COVELL is a family-owned estate vineyard and winery at Galatea in the Waikato region of New Zealand’s north island, in the inland eastern Bay of Plenty, an area known for forestry and dairy rather than winegrowing. The first estate wines were made in 1991 by Bob Covell Snr and his wife Des.
OWNER Robert Covell (Bob Covell Jnr) and Barb Sharp.
1952 THE COVELLS BUY THE FARM In 1952 Bob Covell (born 12/3/1926) who was 26 and his wife Des(iree) Covell bought the estate. Bob–whose father had been born in England–had left school at the start of 1944 aged 17 years and 9 months to join the air force, but despite training as a pilot he never served in World War Two. Having left the Air Force Bob went to study at Massey University, taking an extended bio-chemistry course from 1945-1946. Bob and Des met at the wedding of lifelong friends, where Des was a bridesmaid. Both Des and the bride had been at girls’ school together, and Bob and the groom had been at boys’ school together.
In 1952 the farm consisted of 63.5 hectares (157 acres) and at that time was a dairy and pig farm. It had been owned by an ex-serviceman who had been ‘returned’ to NZ having served in World War 2 and who had obtained the farm under a rehabilitation programme assisting ex-service personnel. Although Bob Covell’s lack of active service meant he had not qualified for government rehabilitation, he was told that if he could find the money for the farm he could buy it.
After finishing his studies at Massey University Bob went to milk with his cousin for his father. Bob and Des had then been dairy farming at Papamoa, which is about 100 miles away and between Tepuke and Tauranga. There, they had their own livestock in the form of eighty Jersey milk cows. On this farm the Covells were sharemilkers: they would work and milk the herd, and divide money from milk sales 50:50 with the farm owner. Under the 50:50 agreement the farm owner provided the fertiliser as well as the cost of any supplementary animal feed. Bob had paid for the ‘sharemilking’ herd and the farm implements by holding down other jobs, such as herd testing, or working after hours for other local farmers and even working for six months for a doctor in Tauranga who owned an orchard. When the Covells moved to what became Covell Estate they had to sell their 80 Jersey milk cows and the farm implements (tractors, mowers and rakes). In 1970 they bought a further 20 hectares (49.4 acres) of land here.
1979+ VINEYARD ESTABLISHED The vineyard was established in 1979 by Bob and Des Covell, experimentally at first. Frost meant initially cuttings were planted out with two rather than a single bud. However it was soon decided that the vines would have the best chance of surviving the frost if cuttings were grown in the nursery for longer before being planted out so they would go in the ground stronger (with thicker wood). In 1982 Chardonnay was planted (the Mendoza or McCrae clone which has worked well here), as was Riesling (a Germany clone supplied by Denis Irwin of Matawhero), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. From 1987 the main block of Pinot Noir was planted, with clones from Chris Pask (originally the 10/5 clone, which here due to possible mutation is both small and large berried). More Riesling was planted in 1987, but the vines took a while to get established. Des asked for Cabernet and Merlot to be planted too.
2002 PIG FARMING CEASES In 2002 Bob and Des, by now in their mid-70s, stopped breeding pigs (also due to competition from cheap imports from Canada, China and Australia). They had a thousand pigs at any one time including 130 free range breeding sows (ie they roamed outside unless they were farrowing). Pigs for meat were housed inside. To keep pigs free of salmonella (which gets into the intestinal tract) the regime was feeding then cleaning (a hose-down), feeding then cleaning and so on with one area dedicated for feeding, another one for cleaning and another one for sleeping. At this time their eldest son Robert who was a partner in the business was selling the wine but as profits from this were not being reinvested in the wine business Robert and his father Bob were not seeing eye to eye. Robert felt that it was too much for his parents to be farming pigs, wine, stock and dairy. Another reason why Robert did not want to take it on was he had recently split from his wife (his day job was selling machinery to kiwi farmers). Des and Bob Covell Snr then sold 70 hectares of farmland (to a non-bio farm neighbour) leaving them with 11-ha of land of which 6-ha is vineyard and another 4-ha which could be planted.
