‘It’s not about being far-out and groovy, and not using any chemicals’, says James Millton, a man who has been practicing biodynamic agriculture in New Zealand since 1986, ‘there are a whole lot of other tangents involved’.
James, along with his wife Annie, have been custodians of the land at Poverty Bay, Gisborne on the New Zealand north island since 1984. After acquiring and accumulating the requisite knowledge needed for wine making in some of the worlds most famous wine regions of France, and Germany, they returned to New Zealand and established the Millton Vineyards.
Back in the early days of James Millton’s biodynamic adventure, ridicule (and scepticism) may not have been obvious, but it was apparent in ‘the smirks on people’s faces, most likely because they wondered when it was we were going to fail.’
So, one of the primary motivating forces for James has been a desire not to fail because of the particular philosophical approach they’ve taken. ‘We might fail because of bad business decisions, or interest rates, or market fluctuations… but we don’t want to fail because of our philosophy’.
James cites a pathway of intuition, which inevitably lead them to biodynamics as a way of engaging with the land before them. Both he and Annie wanted to seek out a connection with their land at Poverty Bay, and so were drawn to organics as a way of achieving this. Once they had been exposed to biodynamics from a Dutch friend, ‘it was a like a fish to water’, and so began their 30 year connection with the life energies surrounding Millton Vineyards.
According to James, these life energies – or bio dynamics – are channeled through the ‘spirit of wine growing… which is identifying the relationship between the earth, the air, the water and the light, and how these four elements are harnessed and balanced with our daily activity throughout the four seasons’. This idea then extends out towards the plant itself, through the roots, the leaves, the flowers and the seeds, and it is the balance and harmonising of these life energies that combine to, ultimately, grow and create great wine.
There are four essential life elements – earth, air, water and light. There are four seasons – spring, summer, winter, and autumn. There are four components of a plant – roots, leaves, flowers and seeds. There are four primary taste sensations – sweet, sour, salty and bitter. There are four main vineyards at Millton Vineyards – Te Arai, Riverpoint, Opou, and Clos de Ste. Anne. Within these vineyards there are four white wine varieties – Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Viogner, and Chardonnay.
There is, quite literally, a balance and harmonisation from the vineyard to the glass.
One way in which to best harness these life energies, and therefore create great wine, is through the prevention, rather than the control of disease.
If you have a headache and you immediately reach for the paracetamol in order to cure this dis-ease, you are putting the cart before the horse. Rather than being pro-active, you are reacting. There is a reason that the headache exists, and it’s not because your body needs paracetamol. Most likely, you are dehydrated and simply need more water in order to replenish the fluid that is missing, and causing your brain to press up against your skull. You might also be distressed about something, which has manifested itself as a physical pain. If you remove the cause of the distress, or simply rehydrate yourself, you are less likely to experience the physical pain, ie. the headache.
With conventional viticulture practices, the winemakers and vineyard managers spend a lot of time trying to ‘combat the ‘dis’, as opposed to standing back and looking at how to make the ‘ease’ work.’
Soluble fertilisers are a salt derived product, which destroy the microbial fungi that inhabit the soil. By using this product ‘you disrespect the habitat of the fungi, and therefore the fungi diminish, which then leads to the water permeability of the soil to decrease, so the water flows through the soil faster (meaning it is not absorbed properly) thereby creating a drought situation, which leads to distress and an increase in insect and fungal attack.’
If you encourage and support the ease of the microbial fungi habitats within the soil, using composting, mulching, and the various biodynamic preparations, then you shouldn’t need to reach for the paracetamol, or the bandages in order to control the disease. Therefore, you will be rewarded with more ease, and much less disease.
To achieve this, James uses all of the biodynamic preparations (500-508) available to encourage the ‘spirit of winegrowing’ to be present in every bottle, and every glass. Just prior to bottling, he exposes the wine to quartz crystals (usually crushed and mixed with prep 500 to make prep 501), which the wine is passed through, ‘to give it the final tick of its life energy process’. He says that biodynamics is not a game of half measures, ‘it’s like a plate of bacon and eggs, the chicken only has a passing interest, but the pig had to be totally committed’.
Prep 500 and 501 are ‘the bass lines and high notes’ that James relies upon to ‘connect the ethereal with the astral’. These are the BD-101’s that are crucial when starting out, but you need to use each and every one if you are to be committed to biodynamics because you cannot substitute one for another… you need to be the pig.
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The ‘spirit of wine-growing’ presents itself in ‘the joy and happiness of being at one with everything around you’. It is connectivity and openness and recognition of the essential relationship between the land and the privileged farmer that gets to work upon it.
So, if being the pig also means being as joyful and happy as the one in the proverbial shit, then I see no reason why not to be.
D// – The Wine Idealist
*Many thanks for James for taking time out to speak with me during “the best harvest for 30 years”, and to Simon for sending me the photo’s – all of which have been used with permission.
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Plus! A deluxe little ‘natural trance’ tune I stumbled upon this week… my gift to you. x.