In Conversion – Surveyor Thomson, Central Otago, New Zealand

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Arriving in Central Otago in 1857, the landscape would have been just as spectacular as it is today, but with an added layer of foreboding and isolation. Apart from any number of native Māori tribes, no one had yet fully explored the area and mapped or recorded its existence. Experienced surveyor, John Turnbull Thomson, who’d gained experience and recognition for his precise mapping and engineering work in Singapore, arrived in New Zealand and was awarded the position of chief surveyor of Otago. Thomson’s primary objective was to explore and map the previously unobserved and undocumented wilderness of this huge inland territory.

Thomson’s pioneering cartography paved the way for much of Central Otago’s European settlement, which in subsequent years, saw the gold rush of the 1860’s, New Zealand’s biggest gold strike. This was followed by the establishment of farms and orchards, and, much later, vineyards, which today, along with tourism, provides much of the economic prosperity for the region. Our ability to visit and explore the relentless and breathtaking beauty of Central Otago nowadays, owes much to those first lonely efforts of John Turnbull Thomson, back in 1857.

Today this surveyor, Thomson, is honored by his great-great-grandson, who owns a 22 ha patch of land that overlooks Lake Dunstan in the Lowburn region, in the Cromwell Basin sub-appellation of Central Otago. Thomson’s great-great-grandson, David Hall-Jones, who lives in Hong Kong with his wife, PM Chan, has called this 22 ha property, Surveyor Thomson, in honour of his pioneering relative, John Turnbull Thomson. The vineyard management and winemaking duties are contracted out to two specialised businesses in Central Otago, namely, Vinewise (for the viticulture) and Central Otago Wine Company, or COWCo (for the winemaking). Su Hoskin works for Vinewise, and manages the 22 ha property using biodynamics, which is planted exclusively with Pinot Noir, while Dean Shaw from COWCo, transforms these grapes into wine.

“We’re just sluts,” laughs Dean, “… even though we’re a contract facility, we still want to make the best wine we can from the best grapes that Su grows.”

Vineyard Entrance - photo courtesy of Surveyor Thomson

Vineyard Entrance – photo courtesy of Surveyor Thomson

English born, Su Hoskin arrived in Central Otago and became aware of biodynamics while working at Burn Cottage. From there, she formalised her biodynamic training at Taruna College, in Hawke’s Bay, before coming back to Central Otago to begin teaching what she’d learnt to other interested farmers and winegrowers in the region. At the end of one of her classes, Su was asked to join Vinewise and look after the Surveyor Thomson vineyard, and convert it over to biodynamics, which she began doing in 2013.

“For me, being able to grow healthy food and not having to use chemicals, and being able to do it all quite easily without having any major problems, just seems sensible to me,” says Su.

Su has been give the mammoth task of establishing a biodynamic regime on the Surveyor Thomson site, from scratch. Of the total 22 ha property, 14 ha is planted with Pinot Noir on a patchwork of four distinct blocks known as North, South, Terraces and Moon. Coincidently, Moon was already called that before biodynamics was implemented.

“The vineyard rests on a gentle slope with good air drainage,” explains Su, “overlooking Lake Dunstan, and at the foot of Mt. Pisa… so, it’s pretty much paradise. Quite often,” Su continues, “we’ll get rain clouds going right around the vineyard with no rain actually falling on the property, so we use a drip irrigation system to help the vines receive water.”

The vineyard was first planted in 2000, and managed conventionally up until 2012, when some organic processes were implemented. Owner, David Hall-Jones’ mission was to stop using synthetic agrochemicals altogether, and join the many other, well established, winegrowers in the region pursuing a more natural system of land care.

“The vineyard wasn’t in a devastated state, by any means,” says Su, “but the first thing I noticed, after we started using biodynamics was the amount of life that was brought back onto the land. Biodynamics just enhances everything.”

Biodynamic Preparations - photo courtesy of Surveyor Thomson

Biodynamic Preparations – photo courtesy of Surveyor Thomson

Su and her team built a preparations hut to house the critical biodynamic preparations (500-508), using natural materials, and installed twelve cow pat pits, or CPP, which are compost pits for cow dung that has been mixed with powdered eggshell and basalt dust, then combined with the biodynamic preps 502-507. Each pit has been labelled after the constellations, so Su can identify, record and monitor what’s going on in each pit. A small herd of Highland Cattle have been incorporated onto the property to feed the cow pat pits, and apparently, nothing, or no one, else.

“The cows have brought a huge animal presence to the vineyard,” says Su, “taking it from only stark machinery, like tractors, moving through the vineyard, to a peaceful herd of cows. They bring a peaceful rhythm to the place, as well as providing good fertiliser… they’re just a dung herd, we won’t be eating them, I hope!”

Apart from the obvious benefits of not poisoning such a pristine environment like Central Otago, with a swathe of potentially toxic and harmful chemicals, biodynamics brings out the true taste of whatever it is that it’s helping to grow, highlighting nuances and increasing the nourishing elements that all foodstuffs should inherently possess.

“As consumers we’ve been seduced by so many foods that have colouring and flavours added to them that the true taste is masked or missing, so we don’t really what it is we are tasting,” says Su.

Allowing these transparent and subtle tastes and flavours to shine through is the job of Surveyor Thomson’s winemaker, Dean Shaw, from Central Otago Wine Company, who subscribes to the benefits that biodynamics brings to wine, but only as far as a sceptic will allow.

The Terrace Block - photo courtesy of Surveyor Thomson

The Terrace Block – photo courtesy of Surveyor Thomson

“I’m not a card carrying member of biodynamics, but I believe in the fact that it can help improve the quality of the wine,” says Dean. “I’m a sceptic, but what I do love about biodynamics is that people (who practice it) really do try hard.”

Dean Shaw’s approach to transforming the Davis and Dijon Pinot Noir clones into wine is as hands off as necessary, or as Dean self-deprecatingly describes, “I try to be lazy in my approach to winemaking.”