2007 BOB COVELL JNR BUYS OUT HIS PARENTS In 2007 Bob and Des finally sold the estate (10 hectares/24.7 acres) to their eldest son, Robert Covell.
ESTATE VINEYARDS (2011) 6 hectares (14.8 acres). 80% Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Chardonnay consists of the Mendoza (McCrae 68) clone for traditional method sparkling wines. The Clarence 4 + 5 clones are used for still wines and originate from Epernay, Champagne and were early arrivals in Gisborne but gave excess yields there but here, where the climate is more Burgundian, the vines do not over-crop and give good flavour. Also the Laurenson clone. Also Riesling and Gewurztraminer which work well, plus Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot which struggle to ripen fully.
TERROIR The vineyard is sited at 200 metres (666 feet) on the frost-prone flanks of the Urewera ranges in the inland eastern Bay of Plenty. This is a marginal area for wine-growing with regular crop losses to late frosts. High humidity. Downy mildew, powdery mildew and botrytis are the main fungal disease problems.
PESTS Pests like erinose or leaf blister mite are not known here, nor is mealy bug because it dislikes this area’s severe winters and big diurnal temperature swings in autumn (from 25º C during the day to minus 1º C at night). Leaf roller caterpillars can cause occasional botrytis bunch rot. In 2011 the vines were attacked for the first time by the Passion Vine Hopper, a sucking insect like a lacewing. The honey dew trail it leaves attracts ants and the vines then take on a sooty mould or smutty appearance.
SOIL The topsoil here could have been a river or a lake bed, but there is no shoreline up in the hills (which are only 6,000 years old and are the product of geological upthrust from volcanic activity). The topsoil, a 20-cm layer of black ash from Taupo (Kaharoa region) is described by Robert Covell as “hostile if you want to grow annual crops because it holds no water so you’d be hosing water on every day.” However beneath this is a volcanic clay which never dries out, giving an even moisture supply and good drainage which, for vines which can root more deeply than annual crops, is drought-proof.
SUPERPHOSPHATES AND BROOKSIDE
Government agricultural advisers told Bob and Des Covell that their pastures, which lie on friable volcanic ash over heavy volcanic clay, needed regular additions of potash and superphosphate fertilizers to remain viable commercially. The Covells dutifully followed this advice and by the late 1960s the Covells had the most efficient milk-producing cows in the area. By the early 1970s however the cows were getting weaker and milk production was stalling.
At this point the Covells discovered Biodynamics as a farming system partly through a neighbouring farmer, an anthroposophist called Monsieur Tabuteou (French), who farmed to lunar cycles. Leaning over the fence one day Bob Covell Snr asked Tabuteou about how he was farming but the initial reply was along the lines of “I could tell you about biodynamics, but you’d never understand.” In fact Bob Covell was aware of biodynamics because he had heard Australia’s biodynamic guru Alex Podolinsky speak in the 1960s, and Bob and Des has sent one of their five children who had learning difficulties to New Zealand’s only Waldforf school at the time, in Hastings (Hawke’s Bay).
Tabuteou advised Bob to treat his cows suffering worms with garlic and cider vinegar. “This outperformed all the conventional remedies recommended by vets at the time,” says Bob. Biodynamic field sprays, Horn manure 500 for the soil and Horn silica 501 for the atmosphere also proved a success.
Bob had studied biochemistry at Massey University directly after leaving the Air Force and wanted to know the science behind Biodynamics and its relationship with the soil. Bob attended a seminar organised by Peter J Lester who had studied soil science at Brookside Laboratories in New Knoxville, Ohio which looked at soil, plant and animal nutrition. Lester introduced the Brookside concept to New Zealand farmers. By studying various farms Brookside had worked out that crop and plant health (absence of pests and disease) and yields came from soils with the right cation exchange capacity [at around the same time the Kalleske family in South Austrlai who were selling their Shiraz grapes to Penfolds’ Grange “Hermitage” as it was then known from their Barossa Valley vineyards in South Australia were making a similar discovery.].
