‘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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‘The Rising Tide of Organic Wine in Australia’ – The Wine Idealist

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The idea of letting mother nature take care of things in the vineyard to make for healthier vines, and better tasting wines might seem a little crazy than conventional wisdom would suggest, but the zeitgeist is starting to change.

Consumers are becoming more aware of the food and drink choices they make, which is reflected in the increase in certified organic products available in the supermarket, as well as the many weekend farmers’ markets conducted across Australia today.

Bernard Salt, an Australian demographer and author of The Big Tilt, a book about the Gen-Xers and -Ys taking over from the Baby Boomers, explains how we once lived as ‘in the moment consumers’ – wanting things either right now, or as quickly as possible. Nowadays, he argues we are “seeking redemption for our wrongs” and making more moral, ethical and environmental choices as a motivation for our consumption. This is perhaps reflected most poignantly in our choice of organic and sustainable foods, such as wine.

Mustard Plant and Rye Grass Cover Crops at Tamburlaine - photo by The Wine Idealist

Mustard Plant and Rye Grass Cover Crops at Tamburlaine – photo by The Wine Idealist

Mark Davidson, managing director of Tamburlaine, Australia’s largest producer of certified organic wine, says that they are seeing an increased market share throughout the country.

“The reason doors are opening is because people want organic options. This is a trend that’s way different to how people responded five years ago,” says Mark. “Every decent, self-respecting restaurant now wants and needs to have organic wines on their lists because that’s a part of the smorgasbord of what people want to see in a decent place.”

Stuart Knox, owner and sommelier at Fix St James, in Sydney, agrees there has been an increase in his customer’s awareness about organic wine options.

“There has certainly been more talk recently,” says Stuart. “I have noticed in the almost seven years at Fix that we’ve gone from people actively avoiding organic wines and not knowing that these wines even exist, to now having a good understanding of them.”

While there is more acknowledgement of organic wines, is the fact that a wine is organic enough for people to drink it? Initially, maybe, but not so to keep drinking it. According to the most recent Organic Market Report, 2012, commissioned by the Biological Farmers of Australia Ltd. (BFA), “most consumers rate the chemical and additive free attributes, enhanced nutrition and taste as the most important benefits of organics to them.”

Most of us understand that organic viticulture produces wines without the use of artificial and synthetic chemicals. But more than that, it emphasises making use of the vineyard’s own natural eco-system to increase the vine’s own natural immune systems. Rather than relying on chemicals to treat problems when they arise, organics promotes the ease in dis-ease, so that the chances of problems arising are reduced. If they do, the plant’s natural defences should be resilient enough to combat it.

Rod Windrum, owner and chief winemaker at Krinklewood Biodynamic Vineyards in the Hunter Valley, explains how being proactive works for them.

“We grow a diversity of grass species in amongst the vine rows, which provides natural habitat for bug life so they are not attracted to the vines, rather than waiting for the bugs to be a problem.”

Similar practices are in place at McLaren Vale vineyard Battle of Bosworth.

“Our symbol is the yellow Sour Sob, which is considered a weed worldwide, but we encourage it in our vineyards to out-compete other weeds in winter and spring, which then forms a natural weed mat in summer,” says winemaker and owner Joch Bosworth. “Sulphur and, in some years, copper are used to prevent fungal diseases and, most importantly, the very simple techniques of spacing of spurs by quality pruning to allow light in and air movement… most diseases are knocked out by sunlight and the faster a vine dries out after rain, the less chance of disease you have. It is pretty simple really.”

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Rod Windrum , Krinklewood – photo by The Wine Idealist

The organic theory further posits that by not utilising synthetic chemicals, and other off-farm inputs, the vineyard is healthier and more able to produce better quality fruit, which should make for better wine. Of course, the winemaker plays an important role in this process, and it is just as easy to make a bad wine from good grapes, as it is to make bad wine from bad grapes. But, in the hands of a well skilled winemaker, one who is attuned to what’s occurring out amongst the vines, the quality grapes that can be grown from organic practices is destined to make good wine.

