SHEEP LABOR AT FEATHERSTONE ESTATE WINERY
Featherstone is a winery in Ontario, Canada.
They pay special attention to the process of removing the grape leaves in and around the zone where the grape clusters grow. This zone is the 'fruiting zone.'
In a unique combination of quality winemaking practice and ecological soundness, Featherstone Estate Vineyard and Winery is 'employing' a small flock of sheep to eat leaves from the grapevines to enhance fruit quality by exposing the grapes to more sunlight and air circulation.
In order to produce premium grapes for winemaking, grape growers with standards of excellence will remove the grape leaves in and around the zone where the grape clusters grow. This zone is referred to as the 'fruiting zone.'
The increased exposure to the sun helps the grapes to produce more of the flavour compounds that are important to wine quality. As well, removing grapes leaves in this area allows the morning dew on the grapes to dry more quickly, with the result that harmful moulds are less likely to develop.
Traditionally, the leaves in the fruiting zone are painstakingly removed by hand (or sometimes, using expensive specialized machinery).
Featherstone Vineyard has been trying something new and unique in the Niagara wine industry by 'employing' a small flock of sheep to eat their way through the grape leaves that need to be removed from the fruiting zone on the vines.
In 2007, winemaker David Johnson spent eight weeks in New Zealand, where the use of sheep in vineyards is commonplace. Sheep like to eat -- and the tender young grape leaves are very appealing to them.
The Featherstone sheep will spend 4-6 weeks in the vineyard, but will need to be moved out once the grapes start to ripen and become sweet. We source our sheep labour from Penny and Andrew Oliver of Willow Haven Farm in nearby St. Anns ON.
"Sheep are ideally suited to the job. They can't reach very high and aren't interested in eating the tart, unripe grapes. Using sheep to thin vines is a holistic approach that appeals to us a lot. And of course, there's the added bonus that they fertilize as they move through the vineyard." says David Johnson. "The 'ecological hoofprint' is quite small."
The sheep labour is in keeping with other ecologically sensitive practices at Featherstone Estate Winery and Vineyard. The vineyards are kept insecticide-free, and the farm also uses birds of prey to control nuisance starlings and pest birds that eat the grapes in the fall. The use of sheep is yet another way Featherstone is distinguishing itself among Ontario wine producers: including natural and integrated approaches to grape growing as part of quality winemaking.
Watch and Listen to the David Johnson, the Winery winemaker and Louise Engel, co-owner, talking about the way they make wine in Featherstone. At their YouTube channel.
WHAT ARE SOME CHALLENGES WITH GROWING GRAPES?
Grape as a horticultural plant is almost bulletproof but they are extremely sensitive to mold and mildew.
WHY BOTHER REMOVING THE LEAVES ANYWAY?
So if we can get the leaves off we've got air movement though there we've got sun strike we really are advantaging the vine against mold and mildew.
We are moving the grape leaves so the grape clusters are exposed to the sun and are of a better quality. It has become a huge seller for us and really bit of a trademark wine for the winery.
HOW DO YOU REMOVE THE LEAVES?
There´s a number of ways you can get those leaves out of there. Most of the rest of the world, will either hire a crew of laborers to physically and manually go in – hopefully they´re short people because it’s backbreaking. Or you can put an implement on your tractor. We use lambs - they have a smaller hoof print. And they just, they do a great job.
We need an animal that is relatively low. The leaves, the specific leaves that we're removing are just the bottom two or three closest to the ground. The rest of the leaves we need left behind for their photosynthetic work. I mean we do need them.
DON’T THE LAMBS EAT THE GRAPES?
When we first get the lambs into the grapes are really small and really hard and it would be very bitter and astringent if you tried to eat them but the lambs don’t even try and eat them.
Lambs are natural grazers and they work very tight to the ground. I mean they really graze close to the ground. Once they've stripped out all the weeds and whatnot, they then will slowly pick their head up and strip off those immediate leaves that they can reach.
WHERE DO YOU GET THE LAMBS?
We deal with a shepherd in Saint Anns about 15 minutes down the road. Andrew and Penny Oliver.
I’m Penny Oliver and I’m Andrew Oliver. This is Willow Haven Farm. We raise sheep for meat and for wool. We’re a small farm. We raise sheep, we’re trying to raise them as organically as possible with as little chemical as possible.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF LAMB LABOUR?
I firmly believe we need to go back. We need to go back to the way it used to be. Featherstone are sort of showing people that this can be done and their product seems to be doing great.
In honor of the lambs that helped to make it and keeping the vineyards “sheep shape”. Here’s to lamb labor. Cheers. That is yummy, that is delicious. Its juicy, it’s fresh, it’s bright. Lovely. That is hard working lamb labor.