August 26, 2015
Going to the Henty field days had become such a tradition for Ben Clifton, he made a special trip home from overseas to take his grandfather along.
Ben’s grandfather, Tom Clifton, had farmed all his life at Burraja, near Corowa, and every year had made a point of taking his grandchildren to the field days.
“I had been going to Henty since I was a kid and only missed it when I was on deployment with the Army but did fly home for at least two of those years to take Pa to Henty while he was still able to manage it,’’ Ben said.
“Mum’s the same – she grew up with going to the field days so when we had the opportunity to be part of Farm Gate, we saw it as a great way to engage with local people.’’
Ben, and his parents Eric and Sue Thornton, operate Amulet Winery and Beechworth Cider, at Beechworth.
Ben enjoys talking livestock prices and the weather with field day visitors at Henty and likes to receive the direct feedback on the wine and cider products.
In past years, he has been a guest presenter at Farm Gate on matching food with cider styles and this year will be no different.
Amulet was originally established by Sue and Eric in the mid 1990s.
Sue studied wine marketing and later viticulture while working at St Leonard’s, All Saints and Mt Prior wineries.
The couple began a search to find an established vineyard or green field site for a new vineyard, settling on a 263ha property at Beechworth in 1997.
The bare agistment paddock boasted granitic soil over quartz, main road frontage and close proximity to a tourist town.
The winery next door, Giaconda, was already making icon wines and Beechworth was an emerging region riding on the wave of the new Italian varieties.
Planting began at Amulet in 1998 with shiraz and sangiovese, and has continued with barbera, merlot, nebbiolo, cabernet, chardonnay, orange muscat, pinot blanc, pinot gris, trebbiano and prosecco.
The cellar door and function area was added in 2000.
The 6ha vineyard is run holistically in conjunction with a flock of up to 400 Corriedale ewes joined to Texel rams, with the lambs turned off at 24kg plus carcass weight through the Corowa saleyards.
Trade steers are also fattened on the mainly native pastures and grazing oats to 450kg liveweight.
“We don’t use any pesticides at all on the property,’’ Ben said.
“Once we have finished picking, the ewes are allowed to graze and lamb in the vineyard, naturally pruning the vines and adding nutrient to the soil.
“We aim for small crop loads of 2.4-4.9 tonnes/ha to produce higher quality fruit. The quartz granite soils are low in nutrients – from a vigneron’s point of view that is ideal as it restricts excessive growth.’’
With just one catchment dam and no underground water, the vines are drip irrigated sparingly.
Ben studied wine science at Charles Sturt University after a seven year career in the army.
Not hamstrung by tradition, he was always open to innovative wine styles.
“We were pioneers of the Italian varieties in this region, along with the Pizzini and Dal Zotto wineries,’’ he said.
“To my knowledge, we have the only sparkling sangiovese made in the traditional method in North East Victoria.’’
Ben decided to branch out and use an orange muscat to make moscato.
When Sue inquired when the mobile bottler was coming to bottle the moscato, Ben opted to use a cider bottling machine he had bought.
“Sue told me I couldn’t put wine in beer stubbies as no one would buy it but I thought we’ll see about that,’’ Ben said.
He left a crate of unlabelled stubbies at the cellar door for the weekend and it sold out.
In the apple harvest of 2005-2006, a hail storm had devastated the Stanley crop, leaving every apple suitable only for juicing.
“I learnt there was a lot of fruit going to waste so I started researching cider and discovered it was an accepted drink in traditional wine growing regions,’’ Ben said.
“We started the long process of cutting apples up by hand and putting them through a crusher.
“We ended up with enough juice to fill a 20 litre drum to make the first trial batch.’’
Juice was then sourced from local apple growers and a second commercial batch of 1000 litres was made.
“The cider was stored in kegs, and we literally used a beer gun to fill each stubby by hand – it took us three hours to bottle 50 litres,’’ Ben said.
“We couldn’t keep up with the cellar door and bottle shop orders so invested in a bottling machine.
“This enabled us to do 900 litres an hour and reduce the bottling to once a fortnight.’’
The industry has boomed since those early days and Ben continues to use apples grown at Stanley, Wandiligong and Bright.
He now produces two styles – Beechworth Cider Classic, a crisp Spanish style, and Cider Red, a blend of cider and red wine.
Another one of the family’s ideas, the Amulet Highland Games, was launched to celebrate their Scottish heritage and promote the cellar door.
The games have grown into an annual moving feast of professional strongmen, pipes bands, highland dancers, haggis hurling, a fundraising guns ‘n hoses challenge and a crowd of several thousand visitors.
The Highland Games won’t be held this year and is under review to become a pre-ticketed event.