David Paxton ‘was the proper Chemical Ali’ back in the early days of grape growing at Paxton Wines in the McLaren Vale, South Australia.
A strict adherent to the chemical calender, Paxton – who originally grew almonds until making the switch to grapes in the 1980’s – wanted to be known as the best. His remit for ‘growing stuff’ centred around ‘believing that (he) could do a better job than any of his competitors’, and when it came to growing grapes, Paxton believed that he could achieve this by ‘inject(ing) modern farming techniques into the wine industry, which at the time, he thought, ‘was a bit old fashioned’.
Paxton Wines have been around in the Australian wine industry for the last four decades. Situated on the South Australian coast, and about 40 minutes drive out of Adelaide, Paxton Wines consists of 100 hectares of vines aged between 18 and 120 years old. The vines and their roots reach down into a mix of deep rich alluvial, loam over clay, and sandy loam over limestone soils, with massive variety of, well… varieties making up the Paxton stable, including Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Nero D’avola, Chardonnay, Marsanne and Sauvignon Blanc.
It is here, in the McLaren Vale, that David Paxton is starting to become one of the best, but it is not through receiving tax invoices from chemical salesmen. No, it comes after being confronted by a ‘weird and wonderful’ Frenchman, and a few, more earth bound, winegrowers way back in 2005 at the inaugural International Biodynamic Wine Forum, held at Castagna, in Beechworth, Victoria.
In 2004, David Paxton was beginning to realise that ‘something wasn’t quite right’ within his vineyards, and in the soils in which they grow. They were no longer growing the best fruit possible, and so, having been invited to Beechworth, along with many others, Paxton sat amongst converts and sceptics alike, and listened to what was being said.
One of the keynote speakers was Nicolas Joly, one of France’s most passionate advocates for biodynamic viticulture, who once said ‘that stainless steel tanks recieve negative energies (such as radio broadcasts), and (there are) dangers of putting a bar-code on your wine label because the numbers, somehow, add up to 666.‘ It was quotes like these that had Paxton ‘going round the twist, and wondering just what the hell (he) was doing there’.
So, it wasn’t until the Australian and New Zealand winegrowers and farmers took to the stage and started to explain ‘how practical and how useful biodynamics could be’, that Paxton really started to pay attention to what would quickly become a new found wine growing philosophy.
Along with the ‘no bullshit’ attitudes of the Australian and New Zealand farmers towards biodynamics, Paxton remembers the food and wine served during the conference was proof positive that this was more than just an ethereal wizard’s take on agriculture and grape growing.
‘The food that was supplied for lunch and dinner each night was all biodynamic, including the wine, and I was absolutely blown away with what can be achieved, and how much real flavour could be gotten back into the fruit, the bread, the corn, whatever the case may be’.
By the end of the conference, Paxton had joined Biodynamic Agriculture Australia, and already identified two particular sites where he could begin trialling his new found BD philosophy.
David Paxton returned to his vineyard armed with a new agricultural outlook in the form of a brand new biodynamic tool which he put to work right away. The process of converting his chemical ravaged vines to the more life affirming methods of biodynamics began soon after the conference, and by 2008 all 100 hectares were in the process of conversion, with full certification by NASAA coming in 2011.
Paxton adheres to many of the best practices, as outlined by Steiner, including burying cowhorns (501), and using stag bladders stuffed with chamomile (502), as well as following the lunar calender closely to know exactly when to sow, and when to reap.
They have also installed their very own Cow Pat Pit’s, or CPP, and a Preparations Hut which is used to make and store the various recommended Preps (500-508) that are used on and around the vineyard.
Rather than getting lost in the mythical, ethereal wizardry of the Steiner philosophy, David Paxton takes the ‘no bullshit’ approach to biodynamics and utilises it as a tool for growing the best fruit he can. And if you grow the best fruit that you can, then it is easier to make the best wine you can.
The Paxton Wines, like most made according to biodynamics, speak for themselves.
I had a chance to taste a few with David’s son Ben Paxton recently, while I was down in Sydney, and while it was impossible to compare his wines made pre BD to now, I could instantly recognise the expressive clarity, and vitality that I’ve come to know as hallmarks of a biodynamically grown, and well made wine.
I tasted the 2011 Tempranillo, which was the stand out for me. It instantly reminded me of the Grand Cerdo, from Rioja in Spain, (2011 as well). The wine ran deep with a purple, crimson colour, and burst open with fragrant soft cherry fruits and subtle spice. The texture in the mouth was of an earthen smooth creaminess, steady tannins, and a finish of a certain gentle dryness. It was worthy of the title for Spain’s noble grape.
The Shiraz’s I tasted were more akin to their Rhone counterparts, yet they were not called Syrah – as some winegrowers prefer to do, in order to differentiate them from the big and bold peppery Aussie Shiraz.
The 2011 Preservative Free Shiraz was certainly big, and definitely bold, but it wasn’t shouting about it. It was rather more relaxed and reserved, preferring to let the fruit speak for itself. It had a purity of flavour, and the aromas, although assured, would only ever hint that this was a South Australia Shiraz. Grown from 120 year old vines, the wine bled in the glass and told it’s long history of chemical mistreatment, and subsequent biodynamic revitalisation. The complete lack of sulphur meant that it was able to completely reveal its sense of place without the mask of manipulation obscuring the story.
David Paxton is not some hippy that’s getting caught up in some peace and love movement that makes growing his type of wines cool, or trendy – he is a utilitarian that sees the biodynamic philosophy as a tool to help him care for the land in the best way possible, in order to grow the best fruit possible, which then helps to make the best wine possible.
It is, what David called, ‘a gentle evolution’, of ideas, methods and philosophies that inspire him to be the best at what he does, and for David Paxton, when it comes to ‘growing stuff’, biodynamics is the best way.
D// – The Wine Idealist
The Best Links
– International Biodynamic Wine Forum article by Max Allen
*all images used courtesy of Paxton Vineyards.