‘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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‘Secrets of the Subsoil’ – Mount Edward, Central Otago, N.Z.

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“If you really want to push the boundaries and express what you say you’re trying to express, ie. ‘that wine comes from that vineyard’, then you can’t be using chemicals,” says Duncan Forsyth, “otherwise… give me a break.”

Duncan Forsyth is part ‘recalcitrant, insubordinate, revolutionist, and mischievous’ owner, winemaker and General Manager of Mount Edward, a wine label from Central Otago, New Zealand, which was established in 1994, in the sub-region of Gibbston. Set below cool wisps of white cloud and the twin peak ranges of the Gibbston Valley, about 25 minutes drive from Queenstown, Mount Edward grows site specific wines that aim to reflect the stunning enclosures and dramatic summits of the Earth’s most southern winegrowing region.

Mount Edward, Gibbston Valley - photo courtesy of Mount Edward

Mount Edward, Drumlin Vineyard – photo courtesy of Mount Edward

“We’re not interested in producing varietal or regionally driven wines as our end result,” says Duncan. “At the moment, we have a few of those and they’re good, but ultimately, we want to walk the talk of vineyard based wines, which is easier said than done, for most people.”

Mount Edward have a number of different vineyards they use to make their wines from, including three estate owned sites located in Lowburn and Bannockburn, in the sub-region of Cromwell. Plus, the Drumlin vineyard, which was the first Mount Edward vineyard to be planted in 1994 by Alan Brady, the label’s original owner. Each of these three vineyards are managed organically and are certified by BioGro. Mount Edward also use a number of other growers’ vineyards to make their wine, which are spaced around Central Otago, and are either certified organic, or currently in conversion.

“What we’re finding is that when you start using organics and biodynamics, because we use elements of both practices, our vineyards are in much better health, than if we were using anything artificial,” says Duncan. “We wanted no outside influences or inputs from these types of fertilisers, weed sprays and so on.”

Central Otago soils are made up, mostly, of schist, loess and alluvial gravels, as a result of glacial out-washes over 40 million years ago. Most of the soils here are low on organic matter, which is compounded by super low rainfall and, as a result, a lot of the beneficial nutrients, minerals, microbes and bacteria that help nourish a vine and allow it to grow are locked away deep down within the subsoil. Duncan believes that by not using synthetic chemical fertilisers and herbicides, his vineyards are much healthier and the roots of the vines are better able to forage further to reach that all important subsoil goodness.

“Everywhere will have similar topsoil, but all vineyards will have a different and unique subsoil,” explains Duncan, “and if you want to express that in a transparent way, the uniqueness of your soil, whatever it gives you, then you have to allow the vine the ability to discover that subsoil and gain the nutrients and minerals that helps to give your wine that sense of uniqueness, specific to your vineyard.”

“For us, being organic, is about having a vineyard that is healthy and allows the vines to reach the subsoil terrain in order to get what it needs,” continues Duncan, “rather than feeding it all those synthetic fertilisers, which makes the vines lazy and less expressive.”

Barrel Ferment - photo courtesy of Mount Edward

Chardonnay Barrel Ferment – photo courtesy of Mount Edward

Unlocking the secrets of the subsoil and expressing that through wine, so that the wine is distinctly unique and exclusive to that site, that place, is one of the greatest achievements any winegrower could ever hope to accomplish when producing wine. Without that element of distinction, a wine can easily slip into the realms of any ordinary alcoholic beverage derived from grapes. Organic and biodynamic farming principals, when applied to viticulture, allow for that distinction to manifest itself more easily, than if it were done so with poisons.

“If you really want to make or grow a wine that has a marker for a certain vineyard, then the only way to do that is to do it organically,” says Duncan, “because you have to promote the best environment for the vine to express that, and you cannot tell me that the best environment is achieved by using synthetic chemicals and fertilisers… it’s nonsense.”

“I’m not saying you can’t make good wines… but, how much better could it be?” continues Duncan. “Ultimately, you’re growing something, so why would you not want it to be the healthiest it could possibly be? Ask anyone who’s sceptical if their vege garden is also sprayed with herbicide and chemical fertilisers. Unless you’ve actually gone there and seen (organics), then don’t tell me it’s just not better… not many people go over to organics or biodynamics and then move back again,” says Duncan.

Due to the large diurnal temperature range, Central Otago wines are known for their high acidity, especially within the white wines of the region. These wines are able to achieve a vivid freshness and vitality that lifts, in particular, the rieslings from this region to cool, refreshing heights. But these are mostly regional characteristics, so how does Mount Edward express site specific characteristics in their wines? Duncan says it’s all to do with texture.

Duncan Forsyth (L) and winemaker, Anna Riederer (R) - photo courtesy of Mount Edward

Duncan Forsyth (L) and winemaker, Anna Riederer (R) – photo courtesy of Mount Edward

“Fruit is the flesh of the wine,” explains Duncan. “The bones are the phenolics, which are kept up or down by acidity, which is how we look at it. So then the question is, as a winemaker, how much flesh do you want over the bones? Do you want something that’s big and fleshy in the mouth, or do you want something that’s leaner, where you can see right through the wine.”

“A typical Central Otago pinot noir” continues Duncan, “can easily achieve that big, ripe, fleshy, fruit,  which is a regional characteristic. But, at that point you can’t see through it and it becomes all about variety and the regional take on that variety. More interesting wines will have multiple layers, which includes texture and phenolics and, for me, that’s where the markers lie for each individual vineyard.”

