‘Natural Balance’ – Muddy Water, Waipara, N.Z.

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Flying over the Southern Alps of New Zealand’s south island, giant folds of earth burst up towards the sky, kissing the long white cloud that hangs silently on the wind, and leaves a white lipstick mark dusted on its peak. All of a sudden, these mountains fall away and are replaced by the Canterbury plains. Giant swathes of land that are filled with generous pastures and fields that lie in stark contrast to those soaring ruptures, to the west. Within these flat lands lies Waipara, a small town on the banks of a river, which goes by the same name, and a vineyard known as Muddy Water, which is the literal translation of the Māori words, Wai (water) and Para (sediment).

The vineyard was planted in 1993 and is spread over 10ha of heavy clay soils and slivers of limestone.  It is managed certified (Assure Quality) organically, with some biodynamic preparations, by Miranda Brown, Muddy Water’s viticulturist. Miranda grows the grapes, and Dominic Maxwell makes the wine. Both Miranda and Dominic are New Zealand natives who attended Lincoln University in Canterbury. Miranda studied horticulture, completing a post-grad in viticulture and ecology, while Dominic studied commerce and management, before travelling overseas and living in London for a few years.

“I was pretty disillusioned with what I was doing as a job (in London),” says Dominic, “and I’d always wanted to be involved with making something more tangible. Around that same time, I was starting to become aware of wine.”

Wine wasn’t something Dominic grew up with, but upon returning home to New Zealand, he took up studying again at Lincoln University, completing a post-grad diploma in winemaking. He then spent 6 months working in a number of vineyards in order to see if he really wanted to go down this new path of wine. These days, he’s the full time winemaker for Muddy Water and Greystone’s Wines, which was recently award Best International Pinot Noir by Decanter magazine. Both Dominic and Miranda work closely together to make sure the fruit coming in from the Muddy Water vineyard is the best that it can be, and Miranda says that it’s organics that allows them to do that.

“Organics seems to be the logical thing to do,” says Miranda. “If you don’t have to use chemicals to grow grapes, then why would you? We’re pretty lucky where we are in New Zealand, especially in Waipara,” continues Miranda, “because we don’t have a lot of really nasty seasons. It’s mostly dry, so we don’t have that much disease pressure.”

Miranda Brown Pruning Muddy Water Vineyard - photo courtesy of Muddy Water

Miranda Brown Pruning Muddy Water Vineyard – photo courtesy of Muddy Water

Muddy Water is located near the limestone slopes of the Omihi Hills and the vineyard is protected on both sides from east and westerly winds, enabling a slightly longer growing season and ‘hang time’ that allows the fruit to ripen more evenly. From 1993 the vineyard was managed conventionally (that is with chemicals) until 2007, when the owners decided to convert the site over to an organic regime.

“The conversion process wasn’t too difficult,” says Miranda, “because the environment is pretty well suited to it. The biggest issue, for us, is probably botrytis,” continues Miranda, “and 2008, which was our first organic growing season, was probably one of the wettest seasons on record and we lost a lot of crop. But, we kept going, and since then it’s been pretty smooth sailing.”

Practicing organic viticulture usually means a slight reduction in yields, (and therefore production and potential profit), which is mainly why many larger brands choose not to convert. But, lower cropping levels can result in higher quality parcels of fruit. Generally speaking, if vines are cropped with a higher amount of bunches, this can create an imbalance between the leaf and fruit ratio and result in slow, uneven and insufficient ripening of the fruit. If a vine is imbalanced, so are the grapes, which can lead to problems later on, back in the winery, where the winemaker will need to create balance, artificially, in the wine by relying heavily on the 89 or so legal additives that are allowed to be used in winemaking today. One of the most desired traits in a wine is good balance, where the concentration of fruit, acidity, and levels of tannin (for red/orange wines) are in total harmony. Without good balance in the vineyard, first, there can be no good wine.

“Our yields have always been at the lower end of spectrum,” explains Miranda, “because we’re aiming for higher quality in our wines. So, we crop our pinot at about 5 tonne to the hectare, and since converting over to organics, it hasn’t really dropped off that much.”

Growing grapes organically is a good step forward, if you intend to make good wine, but balance dictates that you will need an equally as good a winemaker at the helm, in order to be able to create a good bottle of wine. If your winemaker is winning international recognition for their pinot noir, then you’re probably already in safe hands.

Dominic Maxwell - photo courtesy of Muddy Water

Dominic Maxwell – photo courtesy of Muddy Water

“Everything that’s good about a bottle of wine stems from the vineyard,” says Dominic Maxwell, Muddy Water’s winemaker. “With Miranda being out there, looking after our relatively small vineyard, she’s got a good feel for what’s going on.”

The Muddy Water vineyard consists of riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir and a little bit of pinotage, (a signature South African grape variety that is a cross between pinot noir and cinsault). Dominic makes the Muddy Water wines, in the Greystone winery on site, as naturally as possible, so that they can express their provenance with absolute clarity.

“Our focus here is to make really interesting, organic, terroir driven wines,” explains Dominic. “There might be some fluctuations from vintage to vintage, but the wines should always be expressive of the place they’re from.”

“There’s a real earthy quality to the fruit when it comes in,” continues Dominic, “and we’re trying to convey those vineyard soils into the wine. I think the less you add, the more opportunity you have to show the place.”

Dominic uses wild yeast ferments for every one of the Muddy Water wines, and makes very few additions, usually using only minimal amounts of sulphur.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a $20 pinot, or an $80 pinot, it’s all fermented using indigenous yeasts,” says Dominic. “We try to add nothing to all our wines, including nutrients for the ferment, otherwise I’d be undoing all of Miranda’s great work, out in the vineyard.”

“I’ll add sulphur to anything with residual sugar, such as our riesling, and to our pinots as well, because we try to do that unfiltered,” says Dominic. “Most of our wines usually end up being around 55-65 ppm of total sulphur, after bottling.”

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In order to make good wine, a winegrower needs to be able to regulate their yields and ensure quality over quantity. Organic methods of viticulture help a grower to do this by allowing the plant to be healthy and in balance with its environment, and only produce as much fruit as it needs to. Thus, ensuring consistent and more even ripening during the growing season (whims of Mother Nature not withstanding), and with the aid of a skilled winemaker, create better balanced wine.

“We’re organic because everything has to be in balance,” says Dominic, “and wine encompasses everything that you get from the fruit. So, we need it to be in balance for the wine to be as well.”

D// – The Wine Idealist

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Something Good – Mill About Vineyards, Barossa Valley, S.A.

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“The grape supplies everything that’s needed,” says Stan Ivanov, winegrower at Mill About Vineyard, in the Barossa Valley, South Australia. “It supplies its own yeast and enzymes to help with fermentation, the bacteria necessary for malolactic fermentation is also there, and so is all the acid and tannin. So, what else do I need?”

Stan, and his wife Nelly, moved to Australia from Bulgaria, in the eastern corner of Europe, near Turkey, and settled in the suburbs of Adelaide back in the mid 90’s.

“Nelly and I arrived in South Australia about 20 years ago, from Bulgaria,” says Stan. “After a while we decided that it wasn’t pleasant to live in the suburbs of Adelaide, because it was overcrowded and too noisy, so we started looking around for other properties. We bought this vineyard because I was getting sick of drinking so much mediocre wine, and thought I would just make my own, to drink instead.”

In 2007, they purchased a rather neglected 6.4 acre property located on the southern fringe of the Barossa Valley, at the bottom of the Adelaide Hills. The vineyard was quite old, having been planted around 1924, but it had been left to grow wild and untamed by the previous owners. As a result, many of the vines hadn’t been pruned for close to 20 years.

“The vineyard is almost 90 years old,” says Stan. “Half the grenache was missing when we bought the property, so we had to replant a lot of it to get it back to its original size. The five rows of semillon were intact and in reasonable condition, while the three muscat varieties are still recovering. We planted saperavi and mataró, to compliment the grenache.”

