“Our universities teach us to make sound wine, rather than great wine,” says Julian Castagna, owner and winegrower at Castagna wines in Beechworth Victoria. “They (the universities) don’t want us to make mistakes,” he continues, “but the reality is, you have to make mistakes. You have to push the envelope to make anything that’s great…”
Former film director Julian Castagna turned his hand to winegrowing in 1997 after he “became bored with film making,” and moved himself and his family to a granitic ridgetop property, 500m above sea level, in the cool climate region of Beechworth, Victoria.
“I spent much of my adult life in Europe, and so I learnt wine in Europe,” says Julian, “wine, for me, is French and Italian. When I came back to Australia there wasn’t much that I liked, but I did like Giaconda, and that’s why I got to be here,”
Working for a time gaining experience and insight from his closest winegrowing neighbour, Rick Kinzbrunner from Giaconda, Julian eventually planted shiraz vines from genetic decedents of vines that were originally planted in the Rhône Valley in 1850. In 1999, Castagna made their first estate grown vintage.
“The vines are now almost 15 years old, and the wines”, Julian says, “are now saying ‘I am’, whereas at the beginning it was as much about me as anything else.”
Castaga wines are the antithesis for the traditional model of Australian winemaking. Medium bodied, aromatic, lean, mineral, and complex. To taste these wines, and then learn that they are from Australia is a somewhat surreal experience for the uninitiated.
“I had to work hard because I was doing something that no one else was doing,” says Julian. “Parker was telling us that Australia should be making in your face wines with lots of alcohol, which is fine, if you like bourbon and Coca Cola.”
Hard granitic stone riffs packed amongst heavy clay define Beechworth wine country. It’s what gives many of the wines from here a purity, and leanness, or minerality that isn’t seen in many other parts of Australian wine country.
“I looked at the land”, he continues, “and it seemed to me that the two varieties that would best work here were syrah and sangiovese, and I liked both of those, so that’s what we did.”
Julian also planted viognier (a small percent is added to the Genesis), and nebbiolo, but the nebbiolo has never been released on it’s own terms, simply because Julian doesn’t believe that it’s worthy of some of the great Piedmont wines of Italy… yet.
“I don’t know whether our Nebbiolo will ever be great,” says Julian, “I think it’s good, but I don’t know if it’ll be great… 2013 is the first time I’ve kept it separate, up until then it’s gone into the Adam’s Rib, and it does a fantastic job, but it doesn’t stack up to with what is being made in Piedmont, and it needs to stack up.”
This is not to say that Julian is looking to copy, or imitate some of the best Nebbiolo’s in Italy, but that, much like the syrah or sangiovese, it needs to, in Julian’s words, “hold its own with the best in the world.”
One of the ways in which Julian is trying to achieve this standing amongst some of the best wines in the world, is by using biodynamics in the vineyard, which is something that Julian believes gives him access to the true nature of the Beechworth landscape.
“What we have is very old degraded rock,” explains Julian. “If you pull out rocks from the earth here, once the air gets to it, even though it’s a major rock to start off with, it just breaks down. So, what you get is minerality, but the minerality generally isn’t available to the plant. When you use biodynamics, it becomes available.”
Biodynamic farming was, according to Julian, a fluke rather than an intentional setup. Almost as soon as the vineyard was first planted the site was struck with a plague of African black beetles, which threatened to stop this new domain in Beechworth before it had even begun.
“I got the experts in who told me I should spray with this stuff,” recalls Julian, “so I went and bought this stuff, which is a horrible chemical insecticide, and on the label was a skull and crossbones. When I read the instructions,” Julian contintues, “it said to wear a full body suit and breathing apparatus, and if you get it on your skin to wash it off immediately. And so I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’”
In search of another way, Julian contacted New Zealand winegrower, and biodynamic pioneer James Millton, and Biodynamic Agriculture Australia. He also visited many other winegrowers throughout the world that were employing biodynamics for their vineyard management. Having investigated the idea of BD, and seen, spoken and interacted with the people that were using it, Julian was convinced that biodynamics was another viable way he could go, and one that didn’t involve spraying with poisonous chemical insecticides.
“Biodynamics is an extremely important tool”, says Julian, “It’s actually what makes the land talk about the land. The spiritual side means nothing to me. Biodynamics is a farming technique that allows me to express this land in my wines.”
Expressing the land, the place where the Castagna vineyard is planted, is a crucial objective to Julian, and to the international group of winegrowers that Castagna is a part of, known as Renaissance des Appelations/Return To Terroir.
Castagna is one of only five (Jasper Hill, Cullen, Ngeringa, Cobaw Ridge) Australian winegrowers who are fully certified by Renaissance, who’s strict ‘Charter Of Quality’, which is enforced uniformly by its winegrowing members, is used to identify, ‘fine wine of exceptional quality’, as well as the ‘solidarity between vignerons, a fight for truth and the authentic taste of terroir.’
Castagna is, begrudgingly, certified biodynamic by NASAA.
“My personal opinion is that I’d rather not be certified”, says Julian, “I find it an imposition, if you like, that certification is required, but it is required because there are people who are cheating. There are too many people pretending”, continues Julian, “who say they use elements of biodynamics yet still use chemicals but claim to be biodynamic simply because it helps sell their wine, and I find that offensive.”
To taste a Castagna wine is to taste integrity. Julian is an ardent subscriber to quality, conviction and ambition. Many winegrowers will say this too, of course, but with Julian you have to believe it, regardless of how arrogant it may sound.
“I’m one of the few people who didn’t produce wine in 2011, because when I tasted the wine it didn’t taste, or smell like a Castagna wine.”
The consistent rains throughout the 2011 vintage made it one of the wettest on record, and as Julian explains, “the excessive amount of water which was taken up by the vines, changed the very character of the wine we made.”
“All I want is to make wines that stand with the best in the world, that’s all,” says Julian, “I don’t necessarily want it to be the best, that’s not what my intention is. My intention is to grow fruit from the land, that tastes of the land, and I want people to understand that, and think about it, in the same way as I do when I choose a great bottle of wine to drink… I want my wine to be in their company.”
D// – The Wine Idealist