Along with better vineyard management techniques, the improved winemaking skills of those working with organic fruit has led to the overall quality and taste of organic wines improving markedly in the past 10 years. In doing so, consumers who seek out organically grown wines are enjoying not only the benefits, but also the taste.

“Organic wines are much better now than years gone by,” agrees Joch Bosworth. “This is because more attention is paid to the vineyard these days and organic viticulture is seen as one of the best ways to achieve a balanced vine and the resultant best fruit quality and wine potential. Many of Australia’s best producers have turned to organic practices in pursuit of quality,” Joch continues. “Just in the McLaren Vale, other than ourselves, Paxton, Gemtree, Angoves, and Yangarra are all certified organic or biodynamic, or well on the way.”

For Mark Davidson, the shift to organic vineyard management, and a more sustainable business model, has had a massive effect on the way Tamburlaine operates.

“It’s changed our attitude to communication with our customers, it’s changed our positioning in terms of our retail presence, and it’s changed our orientation in terms of who we like to partner with, such as community organisations and non-government organisations,” says Mark.

In addition, the focus on organics has led to major cost savings. In 2010, Tamburlaine’s energy bill was over $200,000 per annum; with the introduction of waste water management processes, solar panelling, and other energy savings measures, Tamburlaine’s energy bill, in 2013, was at an estimated $80,000 per year… and this is at a time of rising energy costs. Furthermore, they’ve reduced their carbon footprint by 55%, from 1500 tonnes of CO2 in 2010, to just 670 in 2013.

Joch Bosworth - Battle of Bosworth - photo courtesy of Battle of Bosworth

Joch Bosworth – Battle of Bosworth – photo courtesy of Battle of Bosworth

For some organic producers, certification is an important aspect of what they do as it is a way to establish trust with the consumer, quickly and easily, and most importantly, honestly.

“Certification is important to assure consumers that what they are getting really is organic,” says Joch Bosworth. “I have been told countless times by other growers that they are almost organic and only put on a couple of roundup sprays a year.”

But nearly organic is not organic. Consumers looking for organic wines can see the certification logos printed on the labels. This ensures that what they are buying is truly organic or biodynamic. To get this logo and be certified is costly (both in terms of money, and time) that can take up to four years to achieve. Organisations such as Australia Certified Organic (ACO), and NASAA (National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia) provide strict guidelines that must be followed, by law, before producers can obtain organic certification.

However, there are some organic and biodynamic producers who choose to remain un-certified, usually for financial, or even political reasons. Many don’t feel the need to certify because they don’t see it as part of their marketing strategy. They choose an organic/biodynamic method of winemaking because they believe it leads to better wine and therefore the superior wine quality is what will sell their product.

Whether certified or not, there is little doubt that organic viticulture is on the rise. According to figures from the Australian wine industry, the total certified organic grape production in 2012 was estimated at over two million dollars and that is expected to grow exponentially over the next decade. Increased access to information, along with building consumer pressure, and the trailblazing successes of iconic winegrowers such as Henschke and Cullen, will ultimately drive the wine industry further down the path of true sustainability.

In truth, organic viticulture is nothing new in parts of the old world wine regions of Europe, but as Australian winegrowers slowly move away from the technology, and chemistry-fueled halcyon days of the Aussie wine industry boom, and start to acknowledge the notion of provenance and place expressed in their wines, sustainability will become a sink or swim issue, and organics could just provide the life raft.

D// - The Wine Idealist

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**This article was originally published in Issue 28 of Selector magazine, summer, 2013.

 

Observe and Report – The Antipodean Biodynamic Calendar

 

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The biodynamic agriculture method uses a number of tools to provide sustainable soil fertility and management practice of a particular property – for example, a vineyard - whilst recognising the link between plant growth and the rhythms of the Earth and cosmos above us. Using various natural fertilisers, compost teas and preparations, such as 500, 501 and so on, up to 508, biodynamics encourages the farmer, gardener, or winegrower, to reconnect with their property by engaging in, learning from observation, and reporting on the various activities that are occurring every day, week, month and year, throughout their property.

