Three scientists walk into a bar. A neuroscientist, a biochemist, and a cardiovascular physician. They order a bottle of red Burgundy, and after a few hours “spent solving the worlds problems”, and being enamored with the red juice inside, they decide to plant a vineyard, run it biodynamically, and make wine from it… haha!
Having each completed PHD’s in their respective fields of science, Ray Nadeson (neuroscientist), his wife Maree Collis (biochemist), and their mutual friend Adrian Thomas (cardiovascular physician) decided, over a few bottles of red, that it would be nice if they had somewhere they could go to relax, and enjoy the peace and quiet, away from the mental demands of surgeries, laboratories and operating theatres, and instead, engage with some of the more physical demands of working outdoors.
“We were interested in wine because we found it was an extension of all the other things we like”, says Ray, “things that are handmade and have a bit of soul about them”.
Ray, Maree and Adrian would spend their Wednesday evening’s exploring the mysteries of the wine world, deconstructing what was in the glass (with the help of their scientifically tuned brains), and reassembling it again so as to better understand what it was they were drinking.
“We started to see, within the chaos of all these kooky little wines”, says Ray, “a common thread that we could start to draw together to see if they were important in making the wine special”.
Most of the wines they were drinking and deconstructing happened to be from the old world, because it was the late 80’s and, as Ray explains, “it was at the real peak of the factory, homogenised wines of south-eastern Australia, where people didn’t talk about single vineyards, the winemakers were Gods and would blend anything to requirement, and the vineyard was to be subjugated”.
These wine-fueled Wednesday’s, coupled with the arrogance of youth, led Ray and Adrian to consider making their own wines. Wines that would try and capture the essence of what these European wines did so easily.
“We thought, how difficult could this be? It can’t be that Australia is just hopeless”, says Ray.
So, taking a deconstructed approach and armed with a strict criteria that required interesting soils and a cool climate, which was also close to their homes in Melbourne, they began looking around for sites that they thought would be suitable to grow grapes on, and eventually make wine that stood up to those soulful bottles from Europe.
They bought some land in a tiny town named Lethbridge, which is located an hour’s drive west of Melbourne, near the city of Geelong. They began planting vines there in 1993 and established a winery soon after. A decade later, after juggling the demands of their chosen careers with the demands of the vineyard and an ever increasing family, Ray and Maree decided to dedicate themselves full time to their outdoor wine adventure, which they had named Lethbridge Wines.
“Geelong (soil) is really interesting”, explains Ray, “because it’s got limestone, granite, clay, and all sorts of really interesting geological differences, and they’re as mean as all hell… and if you want to grow it biodynamically, that is perfect, because what you’re really doing is emphasising the intrinsic nature of the soils, which allows you to grow a very distinct style of wine”.
Achieving a distinct wine style is one of the main reasons why any winegrower would choose to utilise biodynamic practices on their vineyard. Biodynamics individualises a vineyard’s site characteristics by naturally enhancing the distinct microbiological activity inherent in the site already.
Being a scientist, Ray dismisses much of what he calls the “religious hocus-pocus” that is associated with biodynamics, and instead focuses his attentions of the observable facts that he witnesses in his vineyard on a daily basis.
“All of our observations are informed by our understanding of biology, rather than intuition”, says Ray, “so we are able to make decisions based on those observations”.
“Vineyards, in their nature, are actually not natural”, explains Ray, “because it’s not a natural way for plants to grow. It’s completely monoclonal, and especially with the round-up, till the earth, style of farming, which is just ridiculous, you can’t expect that type of system to be anything close to being natural”.
“So, these sort of observations slowly crystalised around biodynamics”, continues Ray, “which we saw as a set of principals which make sense. Biodynamics is about biodiversity and increasing the biological health of the soils and the plant, which makes perfect sense”.
By placing importance on the health and vitality of the vineyard, Ray believes that he can grow better fruit, and, therefore, make better wines.
“First and foremost”, says Ray, “I hope that our (biodynamic) practices will effect the taste (of our wines). If they don’t then, essentially, it’s irrelevant… My belief is that by using biodynamics, you can produce a beautiful product which is particular to the place”.
For Ray, the winemaking is simply an extension of the work done out in the vineyard.
“We treat the winemaking like we do growing”, says Ray “We do an awful lot of watching and thinking because by doing that we immerse ourselves in the wine”.
“I think of grapes like a sculptor thinks of stone”, says Ray, “If you have these parcels of highly concentrated, dense fruit from really good vineyards, it’s like starting with a massive piece of rock. You can work with big technique, using big chisels, hammers and grinders to turn this massive rock into a beautiful fine piece”.
“If you start off with a pebble with a bunch of holes in it”, continues Ray, “and you try and turn that into a beautiful piece, it’s possible, but you’d want to be pretty delicate, and you might end up having to plug some of those holes anyway… working with something that’s flawed in the first place limits your scope”.
There is no gap filling in a glass of Lethbridge Wine. They are acute examples of their varieties, which is reflected in the context with which Ray and Maree approach winemaking.
To taste their 2011 Chardonnay, is like tasting white nectarine and green pineapple core flecked with lemon cheesecake crumbs, layed out over a soft, yet firm texture… like the cool side of a pillow on a warm summer night.
The 2011 Pinot Noir is a 60% whole bunch adolescent, keen to prove it’s abilities, but needs a bit more nurturing (or maturation) before it can realise its full potential. Dark red fruit cherry savouriness and brambly earthiness run wild and get quickly overshadowed by taut tannin, which was a little too abrasive for mine.
Drinking a glass of the Hugo George (Italian/Bordeaux varietals) 2009 is like drinking a black hole. Swirling, intense red/black fruits spiral out above an event horizon that surges around an intense tannic core, binding everything together, contracting and expanding, enveloping the mouth and mind as emotion quests for definition. It’s really bloody nice!!
There is an artistic flair about these wines from Lethbridge, which stems from an applied knowledge of learning and observing the science of winemaking.
“You need to know where the boundaries are”, says Ray, “so you can dance along the fine edge. If you don’t know where that edge is, you won’t know where to step. You could step over the line, and fall off, or step well within the line, and fall in a place that’s boring. But, if you’re right on the edge because you know where the boundaries are, you can play with that edge… and that makes (winemaking) much more exciting”.
D// – The Wine Idealist