Dean arrived in Central Otago in 1993, after completing a post-grad winemaking degree, working at Rippon and then with Rudi Bauer at Geisen in 1996 and ’97. The first wine he made for Surveyor Thomson was in 2003.

Utilising wild yeasts, Dean explains, “I’d love for the ferment to finish by itself. If it does, then I’m not getting involved, even if it goes in a direction that I don’t want it to. I just try and steer it in the right direction, however sometimes it doesn’t want to do that, and if I went and manipulated that ferment somehow, then I would miss the opportunity to learn.”

This is not to say that Dean will sit and watch a perfectly good bunch of grapes ferment and spoil. On the contrary.

“Half the problem, for me,” explains Dean, “is learning and knowing what to do and then trying not to do anything. But, in order to have that kind of attitude, you need good material and that means good grapes, and so really, it’s all about the vineyard, which it always is.”

Dean is under no illusions about trying to emulate, or make a Burgundian style Pinot Noir in Central Otago. To do that would be, “pointless,” he says. But, Dean has developed a working knowledge of what a Central Otago Pinot could be, based on the uniqueness of the place where the Pinot he makes, grows.

“Pinot is a low tannin varietal,” explains Dean, “and I want to get some tannin out of it. So, we add a lot of riper stems, rather than greener stems, and I love the complexity that that creates. It seems to add a whole other dimension to the wine… there are big calls I make, such as when to pick, which will shape a wine, but the less I can do, the better, so that the vineyard speaks.”

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Surveyor Thomson are currently in conversion to biodynamics, and are seeking certification through BioGro. Su is also implementing all of the required objectives to receive Demeter certification, in case the owners decide to pursue that as well.

Despite being, “just sluts,” as Dean surmises, Su and Dean take their roles as caretakers and custodians for the Surveyor Thomson land very seriously, and with great pride and accomplishment. Something that the original European pioneer through these dramatic lands, John Turnbull, aka Surveyor Thomson, no doubt would have wanted.

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D// – The Wine Idealist

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From the Ground Up – Burn Cottage, Central Otago, NZ

 

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The Sauvage family are American mid-west cotton and wheat farmers, originally from Oberlin, Kansas, who own land holdings right around the world, including a cotton farm in Moree NSW, Australia, and the wine estate known as Koehler Ruprecht, in the Pfalz region of Germany. Son, Marquis Sauvage, is a heavy metal fan and passionate about wine. He owns a wine bar in Colorado, and a wine distribution company that sells wine throughout a number of US states. In 2002, along with his wife Diane, Marquis purchased a much sought after property in Central Otago, New Zealand, and called it Burn Cottage.

“Marquis and Diane were visiting the Mornington Peninsula and then spent a few days in New Zealand,” explains Burn Cottage viticulturist, Shane Livingstone. “When they arrived in Central Otago they fell in love with the place, and decided to buy some land there.”

Shane Livingstone is Burn Cottage’s newly appointed viticulturist, having started working for the Sauvage family back in May 2014. He’s taken over from Jared Connolly, who established the vineyard with the Sauvage family in 2003, along with Californian winemaker, Ted Lemon of Littorai wines fame, and Peter Proctor, New Zealand’s own biodynamic master teacher. 

“The Sauvage family decided to go biodynamic right from the start,” says Shane, “and approached Peter Proctor to help them through those early stages.”

Burn Cottage Vineyards - photo courtesy of Burn Cottage

Burn Cottage Vineyards – photo courtesy of Burn Cottage

The vineyard was initially planted with Pinot Noir, partly because of Ted Lemon’s experience with the grape in Burgundy, having been the first American to manage a Burgundian estate, at Domaine Guy Roulot in Meursault. Pinot accounts for over 93% of the total vineyard area, which is nestled between two large hills either side, protecting the rows from both northerly and southerly winds. Smaller plantings of Riesling and Grüner Veltliner soon followed to complete the 11 ha site.

“The grapes are planted on a mix of clones and rootstock,” explains Shane, “which have been carefully matched to each block. All of the Pinot is planted on north and north east facing slopes and the Riesling and Grüner are planted on an east facing slope, down in a gully on the property.”

“There aren’t too many other vineyards around Burn Cottage,” Shane continues, “and it gets really nice early morning sun. The hills cast a shadow which allows the site to accumulate a little more moisture than usual, which is a good thing, because moisture is a rarity in Central Otago.”

The average rainfall in Central Otago is between 350-600mm, making it the lowest average anywhere in New Zealand. Couple this with the region’s large diurnal range of hot days and cold nights, and minimal organic matter on the surface of the land, and you have an extreme region for growing grapes. Thus,  careful management of the soil is extremely important.

Dynamising Biodynamic Preps - photo courtesy of Burn Cottage

Dynamising Biodynamic Preps – photo courtesy of Burn Cottage

“Biodynamics deals with an individual place or farm,” says Shane, “and invokes the whole property, which gives it a sense of personality, while also helping to build up healthy soils.”

According to Peter Proctor’s book, Grasp the Nettle, “an essential part of the art of farming is the observation of soil quality. When the biodynamic activity is working well in the soil on the farm, soils… have a common look to them.”

This common look is indicated by a slippery feel, dark chocolate-like colour, and a sweet earthy smell, otherwise known as humus. Biodynamics works by increasing the humus, or organic matter of the topsoil, which is derived from natural (rather than synthetic) inputs, such as compost. The preparations, especially 500, which is derived from fermented cow manure, boosts the microbial and bacterial communities, as well as fungi, within the soil, thereby increasing soil fertility. This means that the plant that resides within the soil can retrieve all the necessary nutrients it needs to grow, healthy and strong.

“One of the things about conventional (chemical) agriculture is that you’re bringing in all these inputs onto the farm, topping it up and force feeding it with synthetics until the property no longer resembles what it once was,” says Shane.

