“I’m too much of a scientist to get my head around biodynamics”, says Mike De Iuliis (De-u-lee-iss) when I interview him at his cellar door on Broke Rd, Poklobin, in the Hunter Valley.
The fruit for much of De Iuliis wines come from 70 acres of conventionally managed vineyard sites, including one of the Hunter’s most famous sites – the Steven Vineyard – renowned for it’s exceptional production of Shiraz and Semillon from as far back as 1867, but leaning more towards science than agriculture, as Mike will tell you, “I’ll never profess to be a viticulturist, I’m a winemaker”.
Having taken to the science subjects at school, and then going on to study molecular and microbiology at university in Sydney, Mike became less interested in the theoretical side of his subjects, and more interested in the actual application of what he was learning – “the chemistry and applied sides of science”, whilst also leaving room for the other research and development opportunities that exist in great abundance at uni… for example, drinking.
And, when your family own a vineyard or two back in the Hunter, it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to realise the connection between ‘chemistry and applied science’, drinking, and the craft of winemaking.
When De Iuliis took over the lease for the Steven Vineyard it was in a very bad state of health and well being. It had been “seriously, badly managed”, by Southcorp who used to own and manage the site, and had “run it very lean, with only the harvester going in each year to pick the fruit”, and very little else. “It is an iconic site”, and an important part of the Hunter Valley’s history, and heritage, “and it was a shame to see it in such a state because of bad management practices”. There was “a great deal of erosion and loss of topsoil, with some of the vine rows having been forgotten about altogether, as they were simply falling down”.
After De Iuliis took over, they made it priority number one, by “putting a lot of work into the neglected site in order to get it back up to scratch”. Using “organic fertilisers and compost matter, as well as conventional methods of vineyard management”, De Iuliis was able to get the vineyard back to it’s former state of health and glory, which in turn was then rewarded by the quality of fruit now growing on the vine.
“I completely understand organics, but I don’t have the proper vineyard knowledge to make an informed decision on whether full-on organics would work for us.”
For Mike, it’s more about looking at the individual sites and assessing their potential for producing great fruit, and therefore great wine. “The Steven vineyard is a great site for producing Semillon and Shiraz, the slope at Lakes Folly happens to be a great site for producing Chardonnay, and the BD vineyards at Paxton’s in the McLaren Vale are great sites too, but I don’t think biodynamics has anything to do with it”.
“I’m not burying a cow horn in the vineyard, picking on the phases of the moon… it’s bullshit, there’s no scientific data to back any of it up”, exclaims Mike with many choice words omitted.
The same goes for natural wines too, says Mike, “as far as I’m concerned, many people use the term ‘natural’ as a marketing tool, because the science behind it is pretty dodgy. There are a lot of people making natural wines with a lot of passion, but I really struggle with some of the guys that don’t have a proper grasp of the science of wine… you can’t just pick up a violin and say ‘I love just making noise’ on it. It’s the same as when I struggle to understand how a painting with a couple of slops of paint on a canvas is worth a gazillion dollars (not an actual unit of monetary measurement)… because you think, ‘I could do that’, why don’t I just become an artist?”
Basically, the difference between those that have slopped the paint onto the canvas, to those that think they could do the exact same thing, is that those who did, did. They acted, and left it up to those viewing the canvas to decide whether or not it was justified as a piece of art. The action is, in itself, the art work.
“As a scientist, it’s hard to let go when you’ve been trained your whole life to approach winemaking as a discipline where wine has to be made. What you study at uni, and when you’re taught about all the ways on how to make wine, because wine doesn’t make itself… it’s hard to let go of that”.
Having said that, Mike get’s most excited when he’s able to play around, and experiment in the winery. For example, he’s recently made a Sangiovese, simply because he wanted to make “a light bodied, easy drinking red, with low oak”. Made with minimal skin contact, pressed off early, and only just touching the sides of the barrels in order to reduce the influence of oak and tannin, Mike has created just that – a thin, soft tasting, easy drinking version of that increasingly popular alternative Italian varietal, while still retaining all the hallmarks of a spicy Sangio.
He’s also experimented with a vintage of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo that was fermented in a large blue plastic drum, and pressed off a demijohn, just for the fun of it. “I love doing that, it’s the thing that keeps you interested, it makes what I do exciting and experimental…”
For Mike, even with his refusal to entertain the idea that cow horns buried in soil for 6 months, and that picking on particular phases of the lunar cycle are all viable and proven methods for managing a vineyard, it’s still the soil that is most important to him as a winemaker, because, “it’s the site with the best soil that provides the best fruit, and having the best fruit means it’s harder for me to me to fuck it up in the winery”.
While I don’t think Mike will ever be a jazz musician, or abstract painter he does prove one old adage…
‘There’s more than one (authentic) way to skin a cat’.
D// – The Wine Idealist
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