyard is at a relatively high altitude of 160 metres, which provides the diurnal range (cold night time temperatures, warm days) that is ideal for developing intense flavours in grapes. The harvest here can be up to three weeks behind the main Marlborough crop.

Different parts of the vineyard target different wine styles, reflected in contracts with Villa Maria. There are three contract types. The highest price is paid for grapes going into reserve labels, with lower levels of cropping required.

Edward finds Pinot the most difficult yet satisfying of the three grape varieties grown at Tyntesfield, with a lot of extra work involved in achieving quality. Sauvignon offers the best return.

While grape prices improved slightly this season, this is offset by increasing costs.

Tyntesfield is one of three Marlborough vineyards participating in the Focus Vineyard Project, based on Meat & Wool New Zealands Monitor Farm Programme.

This is the vineyards second year in the three-year project, which holds up best practice against what is happening on the ground. There has been strong support in Marlborough, with excellent attendance at field days.

An aim is to take research results from scientific trials and practically apply them on a commercial scale. The focus at Tyntesfield is deficit irrigation, restricting the water applied between flowering and vrraison (when the berry begins to soften and flavours develop) to keep vines moderately stressed. The desired result is water conservation and intensified wine flavours.

The extra monitoring being done under the programme (including hard data on costs and returns) is giving me the confidence to take deficit irrigation further into the vineyard than I might have otherwise.

With water being an issue, if we can save water and money spent on electricity, its all good.

While like the monitor farm programme focus vineyard projects are run by local committees, there is no agenda of encouraging focus growers to radically change management for increased profits. This is more a showcasing of research techniques on a commercial field scale.

Tyntesfield belongs to Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, which sets out to provide a best practice model of environmental practices in the vineyard and winery.

The programme aims to deliver the following benefits to its members:

- A framework for viticultural and winemaking practices that protect the environment while efficiently and economically producing premium winegrapes and wine.

- A format of continual improvement to ensure companies operate with a goal of improving their operational practices.

- A vehicle for technology transfer so that companies are kept informed of new technology and its application.

- An audit structure that has integrity and rigour to comply with market expectations.

- The opportunity to be a part of the positive future for New Zealand grape growers and winemakers producing the riches of a clean green land.

Edward comments that it is not a big cost participating, but there are huge savings to be made by eliminating unnecessary sprays.

The Ensor family took on Tyntesfield in 1957, then running about 2500 halfbred sheep and 30 cattle. With topdressing and fencing, numbers were up to 13,000 stock units by 1994 when the first grapes went in.

Generally, Merinos are run on the harder country and Corriedales on the better land.

The Corriedales outperform the Merinos on a per head profitability basis but would not thrive on the country where the Merinos are.

Nine hundred Merino ewes are run, growing around 18.5 micron wool. The Ensors are committed to Merino New Zealand which they feel has done a good job of marketing their wool. Most of their ewe clip is sold on contract, to New Zealand Merino textile and clothing manufacturers Designer Textiles International and Icebreaker.

They have also sold wool at auction in Australia, through Merino NZ.

Corriedale rams are bought in and replacement ewes bred on the property, with about 600 of the 3600 ewes going to a terminal sire. About half the lambs are sold prime before Christmas.

There are no longer any meatworks in Marlborough but this doesnt seem to have affected marketing, with lambs usually killed at Belfast.

The impact of increasing land going into vineyards has not been major, partly because sheep are grazed in the vineyards for six weeks to two months during winter; the Merinos on one block and Corriedales on another. No special fodder crops are sown. They mostly survive on weeds and remaining lucerne plants.

Its a lovely clean pick for them, ungrazed for 10 months meaning that there are no parasitic worms.

The vineyards are lightly stocked, as otherwise mobs tend to run up and down the rows, damaging irrigation systems and even chewing on laterals. They can also gnaw the bark of young vines.

Recently, repeated drought rather than increasing vineyard area has caused a drop-off in stock numbers.

Three hundred Angus cows plus 300 calves, 300 yearlings and 300 two-year-olds are run. They have been difficult to maintain over the last six to seven years which have been very dry. Lack of feed has meant that while the aim is to finish cattle to two-and-a-half-years-old, significant numbers have been dropped as stores, including calves.

By having a lot of trading stock on hand, were able to offload numbers in a tough season, says David.

Generally, supplements are not purchased; just in an emergency.

Horses are a big part of Edward and Helens lifestyle. When they met, Edward (nick-name, Zack) was playing polo and Helen showjumping. He then joined her in the ring.

Helen shows, trains and breeds horses, riding eight or nine a day pretty much fulltime. She now competes mostly on young horses rather than at top level. Successes have included representing New Zealand at Pony Club level, a second in the Samsung International Show-jumping competition and most recently winning the amateur show-jumper title at the Horse of the Year Show, all on Zactac horses she bred herself.

Edward and Helens Zactac business was born when the family including daughter Emma followed riding events around the country but son Ben was not interested. Instead, from when he was very young he sold horse tack (bridles, bits, girths, cinches, saddle pads, lead ropes, halters, whips etc) from a small tent.

This gave him a taste for handling money that saw him go on to become a rural banking manager, although he is about to return home to work with livestock on the farm learning about grapes from a distance.

Later, the Zactac business evolved into making riding and casual shirts designed by Helen. Its main product is now mineral supplements for horses. The recipes are made up elsewhere, packaged at Tytnesfield and sold by mail order and through three South Island outlets.

The supplements have proved very popular, especially magnesium chelate. Horses tend to go a bit mad in the spring as spring grass lacks magnesium, and this supplement which is rapidly bio-available overcomes this. The change from nutty to sensible is quite dramatic, says Edward.