06 Dec 2021
Outback roads

21 years ago, Melissa Brown embarked on a journey to breathe new life into winemaking through biodynamic farming practices. It was on a parcel of land in McLaren Vale, South Australia that she cultivated a magical place called Gemtree Wines.

Melissa Brown has carved out a legacy as the godmother of sustainable winemaking in South Australia –despite a bet she would only last a couple of weeks. “My dad had a vineyard management business and I had no money, I really didn’t know what to do,” she admits. “So I said, dad, can I come work for you? And he said, ‘sure, but you won’t last two weeks, you’re too soft.’"

Here I am, 20-odd years later, so I did last longer than two weeks.
Melissa Brown, the Vineyard Alchemist
Melissa Brown, the Vineyard Alchemist

It says a lot for Melissa’s character that she still emanates that same softness, despite years of trial and error, tribulation and unrelenting experience. Being a trailblazing female is historically not an easy task. Being a trailblazing female in a traditionally male-dominated industry, pushing against the grain and implementing a far-fetched farming practice is even harder. But push she did, and she’s now laid out a path for other budding female viticulturists while going a long way to legitimizing biodynamic winemaking in South Australia. 

Catch Melissa in her vineyard, however, and you wouldn’t see a trail of fire or scorched earth behind her. Rather, you see a woman whose feet are firmly planted on soil she has nurtured in the same way she has nurtured her own three children. The vines around her are all the proof she needs that she has been here, she has walked this earth, and left it better. “There is just this incredible vitality, I can feel it, and I can see it,” she says, eyes sparking with passion. “That definitely wasn’t here, before we started this (biodynamic) journey.” Melissa and her winemaking husband Mike consider themselves the stewards of the land that Gemtree Wines sits on, just outside of McLaren Vale – 40 minutes from Adelaide. They have been certified biodynamic and organic since 2007, after Melissa realised her purpose: “that I was meant to work with nature and be amongst nature.”

Gemtree Wines have a unique subterra wine making process
Gemtree Wines have a unique subterra wine making process

“Biodynamics is a form of organic farming (with) a huge focus on soil fertility,” Melissa explains. “It recognizes that there is a relationship with the lunar cycle, so the sun, the moon and the planets. The moon has a gravitational effect on Earth, just as it affects our tides. “It also has an effect on nature and even us as humans…farmers have a responsibility to grow nutritious food and produce that is then going to nurture the community that they live amongst.”

Gemtree Wines are known for their subterra wine range
Gemtree Wines are known for their subterra wine range

But biodynamics has long been shrouded in a certain cloud of myth and legend. Melissa was quick to clarify that “for those who say we might dance around on a full moon and sing songs, it’s so far from that” and while her soil tells the story, so does a single drop of Gemtree Wine. The taste, flavour and profile speak for something that has been grown with intention. “We used to have a lot of problems with powdery mildew here, I think that’s because we had a very intensive chemical regime going on here,” Melissa explains. “I believe that when you spray a chemical or synthetic chemical on a plant, you are actually weakening its immune system – just as a human we have to take an antibiotic and that interferes with our gut biome, I think a similar thing happens with a plant when we try and treat a pest or disease with the synthetic chemical.”

Gemtree Wines
Gemtree Wines

It took 10 years for Melissa to reap the reward of her alternative practices. “The organic matter in our soils is increasing, the soil carbon in our soils is increasing, the resilience of our vines to drought conditions is improving,” she says. “Those things are proof to me that there is more to this than just the philosophy of biodynamics. “There’s a whole world beneath our feet that we don’t even think about.”

Want to learn more? Watch our short documentary episode with Melissa at Gemtree Wines before visiting their cellar door in McLaren Vale, where you can taste the difference in their wines, embark on a guided tour of their biodynamic and sustainable practices or understand the region’s ancient history and indigenous culture with a senior cultural custodian.

A LITTLE MORE

Want more stories from the south? Watch and read our other chapters, Dirt Road Mail Runner with remote mailman Peter Rowe, and White Shark Whisperer with shark attack survivor Rodney Fox.

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