An effective biodynamic farmer will utilise a specific calendar, known as the biodynamic calendar, which specifies important information, such as lunar phases, that help with organising and executing various planting and spraying regimes. With regards to wine, many biodynamic winemakers use the calendar to plan racking, bottling and any other activities that occur whenever the wine is to be moved. In Australia, and New Zealand many biodynamic farmers and winegrowers use the Antipodean Astro Calendar, created by Brian Keats, one of biodynamics most informed proponents.

“I see the Earth as an organism, rather than a lump of dirt,” says Brian, “and my quest has been to try and understand the pulses and rhythms of the Earth so that I can work more strongly with them.”

Stuart Proud - Thousand Candles Viticulturist - photo by The Wine Idealist

Stuart Proud Uses the BD Calendar at Thousand Candles, Yarra Valley – photo by The Wine Idealist

Brian Keats grew up in Zimbabwe, and spent his early 20′s travelling the world, “searching for something,” ending up in India around Christmas time, in 1974. Whilst preparing to go hiking in the Himalayas, Brian became inspired by the night sky, and started to teach himself astronomy. He arrived in Australia in 1976, got inspired by the ‘back to land movement‘ and, with some money he’d earned working with computers, he was able to buy a small farm in the Nambucca Shire, in NSW, where he built his own house and grew sub-tropical fruit, organically. In 1984, he discovered biodynamics.

“I’ve always been interested in not mucking around with my food by polluting it with chemicals and the like,” explains Brian. “I can’t say exactly what drew me towards biodynamics, I just had an immediate connection with it… it seemed to combine with my interests in astronomy and good farming practice.”

Delving deeping into the (unnecessarily) mysterious world of biodynamics, Brian soon realised that significant research and information wasn’t available to him in Australia, and there was no version of the biodynamic calendar specific to the southern hemisphere. So, motivated by his own quest for research and learning, Brian set out to create the Antipodean Astro Calendar, a tool that offers insight into the astronomical movements of the cosmos above and how they relate to the observable rhythms of the Earth, as well as an instrument to record these movements and rhythms and relate them back to one’s own garden, farm, or vineyard.

“The calendar is presented as a research tool, so people can work collaboratively with it,” says Brian. “I’ve deliberately set out to not give specific times when to plant, because there’s many different ways to work with the rhythms, and I don’t know all of them. It’s not a recipe that you can just follow, you have to think about it and work with the calendar.”

Dazed and Confused - An example of the Antipodean Astro Calendar

Dazed and Confused – A January 2011 example of the Antipodean Astro Calendar

Looking at the calendar for the first time can almost make your head explode. There’s multiple colours seemingly splashed across the page for no other reason than aesthetics. There are rocket ships and tiny stick figures, a roller coaster of moons following a series of lines, dots and dashes, as well as a wave of strange symbols that look like they’ve been lifted from the horoscope section of the free community paper. Unfamiliar words, such as ‘nodes’, ‘perigee’, and ‘apogee’ feature alongside more familiar terms, like ‘plant’, ‘focus’, and ‘planet’, which, when combined with the pictures, shapes and symbols from above, complete a confusing and mystifying picture, which seems perfectly at home with a subject like biodynamics. But, if you spend some time reading about what each of the individual elements signify, which Brian provides in an easy to read ‘How to Use’ guide, the unfamiliar becomes recognisable, especially once you start putting into practice exactly what the calendar is designed for… observation and reporting.

“You’re not going to understand everything about the calendar after one glance,” says Brian. “You need to use it daily, take records and engage with it. I cop a lot of flack from people saying the calendar is too complex, or it takes too much time, which puts many people off,” explains Brian, “but, I can’t be true to myself or to others by making something too simplistic and which doesn’t engage you. Life isn’t like that, anyway.”

The calender is used within the wine industry throughout Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere by winegrowers, sommeliers and other individuals involved in the trade. For a winegrower, Brian’s calendar proves to be an effective tool to help with vineyard management.

“I have used this calendar for the last 10 years,” says Stuart Proud from Thousand Candles in the Yarra Valley. “It is unique, as I have never found another 12 month calendar that gives you the ability to make plans based around the weather, seasonal variations and lunar rhythms.”