These synthetic off-farm inputs, in effect, end up stifling, or masking the true nature of the farm, or vineyard.

When a vineyard’s soil is healthy and fertile, the roots of the plants are free to forage further down in search of water, beneath the topsoil and into the subsoil, which is where ideas of terroir begin to take root, so to speak. Here lies all manner of clays, rocks and other minerals wine lovers cherish for providing a wine with a sense of place that is unique to a particular area. For example, the famous Kimmeridgean soils of Chablis are comprised mainly of limestone, clay and fossilised oyster shells. In Chablis, it’s said that these distinct soil types are what gives the wines their steeled, flinty and austere character, something which is unique to the region, and therefore denotes notions of terroir.

Without that healthy, fertile layer of humus in the topsoil, a vine’s ability to access and actively seek out water and nutrients from beneath the earth is severely stunted, and usually results in the roots lazily spreading out along the ground. Biodynamics promotes vitality not only within it’s farmers, but more importantly within the soil itself. This leads to healthier, more fertile soil, and therefore, more nutritious produce can be grown, such as grapes. Once in the hands of a skilled winemaker, these healthy grapes can be transformed into a wine that is able to express an authentic sense of place.

Cows Grazing at Burn Cottage - photo courtesy of Burn Cottage

Cows Grazing at Burn Cottage – photo courtesy of Burn Cottage

“We’re looking to make good wine, the best wine possible, which gets expressed through the careful management of the property… biodynamics helps us to do that,” explains Shane.

Burn Cottage is more of a mixed farm, rather than just a vineyard. In addition to the 11 ha of vineyard, there is a further 20 ha of farmland, which is home to grazing cattle that provide manure to make the cow pat pits and 500, as well as meat for staff. Sheep graze the grass and weeds and chickens scratch and spread out the manure, while bees help to pollinate other plants around the property, which promotes biodiversity and creates many natural biological controls to ward off unwanted pests and disease.

“We’re making more and more compost teas from the plants used in the biodynamic preparations,” says Shane, “because, ultimately, what we’re trying to do is build up the resilience of all these plants and animals so that they can stand on their own two feet, because they all interact with the property and bring out its character.”

By actively encouraging more biodiversity within a vineyard and incorporating other plant and animal species – similar to how a rainforest works – a sustainable integrated network, or web, from the soil up, is created, and helps the entire farming organism to be much more healthy and resistant to the types of pressures usually faced in a monoculture farming system.

“Instead of using up your entire chemical arsenal to try and fix a problem, biodynamics gives you a bigger toolbox, with more natural options to help tackle the kinds of problems farming presents,” says Shane.

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D// – The Wine Idealist

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‘Nature’s Farmer’ – Hochkirch Wine, Victoria

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“Everyone has heard of the Garden of Eden,” says John Nagorcka, winegrower and farmer from Hochkirch Wines in Victoria, “but, you haven’t heard of the Garden of Monsanto, or DuPont.”

John comes from a farming family, but moved away from the land to study radiology at university in Melbourne. He worked in the field for a while after graduating, but soon the intrinsic feelings for farming returned, and in 1990 he and his wife, Jenny, purchased the family farm in Tarrington, within the Henty wine region of Victoria, and set about establishing a 3 acre vineyard on the property.

“We planted according to best practice in Australia at the time, which is low density, high fruiting wires, wide rows, and a whole stack of different varietals,” says John, “simply because we weren’t sure what would work.”

Vines hadn’t been planted in the region for over 100 years, so John had very little to go on, in terms of what grape varieties would be best suited to the cool climate of Henty. The vineyard was managed ‘conventionally’, using synthetic chemicals, such as herbicides to counter weeds and disease pressures, but the layout of the vineyard, as well the types of grape varieties they planted was wrong. So, in ’95 and ’96, John replanted. Noticing the similarities in climate in Henty with Burgundy, John focussed on Pinot Noir, planting 4.5ha alongside smaller plantings of Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Semillon and Shiraz.

“We did some more planting in 1995 and 1996,” says John, “and modified the way we did things, ending up with much higher vine density, lower fruiting wires, and narrow rows, because we learnt that that method worked much better in our environment.”

Hochkirch Vineyard - photo courtesy of Hochkirch Wines

Hochkirch Vineyard – photo courtesy of Hochkirch Wines

John continued to use glyphosate, or Roundup as it’s more commonly known, to combat weeds, but soon found that the health of the soil was slowly being depleted, becoming cracked, hardened and more compacted.

“We used Roundup initially, and did so up until 1999, for weed control,” says John, “which was the only non-organic input we used. But, that’s a pretty significant non-organic input.”

Roundup is a systemic herbicide used to kill weeds and grasses that are known to compete with commercial crops, such as grape vines. It works by inhibiting an enzyme involved in the synthesis of certain amino acids, and absorbed through the foliage of the plant or weed, which gets translocated to its growing points.

“Roundup destroys soil, and I could see the soil (of my vineyard) becoming progressively compacted. Then problem weeds started appearing, which were fairly resistant to glyphosate,” explains John. “Herbicides tend to kill some plants very easily and other plants with great difficulty,” John continues, “so you end up selecting for certain weeds and plants that are resistant to herbicide, meaning that they proliferate and you have a very unnatural selection of different species of weeds that are very resistant to glyphosate.”

This unnatural selection and proliferation of Roundup resistant weeds means that stronger doses need to be applied each time. This, of course, simply forces the weeds to evolve to become even more resistant, meaning you then have to use a broader and more powerful mix of chemicals, which can be highly toxic to not only the soil and plants they’re being sprayed on, but also to the humans who are doing the spraying.

“It’s a troublesome spiral,” explains John,” because you’re actually creating the problem of weed control. The whole point of management is to reduce and avoid problems, and by using herbicides you’re creating problems… and that’s a highly unsatisfactory method of weed control, even without the environmental and detrimental soil effects.”