Despite not being certified, Stan says the vineyard is managed more than organically.

Old Bush Vine Grenache - photo courtesy of Mill About Vineyard

Old Bush Vine Grenache – photo courtesy of Mill About Vineyard

“We’re not certified, and I have no objections of those who are,” explains Stan, “I just think it’s the wrong way around. We are definitely more than organic, because we don’t apply things like copper and sulphur, which are allowed under organic certification. These are toxic chemicals,” continues Stan, “and copper is actually a heavy metal, which can stay and accumulate in the soil after years of spraying.”

Australian Certified Organic Standards 2013, does allow for a certified organic grower to use copper and sulphur sprays, but there are restrictions. Table 47.A on page 36 of the ACO Standards reads that the maximum levels of heavy metals, such as copper, found in certified organic soils is not to exceed 50 ppm. Suspension and even loss of certification can apply to those growers who do not comply.

“All we do in the vineyard is prune, mow the grass and mulch with organic matter,” says Stan. “In the wintertime we’ll let our sheep into the vineyard to help with cutting the grass.”

Because of the vineyard’s age, and subsequent neglect, it hasn’t received any artificial inputs for over 20 years. Stan says that there is very little pest and disease pressure where they are located in the Barossa.

“Our site has good ventilation, so the vineyard dries out quickly,” says Stan. “The only pest problems we face is from the birds, because our property backs onto bush land. In 2011, we didn’t suffer any mildew problems, and because the vines are dry grown and planted on their own roots, they’re usually much healthier, anyway.”

Stan and Nelly decided to carry on this absence of synthetic chemicals by taking a very relaxed approach to vineyard management.

“We try to do as little as possible,” says Stan, “as our name implies. Mill About means to do nothing, and that’s our way of doing things… we work only when it’s required.”

That’s not to say that Stan and Nelly are lazy winegrowers.

“We’re always busy with things that need to be done,” explains Stan, “but we don’t rush things. We don’t just do things for the sake of doing them, there’s always something to be done, and we just enjoy walking around and observing our place.”

Autumn Leaves - photo courtesy of Mill About Vineyards

Autumn Leaves – photo courtesy of Mill About Vineyards

Stan’s approach to winemaking is simple and he considers himself to be a natural winemaker. He makes his wines with no additions whatsoever, and he says that he is able to do this because of the types of grapes that he grows.

“We planted saperavi and mataró (mourvèdre) because they help balance out the sweetness of grenache,” says Stan. “The saperavi is unique in that it produces full flavours at very low alcohol, about 12-12.5 baumé, so we pick it early and retain the natural acidity in the grape, meaning we don’t need to add anything to the wine.”

Stan uses co-fermentation as a method for making Mill About’s wines, which is the practice of fermenting two or more grape varieties at the same time. The grapes are picked, crushed and fermented together using indigenous yeasts. Stan says he’s never had a problem with stuck ferments.

“It’s a misconception that wild yeasts are unreliable,” says Stan, “we’ve never had any problems with our ferments. Because we don’t spray with any artificial chemicals in the vineyard, the population of indigenous yeasts is pretty strong.”

“We can make a starter culture by picking some grapes a week earlier, crush them and let them start fermenting,” explains Stan. “These yeasts will multiply and then we’ll use them as our starter for our main ferments. We’ve never had a stuck ferment, it’s always healthy and it means each vintage is different… We just stick to the old principals that people have been using for centuries, probably millennia. If you have a healthy vineyard you will have no problem.”

Stan makes no sulphur additions to his Mill About wines.

“We don’t use any preservatives in our wines,” explains Stan, “so in the winery there’s no benefit for us to rack the wine. That would actually be quite risky, if we did so, because the wine has nothing to stop it from oxidising… By adding anything, especially sulphur dioxide, you’re masking all sorts of flavours. Why should I add anything that hasn’t come from the grape?”

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Stan Ivanov – photo courtesy of Mill About VIneyard

Stan doesn’t make all that much wine from his Mill About Vineyard, usually just under 100 cases per vintage. Most of his wines are sold out to family and friends, and a few places around Adelaide, Melbourne, and a little in Japan, of all places. For Stan, growing wine is more about pleasure and enjoyment, than anything else.

“We try to live peacefully with ourselves and our surroundings, because life is too short to be involved with all sorts of unnecessary things,” says Stan. “It’s about enjoying yourself. If you can produce your own food and drink in a healthy way, then that’s something good.”

D// – The Wine Idealist

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Honest Sustainability – Angove Wines, McLaren Vale, S.A.

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“We’re very uncool,” says Richard Angove, from Angove Wines, based in the McLaren Vale, South Australia. “But, our philosophy definitely starts in the vineyard, and everything else comes after that.”

Angove Wines is an old family business, founded in 1886 by Richard Angove’s great, great grandfather, Dr William T. Angove. He had emigrated from Cornwall, in England, to the foothills of Adelaide, South Australia and set up a medical practice. Initially, Dr Angove planted 10 acres of vines and made mostly fortified wines, as a kind tonic for his patients. It wasn’t until 2004, 118 years after the first Angove vines were planted, that Richard and his team decided they would pursue a more sustainable farming system to manage the Angove vineyards.

“We started with an experimental patch in 2004,” says Richard. “Organic viticulture came about from us really wanting to look after our vineyards in the best way possible, and in the most sustainable way. We knew that it took three years to obtain organic certification, so we understand that this is a long term undertaking.”

Angove own and manage a total of 400 acres, both in the McLaren Vale and the Riverland, 180 of which are certified by Australian Certified Organic (ACO). There is another 60 acres currently in conversion, while a further 70 has just begun the conversion process this year. Their intention is to eventually convert the entire 400 acres over to certified organic viticulture.

“It’s going to be a long process,” says Richard, “because it does cost money, but we’re just going to keep chipping away at it.”

Angove McLaren Vale Vineyard - photo courtesy of Angove

Angove McLaren Vale Vineyard – photo courtesy of Angove Wines

“The first year of conversion (to organic viticulture), you see a reduction in yield, because you’ve basically switched the vine off from these steroids (synthetic chemical inputs),” says Richard. “In doing so, you force the vine to work harder to get the roots to go deeper down into the soil and establish a different type of balance.”

“What we saw two years into conversion,” continues Richard, “was that the vines came back and the vineyard itself was much more balanced and producing really nice, clean fruit. Even in bad seasons, our organic vineyards tend to do much better than our conventional ones.”

Richard cites the winegrowing horror show that was vintage 2011 and believes that that was the moment when everyone at Angove recognised the benefits of organics as an effective method of farming grapes. He says that the vines themselves were much stronger and more able to roll with the punches.

“2011 was a really challenging vintage,” says Richard, “because it was wet and cool and there was a lot more disease pressure. We found that our organic vines just out performed the conventional vines… you could easily see the difference. That was the vintage that confirmed for us, and anyone who wasn’t a believer, that there was something in this.”

There are a number of challenges that any viticulturist faces once they’ve stopped using synthetic chemicals to grow their grapes. A perceived increase in disease pressure and unwanted weeds can deter many a grower from switching to a more softer approach, but where the Angove vineyards are planted, in the Riverland and McLaren Vale, it makes converting to organics a bit of a no brainer.

“The suitability of the McLaren Vale and the Riverland is so conducive to organics,” explains Richard, “because there’s low disease pressure, the growing season is generally warm and dry, with very little rainfall.”

Angove Cane Pruned Shiraz - photo courtesy of Angove Wines

Angove Cane Pruned Shiraz – photo courtesy of Angove Wines

Organic viticulture forces a grower to be more involved with their vineyard, because they’re having to be out amongst it, almost everyday. They need to know what’s going on out there in order for them to be proactive, rather than reactive, whenever disease and weeds become an issue. Mechanical weeding can be a time consuming aspect to organic growing, but Angove have been trialling a few alternatives in recent years.

“Nick Bakkum, our vineyard manager, has been trialling high pressure steam spraying for weed control,” explains Richard, “which is basically a large steam unit fixed to the back of a tractor, and rather than going through and slashing, this jets out a high pressure steam that sprays over the mid row weeds. When you come back to check, 45 minutes later, they’re all dying.”

