Pioneering vineyard is using sheep fleece to give wines a fuller body
2nd March 2023
Gwinllan Conwy in North Wales is the first vineyard to use sheep fleeces as mulch under vines, with owner Colin Bennett reporting a multitude of benefits so far, such as improved soil health, weed and pest suppression, and fuller-bodied wines.
The idea came up during on open day held at the vineyard, Mr Bennett told Fruit & Vine, when sheep farmer and TV presenter Gareth Wyn Jones suggested using sheep fleeces as mulch under vines.
Mr Jones has been using the material around his vegetables for several years, and found it works as an effective slug-deterrent while also feeding nutrients into the soil.
“They all looked at me daft,” he told the BBC when recounting the event. “The rest is history, and we are seeing now how fantastic this natural product is. Not only for the vineyard, but hopefully for other businesses to develop – orchards, market gardens – this can be utilised for so many businesses.”
Understandably, vineyard owner Mr Bennet thought the idea was a joke at first, but once he realised Mr Jones was “deadly serious”, he was keen to take the suggestion on board.
Nestled between Conwy and Colwyn Bay in North Wales, the vineyard comprises just under 4 acres (1.6 ha) with around 3,500 vines. A south-facing slope gives the vines good exposure to sunlight, and the predominantly shale and slate soil provides excellent drainage and good minerality to the wines.
Mr Bennett and his wife Charlotte have been growing two hybrid varieties – Rondo and Solaris, as well as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which give rise to the vineyard’s award-winning sparkling and still wines.
To uncover the true potential of sheep fleece mulch, Mr Bennett conducted a trial in October 2021 where he laid down fleece under two vine rows for an entire season. The results, he said, were “phenomenal”.
The trial confirmed sheep fleece is indeed and excellent slug deterrent, which Mr Bennett attributes to its lanolin content. The fleeces also provide insulation and help retain moisture in the soil, which then benefits from good aeration by worms, he added.
Another benefit was improved soil nutrient content and cycling as a result of the wool biodegrading over time.
“We did a soil analysis in January this year to check the effect on the soil, and in general we found the soil had better nutrients under the fleeces,” Mr Bennett said.
However, the greatest benefit of all lies in the fleeces enabling the vineyard to make better quality wine.
“When we got to harvest 2022, we could tell the leaves on those two rows were much darker green; analysis revealed higher nutrient content in those leaves than the ones that didn’t have the fleeces.”
Mr Bennett explained it was the sunlight being reflected back onto the vines which caused the effect and helped grapes ripen more fully.
“Those two rows with the fleeces had higher sugar levels and we realised it was a bit like skiing when you go and get suntan because you have sunlight bouncing off the snow,” he noted.
“Most summers, particularly on black grapes, you are on the cusp of getting them right because of our climate, and that extra litte bit, one degree of potential alcohol, can make all the difference.”
The key to organic transition
Mr Bennett revealed a long-term goal with Gwinllan Conwy vineyard is to achieve organic certification. He told Farmers Guide the sheep fleeces have helped fast-track that process as they stop any weeds and grasses growing under the vines, eliminating the need for spraying.
Previously, the vineyard had been using glyphosate to control weeds, which carries the risk of causing damage to the vines themselves. Therefore, application of glyphosate had always been very time-consuming as the substance must be deposited with high precision, Mr Bennett explained.
However, spraying the vines was a necessary evil, as weeds can harbour mildew which can become a real problem in the summer. “The grasses also take nutrients out of the soil which we don’t want,” he added.
With the fleeces being an effective natural alternative to glyphosate, the vineyard is not only cutting costs and protecting its most important asset, but is also a step closer to organic transition.
“The challenge that remains with transitioning to organic is spraying with fungicide, but we’ll be working on a Welsh government project to trial organic sprays with other vineyards around Wales so that’s been very useful,” Mr Bennett revealed.
“It will take some time, because in North Wales, you are going to be more susceptible to some diseases, but we’re working on non-synthetic chemicals to use on the vineyard to get us the point where we are organic.”
In terms of labour, he said the cost remains the same with laying down fleeces as with applying pesticides three times a year beforehand.
“The fleeces will probably last two years, we pay £1/kg, which totals the cost to £1,700, which is comparable to that kind of labour, never mind all the other benefits that it does,” Mr Bennett told Farmers Guide.
To cut back on the time it takes to lay down fleeces, vineyard workers have been completing the process at the same time as pruning the vines.
“As the vines are being pruned, the fleece goes down, so it’s an obvious time to do it,” Mr Bennett explained. He added the winter months are the ideal time to complete the task, as the rest of the year is incredibly busy on the vineyard.
Since first trialling the method, Mr Bennett has been overwhelmed with inquiries from neighbours, vineyards in Kent as well as other parts of the UK, and even growers in New Zealand and across the pond.
“In the past 18 months of using them, we haven’t seen any negatives, they don’t blow away, they embed into the ground, and it’s working really well,” he remarked.
“We are also paying farmers a fair price for the fleece, instead of the pennies they get.”
Knowing that Gareth Wyn Jones and his son Sior are aiming to have a business distributing sheep fleece to vineyards, Mr Bennett has passed on all inquiries relating to sourcing material.
Seizing on the opportunity, the father and son team have recently launched Wool & Wine with the mission of supplying vineyards with sheep fleece produced on farms across the UK. So far, the business has been selling fleeces for £1 each to Gwinllan Conwy, which is a fair price for a product that is currently worthless, Sior Jones told the BBC.
Mr Bennett commented: “Part of the collaboration with Gareth and his son Sion is to try and promote this on hundreds of vineyards in the UK and put some value back into that part of the sheep farming industry.”