(In the immortal worlds of Dr Ian Malcolm, “life, ah… finds a way.”)

Harvest at Hochkirch - photo courtesy of Hochkirch Wines

Harvest at Hochkirch – photo courtesy of Hochkirch Wines

Dissatisfied by the damaging effects of Roundup and the costs associated with having to continue buying more and using more each time (much to the delight of Monsanto!), John went looking for a better way of doing things. He stopped spraying glyphosate and transitioned to organic viticulture, and then discovered biodynamics.

“Biodynamics is something that arouses passions in people, either positive or negative,” says John. “I’d expected it to be something somewhat arcane, and tending towards mysticism, but what I found was a method of farming that made a good deal of sense by focussing on farming from the perspective of nature.”

“The point is,” continues John, “there’s nothing natural about farming, it’s a very unnatural activity, even though, in our technological world, farming is about the only natural thing that goes on, but it’s not. As soon as you start to farm, you disrupt nature’s organisation and then you have to maintain a healthy environment and a productive enterprise that best deals with that disruption.”

Biodynamics puts the human element back into agriculture by cultivating a very natural method of farming, despite agriculture’s intrinsic unnaturalness, and allows, or rather encourages, a farmer to work with nature, rather than against it.

“Biodynamic farmers really enjoy and love what they do,” says John, “whereas a lot of conventional farmers don’t. If you look at conventional farmer’s kids, many don’t want to continue to farm, which accounts for the progressive loss of people living and working on the land. If you’re livelihood requires you to use all of these nasty chemicals,” continues John, “well, that’s not how people want to live. If you’re farming organically, or with the BD method, you’re riding the tiger of nature and using it to achieve your ends, which is a much more exciting thing to do.”

John Nagorcka - photo courtesy of Hochkirch Wines

John Nagorcka – photo courtesy of Hochkirch Wines

One of the best elements of biodynamic viticulture, or farming of any kind, in addition to its harm minimisation of the environment, is that it allows the products grown in this way to taste better, which of course is fundamental when it comes to wine.

“Conventionally grown wines tend to taste fairly flat, in comparison with many biodynamic wines, which can taste more alive,” explains John. “When things grow naturally, funnily enough, they taste better. They have better flavour, better nutrient balance, and they end up being a totally different product.”

John doesn’t do much when it comes to making his Hochkirch wines, describing it as, “particularly boring.”

“We hand pick, and with the reds (Pinot and Shiraz) we invariably destem, but still use a lot of whole bunch in the ferments,” explains John. “Fruit is put into open top fermenters, and usually sits there for a variable period, depending on how warm it was when it went in. I like to have it sit for about 4 to 5 days before it starts to ferment, using wild yeasts. We then let it sit between 2 and 6 weeks, before it’s pressed into tank and left to settle for 24 hours. Then, it’s moved into mainly old wood, where it stays for a year. It gets racked once, and sulphured if it needs it, and then a further seven months later it’s bottled.”

John doesn’t usually make any additions to improve the wine, unless it’s been a particularly hot year, and then he’ll add acid if he thinks the wine needs it. John says, “fining and filtering is unnecessary because it inevitably strips the wine of its character.”

“Everything we do out in the vineyard is designed to avoid having to do those sorts of manipulations back in the winery,” explains John.

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“The whole concept of the Garden of Eden is where things are presented at their absolute best,” says John, “and that’s our idea of nature, despite all of the stupidity of conventional farming methods, we still have this fundamental idea. What biodynamic farmers are doing is presenting a method of farming based on nature. We’re growing things with the BD method, the way nature intended them to be, and that’s what really motivates me to do what I do,” says John.

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D// – The Wine Idealist

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Cheers Newcastle! – What’s In Your Glass? 2014

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I bought a wall planner on Friday the 3rd of January, took it home and laid it out flat, on the living room floor. I started looking at dates over 6 months away which I thought would be suitable to host a wine event, which I’d created and co-organised last year called, “What’s In Your Glass?”. It’s a wine festival designed to promote the kind of wine (and food) that I love and write about regularly as The Wine Idealist, and set in my hometown of, deceptively beautiful, Newcastle.

My fine point marker scribbled WIYG inside a pink square on my newly acquired wall planner, dated Sunday, the 28th of September. Springtime would be in full swing, so the sun would be shining on a bright clear day, which is perfect for indulging in all the good things in life…  eating, drinking, and merrymaking.

My partner in wine to help out this year, was Andrew Clifton-Smith, sommelier, wine bar owner, and one half of Newcastle’s wine knights, inGRAPESweTRUST. Together, we would present What’s In Your Glass? 2014: A celebration of real wine, and a chance for Newcastle to, again, prove that it, too, can hold its own when it comes to the sorts of wine events that are usually reserved for the capital city. With an exclusive focus on Australian and New Zealand natural, organic and biodynamic wines, as well as an assemblage of four of Newcastle’s finest and best restaurants, and live music, What’s In Your Glass? is Newcastle’s own regional version of RAW, Real Wine Fair, and Rootstock all rolled into one.

All Smiles at What's In Your Glass? 2014 - photo by The WIne Idealist

All Smiles at What’s In Your Glass? 2014 – photo by The WIne Idealist

Nine months after I had scribbled in the date, September 28th was looming large. We’d managed to sink and retrieve six bottles of fine Australian and New Zealand wine – Si Vintners White, 2013 –  Krinklewood Semillon, 2012 – Harkham River Burgundee, 2012 – Bobar Syrah, 2013 – Macquariedale Matthew Merlot, 2013 – and, Pyramid Valley Growers Pinot Noir, 2010 – into the mouth of the Hunter River, in Newcastle Harbour, with thanks to a small dive team from DSS Newcastle. The PVC pipes the six bottles had been encased in had filled up with mud and muck, and even a few tiny crustaceans, which made them stink a bit, but the wax I’d used to ensure the enclosures were completely sealed had prevented any unwanted contamination of salt water or mud into the wine.