“We’ve also been using pine oil, because if you look under a pine tree, where the pine needles fall, generally nothing grows,” continues Richard. “That’s because the oil of the pine is a natural weedacide, so we use that to help control weeds as well. It does make the vineyard smell a bit like Pine O Clean…”

By stopping the use of herbacides and other harmful synthetics to remove weeds, and converting over to an organic growing regime, Richard believes that this is ultimately better for the soil, where everything comes from.

“(Since converting to organics) we have much healthier soils,” says Richard, “because at the end of the day, the vines’ roots are in that soil and we want it to be sucking up all of the good stuff, and none of the bad, so that we can produce really good quality fruit.”

Once you achieve good quality fruit, it should follow (provided you have a competent winemaker) that you can make good quality wine.

Steam Trials - photo courtesy of Angove Wines

Steam Trials – photo courtesy of Angove Wines

Angove make organic wine accessible to the everyday wine drinker by producing, amongst others, a selection of wines that can compete with many other wines within a lower price bracket, dispelling the myth that organic wines are always more expensive.

Within their entry level organic range, Angove produce a sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, merlot, and shiraz cabernet, with 70% of the fruit coming from their vineyards in the Riverland, and 30% from the McLaren Vale. The Riverland fruit is machine harvested, while the McLaren Vale is hand-picked.

“Growing grapes in the Riverland provides us with efficiency and good economies of scale,” says Richard, “and the additional component of the McLaren Vale lifts the quality of our wines.”

The Angove Organic range of wines are made with no sulphur additions in the vineyard, or during crushing/pressing, because, under Australian certification standards, an organic wine cannot exceed 150ppm, and Richard says they like to use the least amount of sulphur possible, anyway. Their chardonnay, for example, is fermented using indigenous yeast, and is left on lees while it matures in oak for up to 6 months. A small addition of sulphur is made on the first racking (moving the wine), and then lightly filtered at bottling. Much the same is done for the reds, however, Richard says they will add a cultured yeast to control the ferment to make sure it ferments dry.

“We can’t use a yeast nutrient, like DAP, to help with the ferment,” explains Richard, “so we need to make sure we’re growing the grapes properly and ensure they already contain the right levels of nitrogen in the first place, and mushroom compost is great for doing that.”

There are some winemaking additives that are allowable under Australian organic certification, such as enzymes, acid, or tannin additions, but Richard will always prefer to pick the grapes at the right time, lest he undo all of the hard work done in the vineyard over the last 12 months.

“We try to pick our grapes with good natural acidity and tannin ripeness, so that we don’t have to rely on making any additions at all,” says Richard.

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“We’ve been growing grapes for a hundred odd years,” says Richard, “and we want to be growing grapes for another hundred odd years. The best way to do that is with organics, because we want our vines growing in the best possible soil, so the grapes have got really nice flavors, and so do our wines.”

D// – The Wine Idealist

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Un-compromised Intuition – Woollaston Estate, Nelson, NZ

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“My philosophy with winemaking is uncompromising,” says Shane Munn, winemaker at Woollaston Estate, located in Nelson, at the most northern winegrowing region of New Zealand’s south island. “We let the wine do what it wants to do.”

Woollaston Estate was established in 2000 by the (then) Mayor of Nelson, Phillip Woollaston, who originally set it up as a retirement hobby, before it grew into a fully fledged business. Phillip Woollaston was the Conservation Minister for the New Zealand Labour Party before being elected as Mayor of Nelson in 1992. The Estate is managed organically, having been converted over in 2007 by Julian Coakley, Woollaston’s viticulturist.

“The vineyards weren’t established as being organic,” explains Shane. “Julian began converting them over without telling the owners that’s what he was doing. Once they saw the results (of organics), they asked him if he could expand the regime to include the whole estate.”

Both vineyards were certified organic in 2011 through BioGro.

“Setting up a vineyard organically can be a little less cost effective in the short term,” says Shane, “but once it’s up and going, and you’ve got things working well, it’s as equally cost effective as any conventional vineyard of the same size.”

Mahana Vineyard - photo courtesy of Woollaston Estate

Moutere Hills – photo courtesy of Woollaston Estate

Woollaston is comprised of two separate vineyard sites within Nelson’s coastal region. The Waimea Plains host all of Woollaston’s white grape varieties (sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot gris) on gravelly, free draining soils, while the home vineyard is located 200m above sea level, upon the Moutere Hills, on rich clay-bound soils, which is where all of Woollaston’s pinot noir is grown. The winery is located here also, and is built into the side of the hill.

“The soil from the Waimea Plains, which are free draining, gravelly rocks and boulders, usually show more detailed, delicate and linear aromatics,” says Shane. “They retain their acidity nicely, whereas up in the hills, on the rich, free draining clay, it gives the pinot more textual complexity, with more power and finesse.”

Shane has an intimate knowledge of Woollaston Estates vineyards’, because, ultimately, that is where the wines are coming from. He works closely alongside Julian to drive the vineyards and get them to express their own individual qualities within the different parcels of fruit as they arrive in the winery. His aim is to make site expressive wines.

“Our Waimea Plains white wine vineyard is dead flat,” says Shane. “The soil depth is the same from one corner to the next, so what makes the difference in our wines there is picking decisions. Whereas, the pinot vineyard undulates up, down and across, through four to five valleys, spaning over 20ha, which consists of 22 clones of pinot.”

“When you know exactly where the fruit is coming from after each individual pick, the challenge is to know what to do with each parcel… and it’s a fun challenge,” says Shane.

When it comes to the challenge of making wine from the Woollaston Estate vineyards, Shane takes an uncompromising approach.

“Any sub-standard fruit just doesn’t make it into the winery,” explains Shane, “and you need to take that uncompromising approach if you want to make great wine.”

Woollaston Winery - photo courtesy of Woollaston Estate

Woollaston Winery – photo courtesy of Woollaston Estate

To help Shane make great site driven wines, he is able to utilise Woollaston Estates modern winery, which is gravity-fed and built into the side of the hill. This means the wine is moved through the different winemaking stages using gravity, rather than pumps, and the cellar experiences minimal temperature fluctuations.

“I’ve worked out that we can get our pinot from grape to bottle in five moves, without ever having to use pumps,” says Shane. “We also have our own bottling line, which adds to the authenticity of the product, because we can bottle it whenever we’re ready.”

Shane uses minimal intervention winemaking techniques to produce the wines for Woollaston Estate. Every wine is fermented using indigenous yeast, and Shane doesn’t make any unnecessary additions to bring the wines into being.

“We’ll get visits from sales people, trying to sell us this or that additive or whatever, but because we’re organic we can’t use three quarters of the stuff, anyway,” says Shane, “and we just don’t need them. We’ve most likely already bought some already, but it’s usually gone off before we can use it.”

“I have such great confidence in the fruit, that I just don’t need that sort of stuff,” says Shane.

Despite using minimal intervention winemaking techniques, and not making any unnecessary additions to the wines, Shane stops short of describing himself as a natural winemaker.

“We don’t make natural wines, but we make wines naturally,” explains Shane. “I’m not even trying to make an alternative expression of any particular grape variety, I’m just trying be intuitive, and to express in the wine whatever is happening out there, in the vineyard.”

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D// – The Wine Idealist

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‘From The Earth’ – Yangarra Estate, McLaren Vale, S.A.

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“One of the weaknesses of Australian wine is that many producers try to be all things to every body, and when you do that you tend to lose focus,” says Peter Fraser, Manager and Chief Winemaker at Yangarra Estate, in the McLaren Vale, South Australia.

The first vines to be planted at Yangarra were back in 1946, by Bernard Smart and his father, when the property was first known as ‘Lallah Rookh’ (love nest). They started out by planting grenache in the ironstone sands, approximately 15kms from Gulf St Vincent. In 2000, the less musically inclined Jackson family from America bought the property and re-named it Yangarra, after the aboriginal word, meaning, ‘from the earth’.