Stuart uses the calendar to plan the ideal times for planting, cultivating, spraying and harvesting, as well as helping to predict major weather events, such as frost, rain and heat waves.

“Brian’s calendar is as reliable as any other weather forecasting model,” explains Stuart. “I have a hard copy of it in front of me 12 months of the year… I use it to look for general trends and patterns, not specific events, because it is not made for an exact specific region. It takes a while to learn how to use it and get the best out of planned activities that coincide with the varying moon phases and gravitational rhythms.”

Ross McDonald - Inspecting the Vines

Ross McDonald uses Brian’s Calendar on his BD Vineyard in the Hunter – photo by The Wine Idealist

Hunter Valley biodynamic winegrower, Ross McDonald from Macquariedale wines also uses the biodynamic calendar to plan and optimise his farming activities.

“I use the calendar particularly for putting out the BD 500 sprays,” says Ross. “It’s good for home gardening, and also commercial farming. However, with vineyards being a monoculture, it’s difficult to perform all of the functions according to the calendar. We use it more as a guide, for example, when we’re pruning 40 acres of vines by hand, you can’t follow the calendar to the letter as there wouldn’t be enough time to get the job done.”

Ross uses the calendar to organise the best days to perform racking and bottling, and activities which involve moving the wine around in the cellar. It’s thought that wine is best moved around on days when the moon is closest to the earth, known as being in ‘perigee’. The gravitational rhythms that the moon exerts on the Earth is such that is pushes down any sedimentary elements that may be floating in the wine, down to the bottom of the barrel, or tank.

“For racking wine, following the calendar is a definite plus for maximum clarification of the wine, as it means we don’t have to do any fining, and only some filtration,” says Ross. “The calendar has been refined by Brian over the years and contains a mountain of information. His weather predictions have been spot on and are a big help in understanding the likely outcomes in weather rhythms.”

It’s been reported that UK supermarket giant, Tescos, arranges their wine trade tasting days around ‘Fruit’ days, which is when a wine is said to taste its best. Other days inherent in the biodynamic calendar include ‘Root’ days, ‘Leaf’ days and ‘Flower’ days, which all correlate with a specific rhythm of the Earth. Some days are considered better for drinking wine than others, however, just like those planned activities within the vineyard, the practicalities of a restaurant or bar adhering to specific days on which to taste and drink wine would not make smart business sense.

“Whilst I agree those particular days on the calendar do make a difference, it’s part of the ebb & flow of trying wines,” explains Stuart Knox of Fix St James, in Sydney. “The last thing I want is a restaurant full of people not drinking because it’s a root day… then I’d be ‘rooted’!”

Brian Keats - Creator of the Antipodean Astro Calendar

Brian Keats – Creator of the Antipodean Astro Calendar

“The calendar is not dogma,” explains Brian Keats. “There’s nothing in there that says, ‘thou shalt do this then’. It’s important to look at seasons and the weather patterns unique to the property, and to combine them with your own management practices. You always need to look at the whole.”

The biodynamic calendar, and Brian’s own Antipodean Astro Calendar is an enormous subject to try and understand, but it’s a two way street. To fully understand and get the most out of using it, you need to engage with it directly, by writing and recording your own data and information based on your own observations, whether that be in your own garden, farm, vineyard, or anything else you think it may apply to (Brian said there are people who use the calendar to plan out their meditation practices). For beginners, Brian recommends starting with the lunar phases and moving on from there, slowly adapting the hidden rhythms and pulses of the Earth and the cosmos to your own world.

“Many people want a recipe that you can just follow, but I think that’s dangerous,” says Brian. “I don’t want to convince people, or proselytise. I want to give people the tools to enable them to find out for themselves. To really grow,” he continues, “whether it’s your crops, or yourself, you’ve got to put in effort, engage your will and make some changes, because we all too often want to sit back and watch someone else do it, because it’s easy.”

D// - The Wine Idealist.