The sunken wine tasting was meant to be a blind tasting, but due to the extreme efficiency of some of the staff at WIYG, we weren’t able to immediately locate some of the sunken wine’s land loving counterparts. The six un-sunken bottles had been stored directly next to the sunken wine, in an identical blue milk crate, so that they would be together, and therefore readily accessible when the time came to taste them, but unfortunately, they had been moved somewhere else. As a result, a brief panic ensued, and, in order to keep the day running on time and to schedule, we had to start the tasting with what bottles we did have on hand, and therefore we couldn’t conduct the tasting blind, as we had hoped. When we eventually found those missing bottles (they’d been packed away with the stock for the Son’s Real Wine Bar) we were at least able to complete a revealing compare and contrast of the sunken vs land, wine tasting.

It Came From The Deep! - photo by The Wine Idealist

It Came From The Deep! – photo by The Wine Idealist

Despite this slight change of plans, the people we had assembled, including those winegrowers and makers who had made the trek to Newcastle to pour their wines at the event, special guests and the organisers of WIYG, all said they enjoyed the tasting, and could definitely discern a noticeable difference in each of the wines, especially the whites. It was noted, for example, that the Si Vintners sunken White had a distinctly cloudier hue than the bottle which had been stored on dry land. When it came to the smell and taste, the sunken Si wine had lost it’s bright and fresh edge, and had completely mellowed out – like releasing the catch on a steel trap. The acidic tension in the wine had dissolved and left behind a soft cheesy like taste and texture.

The same went for the red wines, such as the Pyramid Valley Pinot. All trace of structure had become placid, almost neutralised – like turning off the graphic equalizer on your stereo system so the audio becomes flat. Keep in mind, this is all anecdotal and only one person’s opinion, mine. But, there was some surprised and amazed discussion amongst the assembled who said they certainly noticed some difference between the sunken and un-sunken wines. There are plans to attempt the experiment again, soon, but away from the distraction of an impending wine festival which was about to open its doors to the general public…

Tom Belford and Ron Laughton - photo by The Wine Idealist

Tom Belford and Ron Laughton – photo by The Wine Idealist

Once the doors were open, and the festival could begin, the whole venue slowly filled up, until it became a beautiful commotion of chatting voices, clinking glasses, sizzling food, blues music, smiles and laughter. Newcastle’s own real wine event, What’s In Your Glass?, had begun…

We were lucky to have over 30 wine labels from right across Australia and New Zealand, all of whom had kindly sent over six bottles of their wines to pour by our wonderfully talented WIYG volunteers. It was a real privilege and honour to be able to showcase each of these growers amazing wines in Newcastle, even without them actually being there. I can’t thank them enough for participating!

We were also very fortunate enough to have a collection of winegrowers and makers who had made the trip to town especially for the gig. Among them was Australian wine legend, Ron Laughton from Jasper Hill in Heathcote, and Adam Castagna from Castagna in Beechworth, pouring the mind bendingly good, Genesis Syrah, 2010. Tom Belford from Bobar in the Yarra Valley won the hardest working and best moustache award, as he was still pouring his deliciously lithe ’14 Syrah long after the clock stuck six, while Sam Statham from Rosnay was styling it out in his inimitable fashion, pouring his organic, preservative free goodness. Alex Retief from A.Retief wines was melting hearts with his smile and unfairly combining it with his excellent biodynamic booze from Gundagai, NSW, and of course, the Hunter was represented by the biodynamic duo, Ross McDonald from Macquariedale and Rod Windrim from Krinklewood, alongside organic grower Barb Brown from Ascella in Broke, and natural winemaker Richie Harkham from Harkham wines.

And, as if all of that wasn’t enough, we had four of Newcastle’s best restaurants and bars feeding the smiling swarms of Novocastrian wine lovers in a pop-up, supper-club styled feast for the famished. Recently awarded two hats, Suzie and Beau Vincent from SUBO had the crowd sighing with delight about their Spatchcock Marinated in Yuzu, Soy & Mirin, Braised in Miso Stock and Cooked on Australian Hardwood Charcoal, while next door at Casa de Loco, the lads were serving up awesome morsels of Cold Prawn Ceviche Tacos. Newcastle’s favourite wine bar, Reserve had a trendy little Roquefort Souffle and their famous Duck Sliders flying off the table, and venue hosts Fortunate Son were plating up a delicious dish of Uprising Sourdough with Chicken Liver Parfait, Redgate Farm Duck Rillette and Mushroom ‘Rillette’.

Garth & The Apprentices filled the air, as promised, with soulful blues and jazz and even had a few people up dancing their sunny Sunday afternoon away. Good times, indeed.

Inspecting What's In The Glass? - photo by The Wine Idealist

Inspecting What’s In The Glass? – photo by The Wine Idealist

On behalf of Andrew and myself, I’d like to extend a massive thank you and hug to everyone involved, including the restaurants who kept our bellies full, the staff from the Son’s Real Wine Bar, who were serving up crazy juice, in the form of bottles of Pat Sullivan’s Haggis wine and Babera Rosato Bucketwine. Also, an enormous thanks to our wonderful volunteers who were the single biggest help on the day!

And, a MASSIVE thank you to all the winegrowers and makers who participated in this years What’s In Your Glass? wine festival. It is my hope that your wines have been exposed to a whole new bunch of enlightened wine lovers who will now further appreciate and understand that the best wines come from organic and biodynamic vineyards and are made naturally, with as minimal intervention in the winery, as possible.

Lastly, thank you to any and all of you who attended this little attempt at live wine idealism… I hope you had a great day! If you have any photos to share – send them through to me at thewineidealist@gmail.com or on Twitter & Instagram – @thewineidealist.

Roll on #WIYG 2015!