Nowadays, the property is a patchwork of many southern Rhône varietals including, roussane, viognier, picpoul noir and picpoul blanc, as well as grenache, shiraz, mataro, cinsault, and carignan, temparanillo, graciano, terret noir, vaccarèse, counoise, muscardin, bourboulenc, and clairette. These diverse varietals sprawl across 146 acres with 100 acres planted to vine, which are separated into 35 different blocks.

Vines From the Earth - photo courtesy of Yangarra Estate

Vines From the Earth – photo courtesy of Yangarra Estate

“My frustration, back in the early days, with Australian wine, particularly in South Australia, was that they were big and gloopy,” explains Peter. “So I wanted to be making wines that were potentially brighter in fruit with much more character of place, and biodynamics is a vehicle that helps us to get there.”

The Yangarra property has been farmed without the use of synthetic inputs and other agrochemicals since 2008, after Peter attended a seminar on biodynamic farming, where the importance of biodiversity in the soil and on the farm was highlighted to him.

“You’ve got all of these biological systems going on in the soil,” explains Peter, “and, by using chemicals, you’re removing their environment and really limiting what the plant can get from the naturally occurring minerals and elements that exist there.”

Peter returned to the property and began explaining his new approach to Yangarra’s viticulturist, Michael Lane, who originally trained as a horticulturist, and has been working with Peter for over 15 years.

“Our main priority (at Yangarra) is to capture the expression of the grape variety in our wines,” says Michael, “and if using biodynamics helps us get to that true expression, then why wouldn’t we use it?”

Peter Fraser - photo courtesy of Yangarra Estate

Peter Fraser – photo courtesy of Yangarra Estate

Making the transition from chemical agriculture to organics or biodynamics can be a daunting decision to make, especially from a financial perspective. Organic and biodynamic growing, of anything, will usually result in lower yields, which means there’s less fruit grown in the vineyard, meaning there’s less wine to make, and therefore sell. When there are bills and other financial commitments to service, those losses in yield, production and therefore potential income, usually means it’s easier to just stick to what you know.

“The first couple of years were the most trying,” says Michael, “but, we were fortunate enough to be able to purchase some specialised equipment. The Jackson family were supportive of what we were doing, so the initial capital outlay made it slightly easier,” he adds.

“Because we’re dry grown, we haven’t seen much decline from transitioning to organics,” explains Peter. “We’re probably down around 15% off our yields compared to a chemically farmed vineyard, but we’ve always aimed for around 3 tonne per acre, which is low anyway, and the vineyard is much healthier now because of how we’re managing it.”

Michael and Peter both describe a change in the overall look and feel of the vineyards at Yangarra, since converting over to biodynamic agriculture, describing it in terms of an unquantifiable feeling of positive energy and emotion.

“For the person who’s used to seeing a perfectly manicured row of vines, our vineyards can look untidy, but I reckon they look much nicer than any chemically sprayed out sites,” says Michael.

“When we apply the biodynamic preparations, there’s some positive emotions associated with spraying those preps out,” explains Michael. “We’re seeing quality increases in our wine, which may be due to biodynamics, because it makes us more focussed on the vineyard. Growing like this means we can’t be reactive, so we need to be proactive to try and prevent disease.”

“It’s like someone who eats junk food all the time,” says Peter. “They’re always having to go to the doctor to get antibiotics, which keeps them relatively healthy, as opposed to someone who simply eats healthy nutritious food, and exercises. The ammonium nitrates and glyphosates of the world are like feeding the vines junk food,” continues Peter. “If we can feed our vineyard in a healthier, more nutritional way that reflects the natural biological systems that existed long before chemicals were introduced, we’re going to have a much healthier vineyard, and more reflective wines.”

Michael Lane and Peter Fraser - photo courtesy of Yangarra Estate

Michael Lane and Peter Fraser – photo courtesy of Yangarra Estate

At first, Peter and Michael were cautious about obtaining certification for Yangarra, but after hearing so many stories that just didn’t seem to stack up, they decided that getting certified was important to show that they were genuine about what they were doing.

“The wine industry is full of stories,” explains Peter, “and out of all that comes some pretty extreme ones. Biodynamics is one of those stories that I see talked about in the marketplace and people will tell you that they’re kind of organic, or kind of biodynamic and it just gets thrown around as just another story to tell. So, we wanted to have the integrity that certification gives you,” continues Peter, “which validates us and cancels out anyone who might call us bullshitters.”

Yangarra’s vineyard and winery has been certified biodynamic since 2013 by Australian Certified Organic.

“Certification doesn’t mean that we’re better than anyone who isn’t,” says Michael, “especially if they truly are genuine and honest about it. But for us, it just shows that we’re committed to what we say we do.”

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So, what about the wine’s that Peter makes?

“The winemaking is all done in the vineyard,” says Peter. “There’s a difference that you see in most of the best producers. The winemaker is as close to the vineyard as they can be, at all times. I live on the property, so I’m always talking with Michael about what we should do, and I’ll always help out with anything that needs to be done, as much as he’ll let me.”

D// – The Wine Idealist

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Microbiological Biodynamics – Churton, Marlborough NZ

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Dr. Mat Goddard, evolutionary biologist and senior lecturer at Auckland University, studies natural yeasts, especially those yeasts involved in winemaking. Recently, he and his team at the Auckland University Faculty of Science, conducted a study into indigenous yeast populations in vineyards throughout the Marlborough. The study compared yeast populations in conventional, organic, and biodynamic vineyards and found that there were larger populations of unique yeast species in organic and biodynamic vineyards, than in conventional ones.

According to the research report, ‘Fungal communities of New Zealand vineyards‘ by Peter Morrison-Whittle, “seven biodynamic vineyards and six conventionally managed vineyards were sampled in the Wairau Valley… Fungal communities of soil and fruit differed significantly between the conventionally managed and biodynamic viticulture vineyards.” *

Sam Weaver studied microbiology at London University and is now a winegrower at Churton, a vineyard property located on the southern hills of Marlborough, between the Waihopai and Omaka Valleys. In 2000, Sam and his wife Mandy planted pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, viognier and petit manseng on the property. In 2012 Mat Goddard and his team of research scientists brought their studies to bear on Sam’s biodynamically managed property, and found not only an increase in yeast species populations, but that Churton is home to 22 strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, 17 of which are unique to Churton’s Saddle and Loin vineyard sites.

According to another report from the same study, ‘Saccharomyces population diversity‘ by Sarah Knight, “one strain found in the Saddle block ferments matched to the commercial strain CY3079. All other strains found (did) not match to any commercial wine yeast or to any characterised international strains… The strains that are unique have never before been seen in New Zealand, nor any other country – given the current available data it is fair to say these (yeast strains) are unique to these sites.” *

Churton Vineyard, Marlborough - photo courtesy of Churton

Churton Vineyard, Marlborough – photo courtesy of Churton

“Churton is very different from the standard Marlborough model,” says Sam, “because we’re elevated 200m above sea level on an east facing ridge, which, on the eastern side, has rolling cliffs between 40-50m that drop down to a river bed, and on the western side is an escarpment that slopes up to 90m above the valley floor.”

Sam was born in the UK to New Zealand parents, who owned a family farm in Shropshire, called Churton. He started on the path to wine as a merchant in London, where he spent 10 years selling fine and rare Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhône Grand crus, before studying microbiology and then travelling to New Zealand and working vintage in Marlborough. Eventually, Sam went on to become chief winemaker at Stoneleigh Wines, before leaving to establish Churton with his wife, Mandy. Sam cites the transition from London wine merchant to Marlborough winegrower as a fairly simple one.

“In those days, there was a certain element of snobbishness in the English wine trade, which I didn’t feel comfortable with,” says Sam. “I much prefer doing things… and I feel much more relaxed around winemaking and farming. I’m a rural boy who was brought up in the country side.”