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Obviously, there’s loads more information to cover in an article like this, so check out a few links below on other articles about when is best to taste or drink wine, as well as links to Brian’s website, where you can find and download a .pdf version of ‘How to use the Astro Calendar’… 

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‘Lazy Bones’ – Dormilona Wines – Margaret River – W.A.

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- ‘Why have you called your wine something people won’t be able to pronounce?’

- ‘Because, if they want to know it and drink it, they will.’

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“I like to be difficult,” says Josephine Perry from Dormilona (‘door-me-low-nah’) wines, in Western Australia, “and I get accused of that a lot. I’ve always strived to do something that’s different.”

It doesn’t get much more difficult to start up a wine label and try and make it successful. Even more so when you’re located in the northern part of Australia’s most remote winegrowing region, Margaret River. Things become a little easier for you, though, if you’re fortunate enough to be surrounded by a surge of incredibly talented and like-minded individuals who happen to share the same winegrowing philosophies you do – see Si Vintners, Blind Corner, Cloudburst, Cullen.

Dormilona – which is Spanish slang meaning, ‘lazy bones‘, was conceived by Jo Perry in 2011, while she was living in Spain, where she had been making wine for the past six years.

“You say it to someone when they have gone to bed early, or gotten up late,” says Jo, “It was my nickname in Spain because I liked to go to bed around 9pm, so I could get up early and surf. It’s become the name for my style of winemaking, which is no interference, and laid back. Plus, I reckon we should have started this many moons ago, hence being lazy at getting my own label out there.”

Prior to starting Dormilona, Jo worked vintages in Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhône, the US and South America, as well as New Zealand and Orange (the Geographical Indication, not the colour, the fruit, the fruit juice, or any of the other almost infinite derivatives of the English word orange… and definitely not the wine!).  Jo studied an oenology degree via correspondence at Charles Sturt University, but it was traveling where she was exposed to the myriad of different ways and techniques of transforming solid grapes on the vine into a liquid bottle of wine.

Lazy Cabernet Sauvignon - photo courtesy of Dormilona Wines

Lazy Cabernet Sauvignon – photo courtesy of Dormilona Wines

“Being a trained Aussie winemaker, you’re told you can do this, do that, add this, add that, but by doing so you’re not making something which is expressive of the grape and the vineyard where it came from,” says Jo. “My travelling has taught me to take it all back and only do what’s necessary. I can go back to my training if things go wrong, but I prefer to just stand back and watch, and use my senses a lot more”.

Returning to Western Australia in 2012, Jo set up Dormilona with the intention of making small batch natural wines from fruit she is able to source from various organic and biodynamically managed vineyards throughout Margaret River. Her partner, Jim, is a viticulturist and he looks after a number of these vineyards, and acts as a scout for Jo so that she can source the best available fruit.

“I’m so lucky to have Jim,” says Jo, “he’s my eyes out there and he’s able to find me the best parcels of fruit… We want something that’s sustainable and that we can grow into, which is also very expressive of the vineyards where we get the fruit from.”

The fruit comes from a number of vineyard sites that Jim looks after, including Marriwood Park Estate, which is a Demeter (Australia) certified biodynamic vineyard. Ensuring that the fruit has been either organic or biodynamically grown is important to Jo.

“The fruit is so much more pure from organic vineyards,” says Jo, “it’s got character, it shines and it practically walks into the winery and starts fermenting.”

Dormilona Cabernet Must - photo courtesy of Dormilona

Dormilona Wild Cabernet Ferment – photo courtesy of Dormilona Wines

“Organic fruit has always got more soul than conventional fruit, it makes for more interesting wine, and that makes my job a lot easier,” says Jo.

Dormilona wines are grown from organic and biodynamic fruit, wild yeast ferments, no additions or use of new oak, and only a minimal amount of sulphur right before bottling. They are natural wines.

“I’ve learnt that if you force a style onto a grape it’s not going to work,” explains Jo, “you’ve got to let the vineyard shine through with what you’re doing.”

The Dormilona Semillon Sauvignon Blanc, for example, is an 80/20 co-fermented field blend of certified biodynamic fruit from Marriwood Park, which is exposed to a touch of skin contact to extract a little more texture, before being basket pressed into old French oak and left on lees (deliciously dead yeast cells), again, to emphasise texture on the palette. It is bottled with no fining or filtration and a minimum amount of sulphur.

