“Integrity”, the one word chief winemaker Chris Carpenter uses to describe his entire philosophy for wine growing at Lark Hill biodynamic winery, in the cool climate of Australia’s Capital.
Lark Hill was one of the first vineyards to be established in this cool continental region, back in 1978, when Chris’s parents, Sue and Dave Carpenter quit their respective jobs, and sought to emulate some of the great old world wines of Germany and France. After much searching, they settled upon the high escarpment above Bungendore at an altitude of 860m, making it the highest vineyard site in the region. Here they grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Gruner Veltliner, with vines ranging from 8-35 years old. A second vineyard site, just down the road, in Murrumbateman, called Dark Horse, provides Lark Hill with their Shiraz, Sangiovese, Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne grape varieties.
In 2002, the Carpenters began looking at biodynamics as a serious approach to managing their vineyard which, up until then, had been run “environmentally friendly, using mainly organic farming methods”, but still continuing to “use herbicides under the vine rows to control weed growth”.
It wasn’t until Chris and his family went to the inaugural Castagna Biodynamic conference in Beechworth, Victoria, – the same conference that converted David Paxton of Paxton Vineyards – that the practical applications and benefits of biodynamics really began to shine.
“The results (in the vineyard) were so startling, and the wines were so amazing, it was no big jump to think that, rather than go organic, we should go the whole hog and become biodynamic”.
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Returning to Canberra, and becoming certified biodynamic through NASAA in 2008, the physical changes that began to appear, in terms of the health and fertility of the soil, the vitality of the vines, and the flavour of the fruit were clear indicators that biodynamics was the best way to capture the terroir of the place. As Chris explains –
“Terroir is a term that a lot of winemakers have fallen in love with, to me, terroir is the quintessential expression of how a vineyard expresses it’s unique flavours through the wine. It’s not just the climate, it’s the soil, and the variety (of grape), how the winemaker interprets the fruit, and biodynamics is all about finding a way to preserve terroir, without using inputs that don’t come from that farm, or those grapes.”
One of the joys of wine is the snapshot that it presents to us each year. It becomes representative of everything that occurred within that place over those twelve months. Unlike Coke, for instance, which is made to a recipe with little to no variables to consider, wine is the voice of the landscape, as interpreted by the winegrower when they seek to convert the fruit into liquid through various techniques. This should be as minimal as possible, so as to truly capture the honesty, authenticity, and integrity of that one place.
Ferment health is a great indicator to maintaining the integrity of the wine, especially when you are able to capture it through the use of natural, or wild yeasts. To do this, Chris doesn’t, “spray any off farm chemicals out in the vineyard, so (that) the fruit arrives in the winery with a healthy population of natural yeasts, and that yeast is now able to successfully ferment the fruit all the way through to dry finished wines”.
Using natural and wild yeasts emphasies that word integrity because, “these wines are made from grapes that taste only of our farm, and fermented with yeast’s that are unique to, not only this vineyard, but also that year, and what we end up seeing is every year the ferment is slightly different, and even in between different tanks those ferments have slight differences to them… capturing that purity of flavour, which is unique to (Lark Hill’s) terroir in that year”.
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Chris is very much a utilitarian when it comes to practicing biodynamics, describing it as “no more than a tool, which we can use to be in touch with tangible things we can see and feel and touch and taste… so, rather than the conventional attitude of looking out the office window, seeing that it’s just rained and thinking, we should get out and spray, (biodynamics) is about looking at forecasting, and thinking what can we do to help the vines get through the coming weather, and make sure they’re set up to stay in balance and be prepared for the season ahead”.
So how does Chris reconcile some of the more esoteric aspects of biodynamics, such as the lunar cycle, when seen through pragmatic eyes?
“The lunar calender, to me, is a very interesting tool that we use to observe the actual lunar movements themselves… when the moon’s closer, there’s a higher sap flow, and the vine’s have a very luxuriant feel, and it’s quite obvious they have more access to water… we also see it’s effects in the winery as well. As the moon moves back and forth, there’s an element of movement in the wines, solids tend to rise and fall in certain wines, with harder settling as the moon moves away”.
Many biodynamic winegrowers will actually utilise this particular lunar effect to coincide with their bottling practices, especially if they don’t use any fining or filtration, so that they can reduce the amount of solids present in the bottle.
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There were minimal solids present in the bottles when I visited the Lark Hill cellar door and tasted my way through a few choice examples of Chris’s wines of integrity.
The 2011 Riesling is a cool, clean, crisp creation centred on citrus apples, lemon florals and a dynamically dry, fresh capsicum finish,
The 2011 Chardonnay, which was planted in the year Lark Hill was established (1978), has light gold colours harnessing a soft milky silkiness of subtle bananas, and melon’d hay leading the line for the long dry length,
The 2012 Sangiovese was the standout surprise, with fruit coming off the Dark Horse vineyard, presenting a sweet berried aroma of strawberries and spice. White peppers collaborate with black cherries and dark chocolate to deliver a soft, smooth, and silken texture.
The Exaltation is a wine produced only when conditions are right, and also happens to be the collective term for a group of Lark’s… or exaltation, as it were. Comprising of a cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and shiraz blend, the wine does an excellent job of mimicking the style of a Super Tuscan, with fresh floral herbs, jammy plums and dark current fruits. It sparks and burns leaving a big impression as it slinks away beyond my taste buds.
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Integrity, for Chris is very central to everything Lark Hill does, both in the vineyard, and in the winery. “We are trying to make wines that are truly a reflection, or snapshot of their location, and us as winemakers, without any attempts to tart them up in a poor year, or blend them away, or create something that is the same every year… it’s about letting that year shine through”.
D// – The Wine Idealist
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