Wine and wool

15 Dec, 2004 10:00 PM
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THE ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances characterises Australian farmers.

Young married couple Jim and Bev Gilbert are a good example - in 1985 they left Perth, where they were domiciled, to return to the Gilbert family farm at Kendenup, where Jim grew up.

"My grandfather first put a plough into the land there in the early 1930s," Jim said.

"When Bev and I arrived, my father had an established apple orchard and was sheep farming.

"We became part of the operation and for the next 10 years I supplemented our income as part of a local shearing team."

The Kendenup holding, which covers 260 hectares, is small by WA standards, but not when apple productiion was profitable and an export market existed for the popular pome fruit on which much of Mt Barker-Kendenup economy had prospered on.

The soil was of a good type, well-drained and the local average rainfall was a fairly reliable 550mm.

"Bev and I knew the apple industry had declined badly and we'd begun thinking about other forms of production even before I returned to Kendenup," Jim said.

Tony Smith, at Denbarker, proved that grapes grew well in the region. He founded Plantagenet Wines in 1968, the first privately owned vineyard in WA.

"The Groundreys and the Pearces, too, had proved the district could grow good wine types," Jim said.

Bev and Jim planted their first vines in 1988, and over the next 12 years four separate plantings increased the vineyard to its persent 8.4ha.

"There's a great camaraderie among local wine growers," Jim said.

"Rob Bowen, now chief winemakers at Houghtons, was originally making Plantagenet's wines and a great source of information and encouragement.

"We planted Reisling, Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet varieties, believing they best met the market."

While developing the vineyard and shearing sheep, Jim also enrolled in an external WA university course conducted by the well-known wine industry figure, Tony Devitt.

"We're not big players but we've had our successes, which started with gold for our 1996 Shiraz at the 1998 Singapore International Challenge," Jim said.

"Then quickly followed our 1997 Shiraz win, and to get it among some famous labels was a great thrill."

The 1998 Gilbert chardonnay also won the Best White Wine award at the Great Southern Region Ansett Airways 2000-year wine show.

But the Gilbert 2000 Riesling has firmly established the Gilbert Wines label in the minds of wine drinkers.

It was a triple winner in taking out three trophies at the Western Australian Wine Show - the best wine of the show, the best Riesling and the best white wine.

"Since our first vintage in 1988 we've had our wines made by the Plantagenet Wines team at Mt Barker," Bev said.

"We can't praise them enough. Our wines are now sold internationally and right down to from our cellar door.

"Currently our production ranges between 3500-4500 cases annually."

But the story of Aussie adaptability doesn't end on those gold-winning notes: in April 2004, Bev opened the on-farm Gilbert's cafe and restaurant.

More and more visitors come, attracted to the menu of fresh daily-picked vegetables and fruit from local growers, free range local chicken, marron in season, local olives and asparagus, and strawberries full of flavour.

"We're booked for lots of Christmas functions and end of year parties," the Gilberts said.

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