“There’s no point adding anything when you’ve got this amazing fruit coming in,” says Jo, “and it’s easier to see where the fruit wants to go when it’s organic and you’re not doing much to it.”

“It can be stressful,” Jo continues, “I don’t have the laboratory equipment to check TA and PH levels, so I have to use my palate as my laboratory. If I think something is wrong, I can send it to the lab to get it checked, but I truly believe winemaking is all about your senses, rather than just the chemistry behind it.”

Jo Perry - photo courtesy of Dormilona Wines

Jo Perry – photo courtesy of Dormilona Wines

There’s a unique sense of community in Margaret River, amongst this new vanguard of Aussie winegrowers. Jo went to high school with Sarah from Si Vintners, and attended university with Ben from Blind Corner. They’ve decided to join forces, so that they can better tell their own unique stories within the wider Margaret River community. As a collective they’ve tentatively titled themselves, NWA – Natural Western Australia – which has nothing to do with Compton’s favourite sons, and everything to do with truly sustainable and minimal intervention winegrowing.

“We stick together, and look after each other,” says Jo, “and we’re quite social together, which is good fun… Ben actually pushed me to start Dormilona… he’s always got beer in the fridge, and is so supportive with what I’m trying to do.”

Dormilona would have started up much sooner, if Jo hadn’t been so busy with other commitments, hence the name ‘lazy bones’. But now that it’s started it’s all systems go, and Jo has already been receiving positive recognition for her wines, taking out the ‘Best New Act’ category for her 2013 Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc at the 2013 Young Guns of Wine Awards.
In Dormilona’s first vintage, Jo produced just 250 cases. In 2014, she’s produced 500. ‘Lazy bones’ might aptly describe Jo’s approach to winemaking, but I’d hazard a guess ‘ocupado’ will become an additional part of the Dormilona vocabulary very soon.
D// – The Wine Idealist
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Who Is Brad Hickey? – Brash Higgins, McLaren Vale, SA

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Brash Higgins, the man, doesn’t exist. In 2007, he was an idea, used to harbor and conceal an illegal alien from the prying eyes of the Australian authorities. An alias, an alter-ego, conceived in the mind of a man from New York City, so that he could buy himself more time amongst the grapevines of South Australia. Nowadays, Brash Higgins exists somewhere between a vineyard in the McLaren Vale, and a glass of wine (minus the vowels) in your nearest wine bar. His creator, Brad Hickey, is an American sommelier who transformed into a winegrower after arriving in Australia and falling in love.

“I first came to Australia in 2004, on a wine buying trip,” says Brad, “and I fell in love with South Australia and the McLaren Vale. The coast and the space and the clean elements here were so nice, compared to the urban jungle of New York.”

A decade before Brad Hickey landed in Australia, he worked as a wine director for some of New York’s finest restaurants, curating wine lists and talking to customers about this magical juice. Working at places like Union Square Cafe and Bouley, Brad was surrounded by talented humans, amazing food and great wine.

“It was fun to be able to write wine lists and educate people about wine,” says Brad. “I had access to a million dollar cellar and a massive amount of cool wines, especially at Test Kitchen in Tribeca… and it was all hands on, so I never went down the Master Sommelier or WSET path, because, in New York, I was living it, and the experience was so much more than the theory, because it was real.”

Enamored with the things he’d seen on his first trip to Australia, Brad made plans to go back and work vintage in the Barossa.

The Omensetter Vineyard - photo courtesy of Brash Higgins

The Omensetter Vineyard – photo courtesy of Brash Higgins

“I was feeling a little burnt out, back in New York, and didn’t want to stay” says Brad, “so when I was invited to return to South Australia and work vintage, I was happy to.”