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D// – The Wine Idealist

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What’s In Your Glass? Salty Wine? – Newcastle, NSW

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Six bottles of perfectly good wine have been sitting at the bottom of the ocean at a depth of about 8 metres, in order to find out what happens when you submerge wine under water and age it for three months. Will the increased pressure cause the bottles to explode? If not, will they make it back to shore  intact, or will they have leaked all their wine out and traded it for sea water? Maybe some plundering wine-loving fisherman, or diver, has found the wine and taken the treasure home to drink themselves! If the bottles make it back to shore intact and have somehow managed to retain their precious treasure inside, will the wine have changed at all? Will it look, smell or taste any different to those bottles that have been left behind, on land? 

Back in July 2014, I managed to convince six intrepid winegrowers from across Australia and New Zealand to give me two bottles of their wine. That is, two bottles of the very same wine that they’ve spent 10 months out of the year farming in their vineyard, encouraging the grapes to grow, then bloom, and then run the gauntlet of Mother Nature’s whims and fancies to get the fruit to harvest, then pick, crush, ferment, press, élevage, bottle and finally, hopefully, sell… or, be given away to sink underwater for three months!

Si Vintners, Bobar, Pyramid Valley, Macquariedale, Krinklewood, and Harkham have all kindly donated two bottles of their wine for an experiment to see, and hopefully taste, the effects that underwater aging has on wine. One each of their bottles has been floating underneath the waves of Newcastle Harbour – the mouth of the Hunter River – for the last three months, while a second bottle of each has been safely tucked away in more standard storage conditions in a bar in Newcastle. On Sunday, the 28th of July, these six bottles of sunken wine will be blind tasted and compared to an equivalent six bottles of land loving wine, by some of their creators, an exclusive group of curious individuals, and the organisers of Newcastle’s one and only real wine event… What’s In Your Glass?

Ben and Chris from DSS Sinking Precious Treasure - photo by The Wine Idealist

Ben and Chris from DSS Sinking Precious Treasure – photo by The Wine Idealist

What’s In Your Glass? brings together an eclectic collection of winegrowers from across Australia and New Zealand, who are making wine sustainably – that is, naturally, organically and biodynamically… all the things we love as wine idealists!

Wine lovers from Newcastle and the Hunter Valley will have the chance to taste over 60 wines from some of Australia and New Zealand’s best winegrowers, including Jasper Hill, Cloudburst, Jauma, Cullen and Castagna… (full list below). Many of the growers will be there themselves to pour their own wines and answer any questions you may have, such as: Where does it come from? How is it made? and of course… What’s in it?!

Plus, the organisers have assembled four of Newcastle’s best restaurants to man the pans with a pop-up supper club style menu, including the two-hatted brilliance of SUBO, as well as Reserve Wine Bar, Casa de Loco and Fortunate Son. The food alone is worth the price of admission!

There wil be live jazz and blues filling the air all afternoon long from Garth and The Apprentices, and a real wine bar pouring a unique selection of Aussie and New Zealand, and international natural, organic and biodynamic wines, including a couple of bottles of 2014 Babera Rosato aka #bucketwine from Heathcote!

All in all, it promises to be a fantastic day filled with wine, food and good times! So, if you haven’t already… jump online now, buy a ticket and get yourself to my hometown of Newcastle, right on the door step to the vineyards of the Hunter Valley!

#WIYG - @WhatsInYourGlas

#WIYG – @WhatsInYourGlas

The Winegrowers who’ll be at What’s In Your Glass? 2014

Hunter Valley & NSW:
*Macquariedale l *Krinklewood l *Harkham l A.Retief l Ascella l Rosnay

Victoria:
Avani l Between Five Bells l *Bobar l Thousand Candles l Two Blind Mice l Castagna l Chapter Wine l Jasper Hill l Enigma Variations

South Australia:
Small Fry Wines l Jauma l Gemtree l Battle of Bosworth

Western Australia:
*Si Vintners l Blind Corner l Dormilona l Cullen l Cloudburst l Freehand Wines

New Zealand:
*Pyramid Valley l Te Whare Ra l Seresin l Fromm l Hans Herzog l Clos Henri l Rock Ferry l Rippon

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If you can’t make it on Sunday, you can keep up by following #WIYG on Twitter and Instagram and follow me and WIYG on both of those platforms – @thewineidealist / @WhatsInYourGlas

I’ll be posting photos on Facebook too, so keep an eye out: facebook.com/thewineidealist

Please come and say hello, if you’re coming on Sunday!

D// – The Wine Idealist

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‘The Young Turks’ – The Future of Australian Winegrowing

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Enthusiasm is one of those emotions usually reserved for children and young people, as they set out on their adventurous life journey. Poised with limitless possibilities and potential, bound up with excitement and energy that promises to take them as far as they dare to dream. As the years roll on, however, time has a way of wearing down our enthusiasm, like the long road that scuffs the bottom of a pair of well-worn shoes. Moments mark time’s steady tread and often turn to memories, both good and bad, without so much as a wink of notice, as they’re created. The good moments make us smile and get collected into a memorable highlight reel, which we are free to play to ourselves at any time we like. The bad one’s should serve as lessons for us to take meaning from, and help us to improve ourselves, as we continue down the long road in search of peace, love and happiness. Often times, however, these bad moments and memories can dampen our enthusiasm for the things we wish to achieve and, if we’re not careful, they can quite easily soak up our spirit until all our energy and vitality is diffused.

Farming, by its very nature, is a hard road to travel, and one that not many young people wish to take. Many older farmers continue to walk off their land, and succession plans fall by the wayside. It’s an occupation that can swing from being one of the most joyous and life affirming activities, to being one of the most depressing, where one’s enthusiasm isn’t just sodden, but soaked, and then dried, cracked, and shattered. Despite a young person’s inherent enthusiasms, facing this dramatic swing can be daunting and overwhelming, and lead them to decide not to farm at all. But, there are a few Young Turks within the world of winegrowing, who are taking on the challenges faced in farming and viticulture, and they’re doing this by utilising the positive power of biodynamics.