Sam’s experience selling (and no doubt drinking) some of those fine and rare Grand crus back in London, helped him precisely plan out Churton, which Sam reckons is, “an exceptional piece of land.”

“Because of my European wine experience, I was looking for something which is on a hill,” says Sam. “As far as I’m concerned, winemaking is all about site selection, so we were quite careful about where we chose to plant the vineyard… Hills give you all sorts of advantages, such as air drainage, which in a cold region like Marlborough, which is frost prone, means you’re at a much lower risk.”

The Churton vineyard is divided up into 17 different blocks over 22.5ha. Each block has been specifically planted to make the most out of the different aspects of the hill. For example, all the pinot is planted on east facing slopes to catch the first cool rays of the early morning sun, which then get relatively shielded  from any searing sunlight in the afternoon. Much of the vineyard is composed of wind-blown clay loess, which has excellent water holding capacity and translates to more steady ripening of fruit and, hopefully, better wine.

“I’m trying to aim at a place where we don’t have such high alcohols and that big sweet fruit character, yet still retain good mature tannins and balanced acids,” explains Sam.

Churton Pinot Harvest - photo courtesy of Churton

Churton Pinot Harvest – photo courtesy of Churton

The Churton property is managed using biodynamics, and is certified organic by BioGro.

“For a long time, I thought that (certification) didn’t matter, so long as we did it intrinsically and believed in it,” says Sam, “but because there’s a tendency for so much greenwash, and the SWNZ program, in my opinion, doesn’t go far enough and is confusing, we decided to become properly certified with credible organic certification.”

As a microbiologist, Sam looks at biodynamics from a rational scientific perspective, despite the view that biodynamics isn’t rational, or scientific.

“I think of biodynamics as active biology, and view it as a biological hierarchy in terms of how we manage the property as a single living organism,” says Sam. “The farm is made up of different components but all are interrelated elements of biota. The objective of biodynamics is to look after and encourage microbial ecology, which is the basis for all of biodynamics.”

To encourage this microbial ecology, Churton makes its own compost, which is activated by the biodynamic preparations (502-507), and acts as “a large bioreactor, with the objective being to create large numbers of soil active organisms.” Spreading this compost over the vineyard helps establish and maintain Churton’s microbial population, and, as Mat Goddard’s yeast study suggests, can produce entirely new and unique strains of yeast species.

“Mat found unique species of yeast in our vineyard, which aren’t found anywhere else, some of which are involved in our indigenous ferments in the winery,” says Sam. “So, we have more unique yeast species than a conventional vineyard and also yeasts that are specific to our terroir… I believe by increasing microbial populations in the vineyard, biodynamics specifically links your terroir to your winemaking,” adds Sam.

Harvest at Churton - photo courtesy of Churton

Harvest at Churton – photo courtesy of Churton

All the fruit grown on the Churton property is hand picked and, in the case of the pinot, it all gets de-stemmed, and placed into open top fermenters where it is left alone to start fermenting on its own, courtesy of Churton’s unique wild yeast species. Sam utilises the biodynamic calendar in the winery and leaves the must on skins for a whole lunar month, before it’s pressed off and put into barrel, where it can go through malolactic fermentation whenever it’s ready. The wine is then racked and settled, before being bottled with minimal sulphur.

“The wines have an innate stability and our pH’s tend to be lower,” says Sam. “I have much more confidence in allowing things to happen naturally in the winery, because I know the microbiology is sound. Once you’ve got confidence in your microbiology, you realise you don’t need to add anything to the wine,” he adds.

It’s not often that biodynamics has the benefits of a trained scientist, or a detailed scientific study to support the argument for healthier and more effective forms of agriculture and winemaking. But, there you go…

D// – The Wine Idealist

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*Download: University of Auckland, Biogeography, Yeast Strain, Churton Study – 2013

† ‘This study has been accepted for publication in the IMSE Journal, part of the Nature Publishing Group. The advance online publication will be available to view on IMSE here, soon.’ – Mat Goddard, July 2014.

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‘Natural Wine, Defined’ – The Chicken Nugget Argument

 

What's In That Chicken Nugget? -  npr.org

What’s In That Chicken Nugget? – NPR.org

Placing the word ‘natural’ in front of the word ‘wine’, without any apology, or fear of reprisal, the considered use of quotation marks, or adding the phrase ‘so-called’, in order to soften the divisive blow that strikes upon wine’s face whenever the words natural and wine meet one another, is finally a risk I’m willing to take. There have been many other words prefixed to the word wine to evoke the phrase ‘natural wine’ with the intention of easing the usual automated, antagonised responses that the prefix ‘natural’ seems to conjure up. For example, naked, real, raw, and authentic are all excellent philosophical substitutes that, when all is said and done, really mean to say, that this wine or that wine is, in fact, a natural wine. When these words are used in front of the word wine, they can be more precise, more emotive, even more divisive than the word natural, but, ultimately, when used in reference to wine, what these words really mean, is natural.

The very use of these different words only serves to expose a weakness in natural wines’ armour. When the first arrows are fired from the camp of natural wine critics, they’re usually aimed squarely at the fleshy lack of any definition that natural wines have. And, despite natural wines’ DIY punk philosophy, this lack of definition will not only serve as a pedestal for the critics’ easily won trophies, but also allow for the unscrupulous merchant to enter the natural wine realm with a few bottles of ill-defined booze in tow. Too many times I have drunk or heard of horror stories where colleges and friends have opened a bottle of wine to discover that, yes, the wine does indeed taste like mushroom cider from the back of a cupboard, only to hear the winemaker justify this nonsense in a glass as being a natural wine. Natural winemakers don’t want to make wines that taste like molded mustard spread on green bread. Hell, they shouldn’t even be called natural winemakers! They’re just winemakers, and they want to make wine – good wine, from which people can derive joy, pleasure and excitement. To this end, natural wines need to be defined.

Avani Biodynamic Vineyard, Mornington Penisula - photo by The Wine Idealist

Avani Biodynamic Vineyard, Mornington Penisula – photo by The Wine Idealist

Now, of course by definition, wine isn’t totally natural. Any suggestion that wine can be one hundred percent, utterly and absolutely natural shows a complete lack of understanding towards botany, reproduction and domestication. Vines have evolved on our planet alongside many other species of flora, and the fact that they exist today proves that they are good at doing what they are meant to do; survive and reproduce. The particular variety of vine that has bewitched so many people, long before the natural wine debate of recent years, is vitis vinifera and the only reason it bears fruit at all is not so that we can all happily drink wine (natural or otherwise), but so it attracts birds to eat the berry and carry the seeds, to hopefully be dropped somewhere else with fertile soil, so that a new plant can grow. When vitis vinifera was first domesticated many, many moons ago, it was discovered that if the fruit could be kept away from pesky birds, picked, squashed and stored in something container-like, then after a few months, through some miraculously transformative process called fermentation, the sweet juice inside the fruit could be converted into a tasty drink that contains alcohol, which was not only fun to drink (in moderate amounts), but would actually last a lot longer and fresher than most other available beverages. The very process of harvesting fruit from a grapevine and fermenting it to make wine is, by definition, un-natural and involves some form of manipulation! But, so too is dimethyl dicarbonate – a poisonous sterilising liquid, used to kill yeast and bacteria – which is an allowable ingredient in wine.