Brad worked for 3 months with Chris Ringland in the Barossa Ranges until his visa ran out. So, he flew to Vietnam for a month and was inspired to farm. Brad returned to South Australia and met his future partner, Nicole Thorpe, during winter pruning work. Brad fell in love for the second time and decided to stay, so switched on stealth mode in order to continue working, under the radar. Brash was a nickname given to him by his vintage colleagues, and Higgins was an arbitrary name that Brad used to mask his true identity from the authorities. Eventually, after securing residency, Brad wanted to make some wine of his own and, without enrolling in any formal training, his alter ego, Brash Higgins, was reborn as a wine label.

“It took a while to get educated on how to make wine,” explains Brad, “and, in some ways, not being formally trained has been a godsend, because it’s allowed me to take risks and do things I might not have done if I had been trained.”

Nicole’s family already owned a vineyard, called ‘Omensetter’, which is where all of the fruit for the Brash Higgins reds – nero d’avola, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon – come from. The vineyard is managed sustainably, without being organic or biodynamic.

The Omensetter - photo courtesy of Brash Higgins

The Omensetter – photo courtesy of Brash Higgins

“The vineyard has been treated with an integrated pest management mentality,” explains Brad, “so it’s definitely not organic, but we only use a minimum amount of under vine spray (glyphosate aka round up) to control weed growth, which helps us preserve water.”

“Water,” Brad says, “is our biggest factor for vine health on our vineyard, and throughout most of the McLaren Vale. We have very little disease pressure here with our warm, dry climate, and winds off the Gulf… We’re interested in sustainability without going down the path of saying we’re organic or biodynamic, because for me, it’s too limiting.”

Brash Higgins is a participant of the McLaren Vale Sustainable Winegrowing Program, which, according to their website is, ‘the only viticulture sustainability program of its kind in Australia’ with ’40% of McLaren Vale’s total vineyard area represented in the program.’ There is an emphasis on taking a balanced approach to viticulture that recognises the environmental, social and economic aspects to sustainable wine growing.

“We believe that the McLaren Vale Sustainable Winegrowing Program is the best way forward for the future,” says Brad, “by taking economic factors into the picture and also instituting ways of holding growers accountable for their results. We’re certainly a very green and very caring production here,” continues Brad. “The fruit is all hand picked and treated with respect, and we follow the fruit to create wines that are incredibly uncluttered, meaning that we make no additions to our wines… what you see is what you get.”

Amphora Army - photo courtesy of Brash Higgins

Amphora Army – photo courtesy of Brash Higgins

It’s a been a slow process of constant learning, experimenting and evolving since their first vintage in 2011, but Brad recognises that vineyard management and picking decisions play a huge role in getting the wine to be whatever it will be.

“We work really hard in the vineyard to get it right, so that we can let the fruit take the lead once we get it back into the winery. The biggest decision is when you pick, and from that point on things are allowed to take their time,” says Brad.

Brad is a big fan of extended skin contact fermentation, for both whites and reds, and he was first in the McLaren Vale to experiment using amphora (an egg shaped vessel made of clay) to make his wines in. He now has a small army of 22 amphora, which he uses to make Brash Higgins wines, including the ZBO, or zibbibo, which comes from a 75 year old dry grown vineyard in the Riverland.

“Zibbibo is like big aromatic cartoon fruit,” says Brad, “they’re table grapes and usually used for making sweet and dessert wines. We’re always looking to try something new by adding something different to the wine world, and when I heard about this grape and where it was grown, I thought we could do something different.”

The fruit was picked overnight and driven back to Brash Higgins base camp, where it was de-stemmed and dumped into the waiting clay amphora. Once the wild ferment kicked off, Brad plunged the fermenting juice a couple of times a day, before leaving it to sit on skins for five months. The result is an intriguing combination of flavours. Cinnamon and lemon cake, dried apricots and sunshine, to be drunk whilst sitting on green grass next to the ocean on a warm summers day.  There’s no fining or filtration, and only 20ppm sulphur at bottling.

Brad Hickey is a man, and Brash Higgins is symbolic of a series of transformations that he has experienced in life. As Brad best explains, “My transformation from my sommelier to Aussie vinitor. Grape skins break and wine is born, and I hope to create wines that transform peoples’ thoughts about what is possible.”

D// - The Wine Idealist

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