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July 12, 2010 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

More jobs for the mob


I’m breaking away from the bi-weekly varietal insight this week to focus on a relatively new and fascinating phenomenon—the increased involvement of the humble sheep in vineyard work.

Normally when you think sheep and wine you think nice meal, however, in recent years the acclaimed combination have been getting together before they end up on the plate and in the glass, with the sheep helping its gastronomic accompaniment come to fruition in the vineyard.

Every grape vine on a vineyard has an annual life cycle that begins when the vines become dormant during autumn, around this time of year, after the grapes have been harvested and the vine’s leaves fall off. At this point, some vineyard managers open up their rows to flocks of sheep that effectively become eating, breathing, sleeping lawnmowers by keeping grass and weed levels down, maintaining the general upkeep of the vineyard.

During the early stages of summer, after flowering, the grapes begin to develop on the vines, and although the sugars do not form, the maximum yield is set. At this stage vineyard managers may, depending on the particular grape varietal and the winery’s philosophy, begin the process of ‘leaf plucking’, which involves removing the vine leaves from around the fruit set to expose the grapes to more direct sunlight increase airflow and enhance veraison. The term veraison refers to the transition from grape growth to grape ripening, which sees the grape change from a bright green to dark purple, for instance if it is Pinot Noir.

Enter sheep. For centuries ‘leaf plucking’ has been the job of human beings, for example, vineyard managers may employ a gang of casual seasonal workers to complete the relatively labour-intensive job. However, in recent years, vineyard managers have said “I’ll call you” to the workers and have instead called up local farmers who then truck their mobs of sheep into a vineyard to let the sheep do the job. The sheep, which have no desire to eat the underdeveloped grapes, work at a solid pace and consume the leaves at fruit set height, as this is as high as they can reach.

The relationship is beneficial for both parties; the vineyard manager saves on manual labour costs and the farmer’s stock get decent grazing during a time when, particularly in New Zealand’s East Coast wine regions, general grass stocks are reduced.

I’ve seen sheep at work in vineyards and I can tell you that they looked genuinely stoked to be there. Good times all round.

Wine of the Week: Appleby Lane Syrah ($13.95), in the words of the great Merrill J. Fernando of Dilmah tea—“Do try it.”


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  1. Raymondo says:

    Obviously sheep can’t be dumb!

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