There are many other allowable and totally legal additives that can be used to photoshop a wine to get it to taste consistent from year to year. This is because wine, like most other agricultural products, has been turned into a commercial commodity, similar to, say, a chicken (which is, apparently, where chicken nuggets come from). A commercial commodity is something that needs to be available to the faceless consumer at any given moment, no matter where they are, or what time of year it is, such as a can of Coca Cola or a cheeseburger from McDonalds. Unfortunately, as many of the large corporate wineries in the early 1990’s soon found out, wine is an agricultural product, and is subject to the many whims and wants of Mother Nature, which indeed calls for a skilled viticulturist (read farmer) to work with her volatility as best as they can in order to grow some grapes and make some wine. This mentality of wine as a commercial commodity then spawned many other spin-offs, which have been detrimental to a consumers understanding of what wine actually is, or indeed where it comes from! The winemaker is lauded as the superstar of wine, while the viticulturist (read farmer) is relegated to the sidelines as a bit part player in the whole process. This is the same viticulturist (read farmer) who spent at least ten of the last twelve months that it takes to grow grapes, keeping them free from pests and disease, pruning, mowing, weeding, walking, monitoring, reading, listening, looking and learning about the place they were working in. So that, by the end of it all, they could deliver a quality bunch of grapes that can be transformed into wine by the superstar winemaker. The viticulturist, as farmer, plays the most important role in ensuring good quality wine, second only to the vineyard itself. The winemaker, then, becomes a skilled and careful interpreter of these raw materials, much like a chef who carefully creates a delicious meal from quality raw ingredients. In both processes, however, it is the raw materials via the farmer who grows them, that is the most important detail in creating good quality food and wine. The more processing involved, the less qualities can be retained.

Between Five Bells / Lethbridge - Geelong - photo by David Fesq

Between Five Bells / Lethbridge – Geelong – photo by David Fesq

You can still make a decent drop of wine out of poor quality grapes, just like you can make a decent hamburger out of poor quality meat. You just need the right tools and equipment. The list of permitted additives, as listed on the Australian Wine Research Institute website, is well over 200 individual items, each of which is legally permissible as an ingredient in any wine made throughout the world. 89 of those are allowable ingredients for wines made in Australia. Common additives such as citric and tartaric acid are used mainly for flavour enhancement, acid, pH and taste adjustments. Tannins, which are a naturally occurring antioxidant found in grapes already, provide structure to a red (or orange) wine, but can be added from a packet to boost their presence in the wine. Enzymes are naturally occurring compounds, usually extracted from edible plants that can be added to wine to help release juice from pulp and inhibit pectins, and this too is already found naturally in grapes. These are the naturally occurring common additives, but a winemaker can also add stuff like di-methyl-poly-siloxane, which is a silicone-based water repellant, used in wine as an anti-foaming agent. It is also used as an ingredient in silly putty, shampoo and chewing gum. Poly-vinyl-poly-pyrrolidone is a synthetic protein-like substance used to reduce brown colours and bitterness in wine (a great help, in case you use too much tannin), and is made synthetically in factories that produce other plastic products. A winemaker can also add a cultured army of specially designed yeast strains to their wine, which helps make the ferment more efficient (a good thing if the grapes have been sprayed with fungacide et al.), and can even impart a particular flavour to the wine, such as cherry, or banana!

Technology can also play a part in ensuring that poor quality grapes can be turned into a decent wine, (and then into a widget) with techniques such as reverse osmosis, which takes the worry out of careful vineyard management by allowing a winemaker to receive overripe grapes (which contain more sugar and therefore, potentially more alcohol) and simply pass the wine through a membrane of tiny pores at high pressure to separate the smallest molecules in wine – water and alcohol –  from the rest of the liquid. Then, to reduce the alcohol (ie. to correct overripeness) you simply add however much water you want back into the wine.

Et Voila! Deliciously dialed-up wine, which can be replicated year on year without all that fuss and bother of going to the trouble of growing the grapes properly in the first place, picking at the right time, and handling them carefully back in the winery.  

Natural Aus/NZ Wine at Real Wine Fair 2014 - photo by The Wine Idealist

Natural Aus/NZ Wine at Real Wine Fair 2014 – photo by The Wine Idealist

Natural wine, on the other hand, is wine that is made from grapes. Preferably organic or biodynamic grapes, which have been hand picked, fermented using wild or indigenous yeast (yeasts that hang around on the grapes in the vineyard, or in the winery), maturated in a neutral container, such as concrete, stainless steel, or old oak, bottled unfined and unfiltered (sometimes leaving in all the cloudy goodness), and only the minimum amount of sulphur dioxide (70ppm or less) is added, if any, right before bottling. This is to ensure the wine is as stable as it can be, and helps transport the wine further. Reductionist critics of natural wine will sometimes argue why sulphur additions are allowed at all, if a wine is claiming to be natural. If this happens, point them in the direction of the Romans.

For some reason, there is still a debate going on about natural wines. Whether or not they indeed exist, and if they do, whether or not its actually just some divisive marketing propaganda in an attempt to hoodwink everyone into drinking wines that are as individualistic, creative and variable as a live performance of their favourite piece of music. But, better that than having to suffer the routine drudgery and homogenised vanillin swill that would otherwise be poured into our glasses every single day. If it wasn’t for the excitement of volatile vintage variation, wrapped up and expressed in all it’s glorious natural imperfections, courtesy of Mother Nature, a watchful viticulturist and careful winemaker – who in fact doesn’t want to make “wine taste worse than putrid cider” – the very joy, pleasure and excitement we all feel when we’re seized by something that far surpasses anything we could ever dare dream up in any area of life would be wasted. Art, music, poetry, writing, reading, gardening, walking, dreaming, and anything else that inspires you, including wine, would be utterly meaningless. Indeed, life itself would be meaningless. Thank goodness nature abhors a vacuum!

Natural wine exists. It exists without quotation marks or prefixes, or even excellent philosophical substitutes. It exists because it comes from grapes, and that’s all that wine is! If you don’t agree, then show me which part of a chicken the nugget comes from!

D// – The WIne Idealist

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The ‘T’ Word – Clos Henri, Marlborough, NZ

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Nous sommes en pleine croissance axée terroir vin, en utilisant des méthodes biologiques pour le faire.”

New Zealand Translation…

“We’re growing terroir focused wine, using organic methods to do so, bru.”

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Clos Henri, in New Zealand’s famous Marlborough wine region, is located on a 3,000 year old river bed, which sits just above the Wairau seismic fault line, a strike-slip fault system that extends all the way up to Japan. Within this relatively small site (109ha), there are three distinctly different soil types that winemaker Damien Yvon and viticulturist Fabiano Frangi exploit to grow sauvignon blanc and pinot noir.

“We’ve got three different terroirs and only grow two grape varieties,” explains Damien. “Most of the sauvignon blanc is planted on the stones, and most of the pinot is planted on the clay.”

Clos Henri was established in Marlborough by the Bourgeois family from Sancerre, France, in 2000, with the first vines planted on the property in 2001. The Bourgeois family have a long history of growing wine in the Loire Valley, France, where they specialise in sauvignon blanc and pinot noir. The search for new terroir eventually led them to New Zealand only because, “once they arrived here,” says Damien, “they couldn’t go any further!” The aim of the Bourgeois family is to grow wine that clearly expresses the unique terroir of their place, in Marlborough. They do this by growing the grapes organically, and using some elements of biodynamics.

Clos Henri - photo by The Wine Idealist

Clos Henri – photo by The Wine Idealist

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” says Damien. “I believe that we’re not doing anything different, other than going back to the old ways of farming.”

Marlborough is one the easiest places in the world to grow grapes organically, because of it’s dry, mostly sunny climate, persistent winds and large diurnal temperature variation. Disease pressure is kept relatively low, so the need to use chemical sprays, such as fungicides is virtually eliminated. If the aim is to express terroir in the truest possible sense, then growing grapes organically, without the reactive mask of chemical sprays is a no brainer.

“It’s easy to grow organically in Marlborough,” says Damien. “We live in a region where there is no reason why we shouldn’t. If we can’t grow grapes organically here, then we should stop viticulture altogether.”

“For me, growing organically is very good for expressing the terroir,” says vineyard manager Fabino Frangi (Fabi), “and is a huge jump from conventional grape growing. You consider the health of your soil more, and developing the plants own immune systems. As soon as your stop using chemical drugs, the plant can strengthen its own defences against disease.”

Organic viticulture forces a winegrower to be more engaged with their land, listening, watching and responding to signals and signs that the vines are expressing through their different growth cycles throughout the year. When you have a site that is as beautiful as Clos Henri’s, you should want to take care of it as best as you possibly can. After all, what is a viticulturist or vineyard manager, other than a privileged caretaker of an ancient piece of earth?

