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