Si Vintners, Rosa Glen - Margaret River - photo by Christina Pickard (used with permission)

Si Vintners, Rosa Glen – Margaret River – photo by Christina Pickard (used with permission)

Biodyanmics is a positive farming practice that not only supports its practitioners, by putting the human elements of agriculture back at the front and centre of all farming activity, but also actively encourages engagement with the farm by amplifying the health and vitality of the soil, the plants, the animals and the humans that work within it’s agricultural web of sustainability.

“One of the most affective things about biodynamics is that you’re not just letting nature take its course,” says Peter Windrim from Krinklewood in the Hunter Valley, “you are giving it more vitality and force, so that the whole farm is more resilient, vigorous, and in harmony. And, on another level, we’re happier as farmers.”

Peter Windrim, from Krinklewood, Matt Eastwell from Freehand Wines in the Great Southern region of Western Australia, and Sarah Morris from Si Vintners in Margaret River, WA, are three young winegrowers who are noticing the positive effects that BD is having on their properties and therefore, on their wines.

“I started using biodynamic agriculture as a reaction to the ethical dilemma I was having with conventional viticultural practices,” explains Matt Eastwell of Freehand Wines. “There are some nasty sprays out there that are approved for use in Australia, and I was heartened at the prospect of there being a different path, which eliminates chemicals,” he adds.

“We’ve always had an interest in organics,” explains Sarah Morris from Si Vintners, “which led us to biodynamics, and from there, it was just a matter of talking to people who know about it, and reading whatever we could get our hands on.”

Biodynamic Composting at Krinklewood - photo by The Wine Idealist

Biodynamic Composting at Krinklewood – photo by The Wine Idealist

Matt and Sarah are relative newcomers to biodynamic viticulture. Both are first generation winegrowers on their respective farms in Western Australia, whereas Peter Windrim’s family has been growing grapes and making wine since Peter’s father, Rod Windrim, first planted vines in the Hunter Valley in the 1970’s.

“I learnt about biodynamics from my Dad,” says Peter, “he’s a viticulturist, so I grew up on a vineyard. He actually encouraged me to go off and do my own thing, which I did for a while, but none of it made me feel as content as life on the farm does.”

This feeling of contentment for the farming life of growing grapes is a theme that is echoed by Matt Eastwell in WA.

“I use biodynamics in my vineyard because I’ve seen the positive results,” explains Matt. “The gradual return of life and vitality to the soil and an increase in health to the vines is a joy to behold.”

“The influences of biodynamics has seen the farm buzzing with life,” Matt continues, “with many beneficial predatory insects helping to keep the vines healthy and in balance. (Using biodynamics) has meant that the vines thrive… and the vitality of the fruit and the resultant wine over the past decade has been amazing to witness,” says Matt.

One of the significant benefits of biodynamics is in its ability to enhance the flavour components of many of the foods that are grown by using it. For something like wine, where quality of taste is one of the single most important elements, biodynamics seems to enliven and intensify many of the qualities that one looks for in wine, such as colour, aroma, taste, texture and length. For many biodynamic winegrowers, this enrichment of quality is one of the main reasons they choose to grow their grapes in this way.

“Since practicing biodynamics, we have noticed that the overall health of the vineyard and its resistance to disease has increased significantly,” explains Sarah Morris from Si Vintners, “and, from a winemaking perspective, we are definitely seeing much healthier ferments and a vibrancy and concentration in fruit, both aromatically and on the palate.”

“In my opinion, biodynamics allows us to keep our wines fresh and vital,” says Matt Eastwell. “The grapes always look brighter, have better colour, and seem healthier than non biodynamic fruit… which, I believe enhances the flavour and longevity of our wine.”

Freehand Vineyard - photo courtesy of Freehand Wines

Freehand Vineyard – photo courtesy of Freehand Wines

Biodynamics increases soil fertility, individualises a property and unlocks many of the nutrient rich mineral elements that exist deep within the soil. For wine, where provenance is converted and the expression of terroir is considered to be the ultimate, biodynamics helps a wine to reveal its true sense of place.

“Biodynamics allows us the ability to make wines of true individuality, which are honest expressions of our vineyard in Broke,” explains Peter Windrim. “You are tasting the ‘cosmoir’ (cosmic/terroir) that is unique to us, which includes all our bacteria and fungi, our manure, our compost, our soil, our position under the sky, our love and all our intentions.”

Listening to these few Young Turks of Australian winegrowing you hear how they are expressing the positive benefits and outcomes that biodynamics provides them as a way of farming their properties. With love and positive intent, biodynamics enables them to produce great tasting, individual wines of spirit and a sense of place. It also provides them with the greatest fertiliser of all to keep them motivated about what they’re doing on their farms… ‘enthusiasm’.

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D// – The Wine Idealist

++ This article was originally written for BAA’s Plenty Magazine, which unfortunately folded after one issue, subsequently preventing the publication of this story.

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‘Starting From Scratch’ – Tinklers Wine’s New Biodynamic Vineyard

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It’s a bit cooler up here. Especially when the clouds pass overhead and obscure the sun that is shining down on the bare patch of brown earth below. Four men are working together on a gentle crest that marks the top of a 6 acre property which looks out over Pokolbin, in the Hunter Valley. One of them drives a tractor, which is hitched to a large green tub filled with water and connects another two men, following close behind, holding what looks like a modified pogo stick that shoots out a jet of water from the end where the spring would normally be. One of them bends down and shoves something into the ground. A fourth man trails behind, a little further back, filling in the holes the pogo stick makes.

“I don’t think anyone has done planting like this, in the Hunter, for about 80 years,” says Usher Tinkler, third generation farmer and winemaker for Tinklers Wines in the Hunter Valley.

Usher Tinkler and Michael Corbett are two of the men trailing behind the tractor, planting shiraz vines on a new patch of the Tinkler’s property, which is going to be farmed biodynamically.