Sauvignon Blanc, Greywacke River Stone and Mussel Shells - photo by The Wine Idealist

Sauvignon Blanc, Greywacke River Stone and Mussel Shells – photo by The Wine Idealist

“Organics teaches you to observe your farm better,” explains Fabi, “because you have to be out in the vineyard, getting closer to your plants to find out and learn about the certain stresses and pressures it’s experiencing.”

Fabi uses a number of organic inputs to maintain the health and fertility of the soil throughout the vineyard, including essential composting and some biodynamic preparations. He also grazes sheep at various times throughout the year to help out with mowing and cultivating between the vine rows, and spreads out mussel shells from the nearby Marlborough Sounds, which would otherwise be discarded by the mussel farms. The mussel shells are full of calcium carbonate, which can be used as ‘an alternative liming material to restore soil chemical and microbial properties in (a vineyards) soil, and to increase crop productivity.‘ 

“We’ve noticed that the soil is much softer in our vineyard and can hold water better, which allows the roots to grow deeper,” explains Fabi. “We try not to irrigate that much, but if we do, we irrigate for long hours to give the plants one big drink. Instead of three times a week, we might do it once every second week, or less.”

Less irrigation means that the roots of the vine are forced to seek out their own natural water source in order to survive and thrive, and there are many natural aquifers beneath the dirt in Marlborough. Deeper roots systems make for healthier and more balanced vines, which, in turn, produces better quality fruit – the essential element to any wine professing to express terroir.

Damien Yvon and Fabiano Frangi - photo by The Wine Idealist

Damien Yvon and Fabiano Frangi – photo by The Wine Idealist

“Respect for the fruit is the ultimate thing,” says Damien, who works closely with Fabi out in the vineyard to ensure that what is arriving in his winery every vintage is of the highest quality. “We make site specific wines here, which are authentic expressions of our terroir.”

Clos Henri only grows sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, and each grape variety is planted site specifically on particular soils throughout the vineyard. Damien makes three styles of Clos Henri wine grown on these specific soil sites. Their flagship sauvignon blanc comes from the free draining Greywacke River Stone segment of the vineyard, while their flagship pinot comes from a combination of Broadbridge and Wither clay soils directly opposite.

Their second tier wines, Bel Echo, come from fruit which is planted on the opposite side of the flagship wines. So, the sauvignon blanc is grown on clay, while the pinot comes from the river stone, hence the word echo. This careful attention to detail during the planning and planting stages of the vineyard has resulted in a set of wines that truly capture and express their own unique provenance and terroir.

“I don’t want people drinking our wines and identifying them just as coming from the Marlborough,” says Damien, “I want them to know they’re drinking wine that comes from here (Clos Henri).”

D// – The Wine Idealist

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˚Clos Henri are certified organic through BioGro, and are members of MaNa.

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‘Giving Nature a Freehand’ – Freehand Wines, WA

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On a north-east facing ridge, which slopes down towards the banks of the Hay River near Mount Barker, in Western Australia’s Great Southern wine region, there lies a biodynamically managed vineyard, flanked by Blue Gums and olive trees, set against a big sky, and comprised of shiraz, merlot, cabernet, semillon and sauvignon blanc wine grape varieties. The 6ha family owned property is managed by Matt Eastwell, a musician who used to write punk songs in his early 20’s, and now spends his time spraying out preparation 500 and fermenting grapes to make wine for his relatively new label, Freehand Wines.

“I spent my early 20’s playing in bands,” says Matt, “and I wanted to keep on the path of creativity, but study something at uni that I could eventually make a living out of.”

Matt studied a double degree of oenology (winemaking) and viticulture at Curtain University, in Perth, where his passion for creativity was sated by the art of fermentation. Despite his degree only making the slightest nod to organics and biodynamics as a viable alternative to agrochemical winegrowing, it was on a field trip to Cullen, in Margaret River, that Matt was properly exposed to BD for the first time.

“At uni, we had a field trip out to Cullen and I was struck by the health and vitality of the vineyard, versus other vineyards we’d been to,” says Matt.

Matt explains that seeing biodynamics in action on the Cullen vineyard was like flicking a switch, which changed his approach to managing his family’s vineyard, almost immediately.

“Biodynamics really caught my attention, because it’s like organics but with extras, and it just makes a lot of sense and resonates with me,” says Matt. “It’s like it flicks a switch and you think ‘well, if this can work, why would you do it any other way?'”

Freehand Vineyard - photo courtesy of Freehand Wines

Freehand Vineyard, Great Southern WA – photo courtesy of Freehand Wines

The Eastwell Estate vineyard, where the Freehand wines come from, was converted over to biodynamics (not certified) in 2008, despite being told many times by others in the region that it just wouldn’t work. Since then, Matt has noticed he’s a lot more engaged with what’s happening out amongst his vines, and is seeing an increase in overall fruit quality during vintage.

“The colours and the flavours in the reds we picked this year are just amazing,” explains Matt. “Every year we get better and better at what we do and I feel like I’m more in front of the vineyard. We based our picking decisions, this year, on the BD calendar and I used it to pick on fruit days and really saw a difference in the quality (of fruit) we picked.”

“Except during vintage when we hand pick, we do everything ourselves,” says Matt. “We do all the spraying, slashing, weeding, pruning, shoot thinning… because we’re cool climate we get a bit of rain so we need to keep the canopy open to reduce disease pressure. We work hard to reduce fruit load by paring things back to increase the airflow, which has really made a big difference.”

Matt has been making wine since 2003, initially salvaging whatever fruit he could from that which was left behind by some of the bigger winemaking companies in the region he sold his fruit to. It wasn’t until 2010 when Matt really put his hand to the plow and began making wine for his own label, Freehand Wines.

Grape Marc for Composting - photo courtesy of Freehand Wines

Grape Marc for Composting – photo courtesy of Freehand Wines

Freehand Wines are made without any winemaking additions, including acid, tannin, enzymes or sulphur, not even at bottling. Matt makes preservative free wines, but they aren’t, what many proponents of these types of wines would call natural wines, because he inoculates with a packet yeast.

“We inoculate using a packet yeast to get the fermentation up and going, quicker and earlier,” says Matt. “We want to retain the purity of fruit we’re getting from our vineyard, and because we don’t sulphite the must, we made the decision to get the ferment going as quickly as possible with an inoculum. It’s going to give us faster CO2 coverage and help us to keep that fruit purity that we’re really chasing… it’s a calculated decision,” says Matt.

Once the ferment has stopped and the skins, stems and seeds have been pressed off, the left over grap marc is piled onto the composting bays Matt has built, which then get broadcast back out over the vineyard to prepare for the next vintage. By doing this, Matt believes that he can cultivate a specific set of yeast strains that he has grown up in the winery, which will eventually become the basis for his move over to wild yeast ferments.

“If we decide to use indigenous yeast, which we’d really like to do at some point, we’d probably still inoculate,” explains Matt. “I would go out into the vineyard the day before and pick a small sample of grapes, crush them and get that natural ferment going, so that when I bring in the larger amounts of fruit, I can inoculate with that starter culture. This would still be a cultured yeast, but it’d be an indigenous cultured yeast,” says Matt.

In a way, Matt is a bit like an immigration officer for particular strains of yeast cultures. Ensuring the future prosperity of his vineyard and the quality of wine that grows there.

“Because the vineyard had been managed using chemicals before I owned it, I now want to make sure that the indigenous yeasts that are in the vineyard are the one’s I want,” says Matt.

Matt Eastwell - photo courtesy of Freehand Wines

Matt Eastwell – photo courtesy of Freehand Wines

Aside from the packet yeast inoculation, Matt makes no other additions to his wines. The whites are run through a course filtration, “just to brighten them up a little bit,” but the reds are bottled without any fining or filtration, and both whites and reds contain no added sulphur at bottling. The decision to make preservative free wine stems from Matt’s love of drinking natural wines and not wanting to undo all the hard work he’s done throughout the year, in the vineyard, just when it matters most.

