The Cobram Estate story
The Murray River flows slowly through the ancient floodplains south-east of Mildura, drifting almost imperceptibly under a baking blue sky. Egrets and cormorants drift with the current, watched from the banks by sleepy kangaroos, while bright flashes of blue kingfishers dart between the trees.
The land here is distinctly Australian, and some of the nation’s most celebrated and productive agricultural country, home to stonefruit, citrus, almonds, grapes and sheep-grazing. But a dynamic and fast-growing industry is transforming the region. Over the last two decades, vast groves of silver-leafed olive trees have been planted, breathing new life into the local economy, and changing the way Australians cook.
Most significant of these farms is Boundary Bend, whose Cobram Estate brand is Australia’s leading extra virgin olive oil, and deserving winner of the RAS President’s Medal, the pre-eminent prize for agriculture. The company’s story is by turns inspiring, and a keen insight into the opportunities that exist when inspiration is interwoven with a determination towards excellence.
A friendship forms
In the early 1990s, Rob McGavin and Paul Riordan were students at Marcus Oldham Agricultural College in Geelong. It’s a small campus, with barely more than 100 students, and while the boys were a few years apart, through the course of their studies, they formed a friendship that would underpin both their personal journeys and their professional careers.
Rob was studying agribusiness, and Paul undertook farm management, courses that addressed the operational concerns of livestock husbandry and horticulture, but are more focussed on economics.
Despite his managerial leanings, after college, Rob decided to get dirt under his nails. He left behind the cattle-grazing he grew up with in Central Queensland, and instead chose an industry less susceptible to the tribulations of drought and the fluctuating value of the Australian dollar. With support from his parents, Rob set out for an adventure in wine production, buying a small farm at Renmark in South Australia’s Riverland with his wife Kate.
Although Kate’s family were grape-growers from Coonawarra, it was still a trial by fire as they set out to establish the vineyard, and before long were needing help. As luck (or fate) would have it, Paul was at a loose end. He moved to the farm, and their friendship and work relationship blossomed. In time, Kate introduced Paul to her friend Fiona, and before long the couples had established a close-knit group that continues 25 years later.
A story of growth
Viticulture, as many wine producers will attest, proved more complex than it seemed from a distance, and soon the team were considering ways to diversify. Paul had an interest in olive production, and could see the potential for a strong Australian industry. And so, knowing little about the practicalities of olives, they planted some test trees.
But farming olives required economies of scale to make the significant costs of planting and processing more profitable. So before long, Rob and Paul were keen to find a larger property and build a more substantial grove. At Boundary Bend they found a broad parcel of well-irrigated land with the right mix of sandy, well-drained soil. Coupled with long, hot summers that enable the olives to ripen and swell with oil, it was the ideal location for the next stage in their journey.
In 1999, Rob and Paul planted their first 500 hectares, a sizeable but not overwhelming grove. Today the farm has more than 6500 hectares of olive trees stretching from one horizon to the other. They also have a second planting at Boort in central Victoria, a property they took over when its former owner, Timbercorp, went bankrupt. That process was challenging and nearly ended in the failure of Cobram Estate, and still carries some scars for everyone involved. For several weeks in 2009, Rob and Paul were unsure if the company, and the dreams they had invested in it, would survive.
Rob describes that moment as Dickensian, the best and worst of times. Yet in his endlessly optimistic way he prefers to characterise it as a difficult transformation that only made them and Cobram Estate stronger in the long run.
After some financial juggling, they acquired the grove and today it forms a significant part of their operation.
Capturing the dream
Cobram Estate produces remarkable extra virgin olive oil, and does so from a range of olive tree stock. Picual, Hojiblanca, Coraneki, Arbequina and Coratina are the five principle varietals they produce, but in all there are nearly 30 types grown.
And this is one of the keys to Cobram Estate’s success – a diversification that enables consistently impeccable quality.
There are three central skills required to master the production of olive oil – growing pristine olives, pressing them with maximum efficiency, and then blending them. Rob and his team are dedicated to the idea that their customers value not only the flavour and nutrient density of the oil, but also the fact that it is the same delicious product year-round.
Achieving this can pose a significant challenge. All varietals have distinctive qualities of pungency, astringency, colour, aroma and macro-nutrients, but these naturally fluctuate each season. And so it is up to Leandro Ravetti, Cobram Estate’s Technical Director, to lead a team that splices and combines oils in precise fractions until Robust, Classic and Light flavour profiles are achieved.
Hojiblanca and Picual are also bottled as unique-varietal oils, offering consumers the same romance and nuances of experience as wine lovers find in the terroir of single-vineyard production.
These are remarkable products with which Australians have fallen in love. Not only are they exceptional oils, but Cobram Estate is also proudly Australian in an industry forced to compete against a tide of imported product.