As Bob Covell says “Brookside showed that the degree to which a soil can adsorb and exchange cations [positively charged ions] is crucial for crop health. The desirable range of ratios change depending on whether your soil is acid [low pH] or alkaline [high pH], the type of soil and what crops you are growing in them. The main relationship to understand is that between the key soil cations like calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg). Our calcium-magnesium relationship was out of balance and this was why our dairy farm had been going wrong. The farm was showing signs of potasssium [a cation] poisoning because we were putting on 330 pounds per acre of superphosphate (“30% potassic Super”) per year, the assumption being that our alluvial soils needed constant additions of superphosphate. Via Brookside we discovered we had essentially been farming our pastures hydroponically. The way our soils were stratified had meant that the potassium had been held electrochemically just above the hard layer of pumice whilst the hard pan itself had blocked the roots of the pasture plants and had meant they got stuck at a shallow depth. By being forced to remain in the topsoil because of the physical barrier beneath them the plant roots were stuck in soil that was getting more and more potassium-rich. The soil was so acid the plants could not get the nutrients they needed.”
There were 45 hectares (111 acres) of lucerne as feed for the animals at this time and with his younger brother Frank, Bob trialled sowing some lucerne together with lime. “The result was stunning,” Bob recalls. “the lucerne was a lush and green as we’d ever seen it.” However under State [financial] advances Covell was only supposed to use superphosphate and potash rather than lime or magnesium. Nevertheless “having worked out we had been putting on far too much potassium we started to correct this by adding significant amounts of calcium [as lime] and magnesium [as surpentine, a white powder derived a rock high in magnesium],” says Bob. “By 1988 the calcium-magnesium additions had neutralised [the pH of] our soils and the worms returned, perhaps because worm eggs lain dormant in the soil for years suddenly found the soils were safe for them to hatch in, and full Biodynamic methods were adopted. Our animals were producing exactly what they had been doing doing before but with vastly lower inputs on the soil. As the pH of the soil had come back into balance it meant that all those nutrients that had been present but had been blocked to the pasture plants became available once again. In 1999 a chap from MAFF [New Zealand’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries] came to one of our local farm discussion groups. When he asked what our weed eradication programme was we answered that we didn’t have a weed eradication programme because our cows ate all the weeds. He asked the same question three times and each time we gave him the same answer. He stopped short of calling us liars but that appeared to be exactly what he thought. We were not lying. Pasture plants like ragwort are high in manganese, milk thistle is high in copper and plantains like dandelion are high in zinc. If plants find that enough of the main trace elements they require are available to them then the foliage will remain soft, and therefore lush enough for cows to be able to eat it. However if copper, in the case of milk thistle for example, is either lacking or is not available to the plants because the soil pH is out of balance then the thistle will grow too big, hairy and prickly for cows to want to eat it. In 2007 soil tests showed that the levels of potassium and magnesium in our soils were adequate, so these elements had always been available. So although the advice he had been given in the 1960s to add potassium was perhaps the best advice at the time [from the government-owned British Phosphate Commission…] it had been wrong.”
BIODYNAMIC PRACTICES Biodynamic horn preparations are sourced from BD Max or Hohepa or Glen Atkinson. The BD compost preps are macerated in ‘Etherics Seaweed’ foliar spray.
CERTIFICATION 1999 First vintage with full organic certification. Bob Covell Snr told me in 2004 that despite being Biodynamic the estate was not not certified Biodynamic by Demeter “because no one knows what Demeter is.”
WINEMAKING Small stainless steel vats. All wines go to barrel.
CHARDONNAY 2002 Covell Chardonnay Off dry, sherry style but fresh and pleasant (Tasted at
PINOT NOIR 1999 Covell Pinot Noir Light colour and some brett (Visit 2004).
Covell Estate Wines
1076 Troutbeck Road, RD1, Galatea, Murupara,
Bay of Plenty, New Zealand
Telephone conversation with Bob Covell on Sunday morning 21st December 2003. Visit to Covell Estate on Wednesday 18th and Thursday 19th February 2004 with Bob Covell Snr and Des. Another visit on a grey Sunday 27th March 2011 with Robert Covell (Bob Jnr) and Barb Sharp.