Tinklers New Biodynamic Vineyard - photo by The Wine Idealist

Planting Tinklers new biodynamic vineyard – photo by The Wine Idealist

Michael Corbett is the associate winemaker for Crush House wines, of which Usher is a part-owner, and has his own label, Vanguardist, with his first vintage release being this year’s 2014 HVB (tasting notes below). Michael, originally from New Zealand, has been making wine and tending vines for almost 10 years, from his home in Hawke’s Bay, to Marlborough and Central Otago, Sonoma in California, and Minervois and Roussillon in France. He’s also done two previous Hunter vintages at Tyrrell’s and has just completed his third with Usher at the Crush House. His interest in biodynamics began in New Zealand, having converted a chardonnay vineyard in Hawke’s Bay over to BD.

“The first time I saw a biodynamic vineyard, I thought it was pretty crazy,” explains Michael, “but then I saw the vineyard flourish in a tough year…. it was healthy and the fruit still looked good, and for me, it felt like the right thing to do.”

Michael has convinced Usher to plant a brand new vineyard on this property, which Usher had always been planning to do anyway, but certainly not in the way Michael was suggesting. This vineyard is to be close planted, with vines spaced about a metre apart (instead of the usual three, which allows enough room for a tractor).  It will be worked by a draught horse, farmed biodynamically, and, to top it all off, it is to be completely dry grown, meaning no irrgation.

“The Hunter has vines that are over 100 yeas old, and they’ve never been irrigated,” explains Michael, “so obviously, it works.”

“I reckon this is one of the best sites in the Hunter Valley,” says Usher. “Underneath us is a rich mix of expanding clays, which have good water holding capacity. Everything stacks up with this site and we’re giving it every chance… there’s a forecast for no rain over the next four weeks.”

Some people have laughed whenever Michael explains that they’ve bought a horse to work in the vineyard, but there’s a good reason behind his decision, and, for Usher, he likes the challenge of producing a wine without synthetic energy inputs.

“We’re using the draught horse to reduce the amount of compaction of the soil,” says Michael, “because these vines will eventually have a root system that goes out laterally as well as vertically. Tractors and other heavy machines roll over the same places every time when they drive down a row, which compacts the soil and makes it hard for any microbial life to thrive. So,” continues Michael, “the horse offers a lot less weight, and the pressure points are going to be spread out much more evenly.”

“We’re also interested in the idea of making a wine without any diesel or electrical energy inputs, and keeping it totally natural,” explains Usher. “They use horses a lot in Burgundy and that’s a challenging idea.”

New shiraz vines on their  own rootstock - photo by The Wine Idealist

New shiraz vines on their own rootstock – photo by The Wine Idealist

Deciding to manage the property using a biodynamic regime offers Usher the chance to do something unique and challenging with his wines, and, for Michael, it’s the chance to really get involved with biodynamic winegrowing, from the ground up, as it were.

“This has been my dream to do something like this for four years now,” says Michael, “and when I met Usher, he had the resources and open mindedness to want to have a crack, if nothing else.”

“To me, it’s not just about biodynamics,” says Usher, “it’s about doing new and positive things that are challenging and interesting… The wine’s are going to be pretty unique from this site,” he continues, “and we want to make a wine in that traditional Hunter style… it’s going to take a lot of work, but that’s what happens when you’re trying to make something that no one else can.”

“Usher’s support, which is rare to find these days, makes it more exciting to do something special and unique in the Hunter,” says Michael, “and I hope this will inspire more people to do it.”

Ultimately, it’s about making, or rather growing, a great wine. Michael believes that any notions of greatness and it’s links to expressing terroir cannot happen if you’re spraying synthetic chemicals on you’re vineyard.

“I think it’s hard to believe in the concept of terroir if you’re spraying with herbicides and using synthetic nitrogen and other chemicals,” says Michael.

“The focus is to make a great wine and we think we can do that here from this site because of the way we’re managing it,” says Usher. “The wine comes from the vineyard, so the vineyard has to be the best that it can be.”

Usher Tinkler and Michael Corbett planting shiraz- photo by The Wine Idealist

Usher Tinkler and Michael Corbett planting shiraz- photo by The Wine Idealist

It will be at least 5 years before Usher and Michael can make wine from this new biodynamic vineyard in the Hunter Valley. The plan is to plant a little over 2000 vines this year, and follow it up with another lot next year. If all goes well, Usher may consider the prospect of expanding the biodynamic regime out over the rest of the property in the coming years. It’s a risk that takes an enormous amount of foresight, attention and observation, not to mention money, to successfully accomplish, but the rewards are certainly there.

“I think, as a region, we’ve been very slow to pick up organics and biodynamics,” says Usher, “there’s a few people pioneering it and they seem to be doing OK with it… We’re going to give it a shot, and if it doesn’t work, at least we can say we gave it a good go.”

It’s not just the biodynamic preparations that are being broadcast out over that hillside vineyard in the Hunter, to give the shiraz roots their best chance to grow. There’s an awful lot of optimism and enthusiasm being spread out too, and as James Millton, the godfather of biodynamic viticulture in the southern hemisphere says, “enthusiasm is the greatest fertiliser.”

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D// – The Wine Idealist

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TASTING NOTES:

Vanguardist, HVB (Hunter Valley Blanc), Hunter Valley, 2014 :: 100% semillon from Tinklers Poppy Block vineyard, 80% whole bunch, wild ferment (pied de cuvee), on skins for 30 days, no adds (SO2 110ppm), un-fined and un-filtered. Not organic/biodynamic.

A pastoral scene. Pale gold hay being baled up on a misty morning in the Hunter Valley. Brittle cheddar, lemon, dusted floral and fresh early morning perfumes. Curved textures. Strange for a sem so young. Refreshing and gently sweet, melon, ripe pineapple and sparked acids linger, salivate, and skulk behind embedded flash phenolics and avant originality. Curious, delicious… something good’s about to happen.

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