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D// – The Wine Idealist

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‘Organic Convictions’ – Harris Organic Wines, Swan Valley, W.A.

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“Chemicals are expensive and not good for you, or the environment,” says Duncan Harris from Harris Organic Wines, in the Swan Valley, 30 minutes drive north-west of Perth, Western Australia, “so it’s safer to just leave them out.”

Duncan Harris is a Swan Valley winegrower and was brought up on a mixed farm in Tasmania, with chickens, sheep, cattle, barley, peas, wheat, and even potatoes. He left home and headed north to Melbourne, to study mechanical engineering, before arriving in Perth in 1993. By ’98, he’d bought a property in the burgeoning region of Swan Valley, and set about planting a vineyard on two, of his three hectare property.

“The only thing growing up on the farm in Tasmania taught me was how to start a tractor,” says Duncan. “I picked up grape growing and winemaking from reading books and chatting with some very helpful neighbors (in W.A.), and there’s still plenty of things still to learn,” he says.

Duncan manages his property using organic methods of viticulture, and has done so since the very beginning. The first vines were planted in 1999, and Duncan continued planting until 2002. His vineyard now consists of a mix of different varietals including verdelho, chardonnay, chenin blanc, shiraz, malbec, pedro and muscadet. It was certified in 2006 and he is the only certified organic (ACO) wine producer in the Swan Valley.

“Certification does cost a lot, but it’s important for assuring your product is what you say it is,” explains Duncan. “There are just too many in the wine industry, and elsewhere, who say they’re organic, but are not certified, or have been and since dropped certification, but are still pretending to be so.”

Harris Organic Vineyard - photo courtesy of Harris Organic Wines

Harris Organic Vineyard – photo courtesy of Harris Organic Wines

The Harris Wines vineyard is dry grown, with Duncan choosing not to irrigate the vines. Instead, they must delve down deep into the heavy clay subsoil in search of water and other essential nutrients in order to survive. This, Duncan says, makes the vineyard healthier, stronger and better able to resist any disease pressure the vineyard may face.

“It’s quite easy to grow organically here, mainly because of our high temperatures, and dry summers,” says Duncan, “and a non-irrigated organic vineyard can certainly be achieved in this climate, and still produce grapes of quality that are just as good as anywhere else…. you can see how much work we put into the vineyard from how healthy it looks.”

Duncan says that his vines are, ‘free range vines’, and he does everything by hand. From the pruning in the winter, to the harvesting in the summer, Duncan spends a lot of time in his vineyard. And, because organic growing prohibits the use of any synthetic chemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides being sprayed onto the vineyard, Duncan must remove weeds manually, by using what’s called a silly plough. This is a special under vine weeder that is maneuvered in and out around the base of the vine, turning the weeds up, out and over in the process. This is an effective way to remove weeds away from the vine rows, without having to use conventional poisons, such as glyphosate.

While Duncan whole-heartedly subscribes to organic methods of viticulture to manage and maintain the health and vitality of his property, he doesn’t have any plans to move into biodynamics, because he is sceptical of its methods.

“I’m sceptical of biodynamics,” says Duncan. “I can’t, for the life of me, see how stirring water and adding small doses of something to it is going to make any difference, in a homeopathic sense, in the vineyard… if someone can come along and give me the scientific basis for biodynamics, I’d be happy to embrace it.”

Duncan Harris - photo courtesy of Harris Organic Wines

Duncan Harris Throwing Fruit – photo courtesy of Harris Organic Wines

When it comes to winemaking, Duncan hand picks the fruit, and will inoculate the ferment with “natural yeasts,” from grapes picked from within the vineyard, a week before harvest starts. Duncan is against making unnecessary additions to his wines, but he does reserve the right to make some, including tartaric acid for acid adjustment, bentonite clay for clarification and sulphur dioxide, which under Australian organic certification standards cannot exceed 150ppm (150mg/L).

“All wines that are of a dry style have acid additions,” explains Duncan, “because the grapes will have a higher sugar content (meaning high potential alcohol) than what we’d like to pick them at. If we picked any earlier, we would get very green characters in the wines… A typical saying in the Swan Valley is, ‘acid in the must is a must’, ” says Duncan. “We do this to achieve acid balance in the wine.”

Duncan also adds ‘fluffy white tannin’, which is a specially formulated tannin compound used for white wines (and also mead) to provide structure and prevent oxidation and browning. From a sensory perspective, it can contribute to a softer mouthfeel and an increased perception of sweetness, without adding sugars. Duncan makes no additions to the wines that have 10 grams of residual sugar or more.

“All my natural dessert wines have no acid additions or any other additions,” explains Duncan, “as they are made from semi dried vine ripened fruit with concentrated acid levels due to the shrivelling.” There is no refrigeration used, no fining, no filtering, just well grown grapes are used to make these organic dessert wines.

In 2001, Duncan built an underground cellar, which provides naturally cooler storage temperatures, while reducing electricity costs. The red wines are stored down here, along with some of the port and brandy that he makes under the Harris Organic Wine label. Duncan also makes certified organic vodka from the left over grape marc, in Australia’s only certified organic distillery. Whatever is left over after making the wine, brandy and vodka goes straight onto compost piles, to eventually finds it’s way back onto the vineyard, where it first came from.

“We use everything that we can get from the vineyard,” says Duncan. “We use the whole of the product… we’re not holistic, but wholesome. Nothing goes to waste.”

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D// – The Wine Idealist 

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‘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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