– “Wine is a mind altering drug.” –
“I think that in time biodynamics will become just another ingredient in the pie”, says Tamra Irish, winegrower and owner at Enigma Variations, a small farm and winery nestled at the foot of the Grampians in Victoria, Australia.
The Grampians National Park is a remarkable site. The mountains and slopes that burst out from the Victorian flat land is like a grand finale for the Great Dividing Range, Australia’s most substantial mountain range, and the third-longest land based mountain range in the world. This cooler climate region has been growing grapes and making wine since the 1860’s and is hallmarked by its intense, textured reds, particularly from shiraz and cabernet. The wines that Tamara Irish grow are a direct reflection of the region, which is defined by the dramatically peaceful vistas that surround her farm in Dunkeld.
Engima Variations was established in 2008, by Tamara, and named after Edward Elgar’s compositional music piece, Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra (“Enigma”), Op. 36 (listen below), otherwise, more commonly referred to as Enigma Variations. The farm itself is managed biodynamically and is home to a range of animals and plants including rare-breed pigs, bees and chickens, as well as hops, berries and vegetables. Tamara employs biodynamic farming methods because it allows, for her, a better way to know, interact and become more involved with the landscape around her.
“I think that organic stuff is, by and large, a very passive kind of a system, which is mostly marked by what you don’t do”, says Tamara, “I think there’s more attention being paid now to things like soil structure and nutrition… and the attractive thing about biodynamics is that it gives you an opportunity to be engaged with what your place is doing”. Tamara knows that whatever comes out of the farm as produce, is a direct result of the soil, and by utilising biodynamics “you’ve got the chance to influence and shape (the soil), or preserve it, restore or repair it”.
Tamara utilises biodynamics, but doesn’t strictly adhere to all the elements of the lunar calendar. Spraying 500 when the Moon is in opposition to Saturn might be the right time according to the calendar, and it’s certainly a useful guide to use, but instead, Tamara prefers to rely upon her intuition and knowledge of her land, and so, applies many of the preparations whenever it feels right for her to apply them. This doesn’t mean, says Tamara, that, “you don’t just do it randomly… or mindlessly, you do it because it’s the right time to do it. Now, to know when is the right time to do something, or nothing, takes a lot of knowledge of your place, and a lot of thinking and wondering about things… You can’t do a course on how to think carefully”.
For biodynamics to become just another ingredient in the agricultural pie will take time. Time to realise that chemical inputs are only short term solutions to problems that will continue to crop up more and more frequently in the future. Time to understand that the soil is our ultimate benefactor, and to treat it with anything less than ultimate respect will only lead us to our ultimate demise. Time to get to know and trust ourselves and our sensory inputs as the elementary interpreters to the world around us, and not to try and fractionalise everything down to it’s atomic parts. Time to recognise and utilise intuition, and trust what ever it has to say to us.
“People don’t taste thoughtfully… One of the easiest ways to influence these cognitions and change the behavior is if people really do connect with their taste buds again, and learn to trust themselves”, says Tamara.
Consistency is a predictable pathway to complacency, and it can be seen in much of the foodstuffs we consume nowadays. Coke and Pepsi will taste exactly the same no matter where you go in the world, as will a cheeseburger from McDonalds, or a cheaper wine from Jacobs Creek. And that is fine, because ultimately, these companies are running a business and, in order to stay in business, they need to make money, and the best way to make money is to produce a predictably consistent product. The problem is that, in order to produce consistency, you need to heavily manipulate your raw materials, which are usually of inferior quality, with synthetic substitutes and other chemical controls.
“We did such a beautiful job (in Australia) becoming mass producers, and mass consumers of wine”, says Tamara, “but what’s also happened is that we are mass consumers of meaningless wines that we consume indiscriminately… it doesn’t matter if it’s good, bad or indifferent wine, it’s just wine. (People) don’t have to pay much for it, because it’s grown like shit and so it’s thoughtlessly consumed”.
By flooding the market with cheap, easy drinking wines, the Australian wine industry was able to make inroads into making wine the drink of first choice for Australian consumers.
“Well, so what, who cares”, says Tamara, “it’s crap wine… because now people find it difficult to distinguish what is a truly fine wine, a wine that is true to it’s roots, and is an authentic expression of whoever made it, and where ever it came from”.
Tamara believes that people should try to rediscover their sense of taste, and personalise it for themselves without relying upon labels and brand names to indicate what is and isn’t good for us.
“Contributing to your own way of living is an significant place to start… If we need a label, we are saying we cannot trust our own mouths”, says Tamara, “but this means effort and thought” from the individual, which is why consistency and predictability has taken over and is now driving our decisions about taste.
In an attempt to redress the balance, and advocate for an authentic expression of taste, Tamara adheres to the notion of minimal interventionist winemaking, whilst recognising the important role the winemaker plays in the transformative process of grape juice into wine.
“The winemaker does make a difference”, says Tamara. “It’s not such a benign process where you just go out there, stick a bottle under the vine and come back in two years to see if it’s full. It doesn’t happen. (Wine) needs to be grown and to be assisted in its transformation”.
Having said that, Tamara’s influences upon the taste of the wine are largely passive because she refuses to make any synthetic additions to her wines, for example, tartaric acids. Tamara explains, “if you need to add acid, you’re just growing it in the wrong place! You shouldn’t need to add anything to it because it’s already there. If you’ve got to do too much to it, the raw product was probably not that good to start with anyway”.
Her wines are un-fined, and unfiltered, and are bottled according to the lunar calendar, during an ascending moon to minimise the amount of noticeable sediment within the wine. Small additions of sulphur are added, usually between 10-15 ppm.
“When you’re trying to make your wines, you’re not trying to do much at all because you’re trying to preserve the essence of the fruit”, explains Tamara, “but you’ve got to do something, while trying to do nothing. The quest for nothingness can be a very demanding thing to do, because we’re so motivated to do things”.
There are two wines that Tamara makes under the Enigma Variations label, a dark syrah and a bright rosé. If ever there were two wines which spoke of their place of origin, these two would be it.
The steep dramatic rise of the Grampians mountain range is encapsulated within the monstrous swirls of the black syrah (2009). An intense surge of purity and power from ripely inked fruits command a forceful surge of mouth filling tannin that ends almost as quickly as it began, leaving behind clear evidence that something beautiful happened here.
Meanwhile, the piercing sun that begins to set beyond the rugged mountain range gets caught and concentrated into a glass of Phoenix Ysobel Rosé (2011). The colours move from shades of orange to pink and back again in a vibrant mix of fire and magic. The sweet smell of a spring afternoon wafts within a haze of seasonal fruits.
There’s history in the hills, and a story in the wines, and all it takes to know them both is a little bit of time.
D// – The Wine Idealist
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