A Clever use of Sheep in New Zealand Wineries

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to scout out different wineries while in New Zealand. My main focus was in Hawke's Bay, a coastal region in the North Island particularly known for its Bordeaux blends and Chardonnays.  While sampling at the various wineries, we found much more than full bouquets and fabulous wines! We picked up a very interesting fact about the use for sheep in a vineyard, and thought I'd share!

We took this trip back in late January, the height of New Zealand's summer. The air was warm but not overly humid, and the grapes were showing but not overly ripe. As we drove through the beautiful countryside, marvelling at all the fantastic vines, one thing in particular caught my eye. Vineyard after vineyard was full of meandering sheep, cruising through the rows and nibbling on the vines. I couldn't believe it! Surely someone left a gate open and unintentionally let the sheep into the vineyard? Were they eating this year's crop??

We asked one of the vintners at the next winery about this discovery. His reply was so matter of fact, yet endearing, that I fell in love a little bit more with New Zealand. In mid to late summer, the grapes reach a critical point when the disastrous Botrytis could potentially wipe out an entire crop. Botrytis is the effect when moisture, worsened and locked in by leaf cover, creates a devastating fungus on the fruit and is also known as "bunch rot".

There are a variety of preventative measures for handling this fungus, including the use of pesticides and spraying early in the season.  A well managed canopy to prevent the moisture cover will help as well. Often, vintners will employ a crew to circulate the vines and hand pull the leaves off the precious fruit.  However, growers in this region (and perhaps others) have discovered a window of approximately three weeks in the year when grapes are too bitter for sheep's tastes but succulent leaves are tasty and attractive, thus providing an excellent formula for the use of sheep to do this job!

Vintners must keep a watchful eye over the sheep that they don't over-pluck the leaves and that they work evenly throughout the vineyard, but the final outcome is more than economical, providing quite a few benefits to the vintners. The sheep work and eat for free, and even fertilize the fields, ahem, "naturally".  In a country where sheep outnumber humans 13 to one, I say good on you, New Zealand, for your forward thinking and economical solutions!

We are featuring New Zealand wines in this quarter's International Series. All three of our selections come from Clearview Winery, located in Hawke's Bay. The winery itself is a mere 70 yards from the ocean...arguably one of the closest vineyards to a large body of water anywhere! We are lucky enough to feature three medal winning wines from Clearview: 2008 Reserve Chardonnay, 2008 'Des Trois' Pinot Noir, and 2007 Old Olive Block Red Blend. These wines are absolutely superb and we're very happy to be able to offer them to you!