“We’re growing fruit biodynamically, so to go and add anything synthetic to the wine seems like a backward step. In our minds, to not add sulphur, if we can do it, is almost like the holy grail of winemaking.”

D// – The Wine Idealist

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‘Gift Giving’ – d’meure wines – Tasmania

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Global warming is a clear and present danger that looms upon the world’s horizon, threatening to dissolve away not only our ice caps and shorelines, but life as we know it. The accelerated and continual rise in average temperatures in our oceans and in the air around us, year on year since the industrial revolution, has made for more severe global weather patterns and an overall increase in warmer mean temperatures throughout the world. Good news, if you live in Tasmania.

Tasmania is Australia’s most southerly grape growing region, and is experiencing some of the rarified positive effects of global warming. In recent years, warmer temperatures throughout the world have made it easier for grapes to ripen in the region, which in turn has seen an increase in quality from the wines that are grown there. One such vineyard was planted back in the early 90’s and is owned and managed by Dirk Meure of d’meure wines. Located in Birchs Bay on the shores of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, which overlooks Bruny Island, 40km south of Hobart, it is one of Australia’s most southerly planted vineyards.

“Wine is a gift from nature, and we respond to that gift with gratitude,” says Dirk Meure. “If you start from there, all the rest follows.”

d'meure Vineyards, Birchs Bay, TAS - photo courtesy of Dirk Meure

d’meure Vineyards, Birchs Bay, Tasmania – photo courtesy of Dirk Meure

Dirk is an academic, born of migrant Dutch parents, who settled in Tasmania after World War II. He studied law and was admitted as a barrister in Hobart, before moving to the UK in 1970 and taking up an academic position, working in Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol universities. In 1975 he returned to Australia and spent the next 25 years working as a law academic at the University of New South Wales. Then, in the year 2000, Dirk retired and returned home to Tasmania, where he bought a vineyard and set about leaning how to grow grapes and make wine.

“As an academic, I was privileged to have enjoyed lots of beautiful wines, especially in Europe, so I had some idea of what a beautiful wine should taste like,” says Dirk. “The local TAFE offered a viticulture course, which I completed while doing lots of reading on my own about wine and its processes.”

While Dirk was studying, he employed a vineyard manager to look after his vines, which were managed conventionally with agrochemicals. In 2004, Dirk took on the management of the vineyard full time and set about converting it to biodynamics, having been exposed to Steiner’s philosophies while studying. Dirk also experienced biodynamics first hand in his travels throughout Burgundy, one of the most prominent regions to use the biodynamic farming method.

“We don’t use any herbicides, so we use a brush cutter to manage growth underneath the vines,” explains Dirk. “The disease pressure here is mainly for powdery mildew, not so much downey mildew, so we spray with sulphur and eco-carb (a natural potassium bicarbonate based fungacide), and sometimes a bit of copper if we need to. We also use seaweed sprays in conjunction with the biodynamic preparations, mainly 500 and occasionally 501 to help bump up the baumé,” says Dirk.

Dirk attended the biodynamic conference at Castagna in Victoria, in 2003, a conference which was the catalyst for conversion for many present day biodynamic winegrowers throughout Australia. These included Paxton in the McLaren Vale, Lark Hill in the Canberra District, and Macquariedale in the Hunter Valley. Like many of the winegrowers who attended that three-day event, Dirk immediately began the conversion of his vineyards over to biodynamics because he believes that BD offers a way back to the soil, away from the technology-fueled, dehumanised nature of modern agriculture.

“Biodynamics puts winegrowing back into reality, in a way,” say Dirk. “Science starts with observation and note taking, and working empirically with what’s actually there in a particular place. I observe and respond to my place, my vineyard, and use all of the tools (of biodynamics) I have at my disposal to get the best out of it.”

One of the most common arguments against the practice of biodynamics, in light of scientifically led conventional agriculture, are the spiritual aspects of BD.

“The danger of biodynamics, as with anything, is that you can become as equally dogmatic and self-righteous as the so called ‘other side’. I think keeping an open mind and listening to what other people are doing is important… and you’d be a fool not to do that,” says Dirk.

Steiner was writing about what was happening in 19th century Europe with small farms being taken over by chemicals, right at the start of modern, industrial agriculture. So, it’s important to contextualise some of the more philosophical and spiritual aspects of his lectures within Steiner’s own time.

“We can’t just take what (Steiner) was writing about, holus-bolus, in Germany at that particular time and apply it to the here and now. But, the methodology and the spirit and intuitions that he wrote about can be translated to our time, provided they don’t become dogmatic,” says Dirk. “With the absence of chemicals it’s a lot nicer to work in my vineyard, you don’t have to mask up…  it’s a big joy.”

Chardonnay - photo courtesy of Dirk Meure

Chardonnay – photo courtesy of Dirk Meure

As with most biodynamic winegrowers, Dirk believes that it is redundant to manipulate the fruit from his vineyard too heavily back in the winery. He prefers to coax the grapes through the transformative process of wild fermentation in order to create the wine, which Dirk sees as a gift from nature.

“Wine is like nature’s poetry. It’s a gift of nature and you don’t want to put yourself in front of it and say ‘I’m the gift giver’, because I’m not the gift giver, I’m only sharing the gift,” explains Dirk. “We should respond to this gift, as with all gifts, with gratitude, rather than just forgetting all about the vineyard where the wine actually comes from.”

As the saying goes, ‘nothing added, nothing taken away’, and so Dirk does very little to actually convert the grape on the vine into a bottle of d’meure wine. No yeast cultures, no acid, tannin or any of the other usual additions are used, and no new oak, and no fining or filtration. d’meure wines are natural wines.

“If I add a manufactured, cultured yeast that I can choose out of a catalogue, such as a yeast that gives my wines a cherry flavour, or is a particular strain of killer yeast, what I’m adding is something out of a packet that wasn’t there in the first place, which kills or masks anything that is indigenous to the fruit that I’ve actually gone to the trouble of growing,” says Dirk.

“I can add enzymes and tannin, use bentonite or fish and egg products to fine my wine, rather than leave it in the barrel long enough for it to do so on its own. All of these processes are just cosmetic or market driven stuff…. but, by doing all this, all you have left is a sterile product… you’ve got to do something which retains some integrity of the work you’ve done in the vineyard,” says Dirk.

d’meure wines do contain sulphur, which Dirk adds right at the end, just before bottling.

“I adjust the already present levels of sulphur (as a result of fermentation) to about 15ppm, which is incredibly low (the maximum allowable limit is 300ppm for Australian wines),” explains Dirk.

Some would argue that Dirk’s way of ‘making’ wine is lazy, but he just counters that argument by saying, “if the product was undrinkable, then I suppose it is lazy winemaking, but I haven’t heard too many complaints… I’m doing the work in the vineyard and I’m being true to the integrity of the fruit that’s being produced, rather than being heavy handed.”

Dirk Meure - photo courtesy of Dirk Meure

Dirk Meure – photo courtesy of Dirk Meure

The d’meure vineyard is not certified, because Dirk doesn’t think it’s worth the time or the money to do so.

“You’d be mad to be certified,” says Dirk. “Certification is used for marketing purposes. For me, the wine should speak for itself, because if I’m serious about taking the responsibility of growing and managing the vineyard, I can’t hand over the decision-making to people in an office somewhere, away from the vineyard.”

“At the end of the day, it’s what’s inside the bottle, rather than what’s on the label, and besides, I only make around 300 cases a year, so I’m too small for (certification) to be worth my while,” he adds.

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Nature, the eternal gift giver, has found Bacchus a new home amongst the vineyards of Tasmania, and Dirk has taken advantage of her accord by sharing these gifts with us. We should be thankful that his wine arrives in our glass untainted, as a true and pure expression of place.

“I’m the beneficiary of someone who’s found a beautiful place to grow some grapes and make some wine. My role as custodian of this place is a great gift.”

D// – The Wine Idealist

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