Global warming is a clear and present danger that looms upon the world’s horizon, threatening to dissolve away not only our ice caps and shorelines, but life as we know it. The accelerated and continual rise in average temperatures in our oceans and in the air around us, year on year since the industrial revolution, has made for more severe global weather patterns and an overall increase in warmer mean temperatures throughout the world. Good news, if you live in Tasmania.
Tasmania is Australia’s most southerly grape growing region, and is experiencing some of the rarified positive effects of global warming. In recent years, warmer temperatures throughout the world have made it easier for grapes to ripen in the region, which in turn has seen an increase in quality from the wines that are grown there. One such vineyard was planted back in the early 90’s and is owned and managed by Dirk Meure of d’meure wines. Located in Birchs Bay on the shores of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, which overlooks Bruny Island, 40km south of Hobart, it is one of Australia’s most southerly planted vineyards.
“Wine is a gift from nature, and we respond to that gift with gratitude,” says Dirk Meure. “If you start from there, all the rest follows.”
Dirk is an academic, born of migrant Dutch parents, who settled in Tasmania after World War II. He studied law and was admitted as a barrister in Hobart, before moving to the UK in 1970 and taking up an academic position, working in Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol universities. In 1975 he returned to Australia and spent the next 25 years working as a law academic at the University of New South Wales. Then, in the year 2000, Dirk retired and returned home to Tasmania, where he bought a vineyard and set about leaning how to grow grapes and make wine.
“As an academic, I was privileged to have enjoyed lots of beautiful wines, especially in Europe, so I had some idea of what a beautiful wine should taste like,” says Dirk. “The local TAFE offered a viticulture course, which I completed while doing lots of reading on my own about wine and its processes.”
While Dirk was studying, he employed a vineyard manager to look after his vines, which were managed conventionally with agrochemicals. In 2004, Dirk took on the management of the vineyard full time and set about converting it to biodynamics, having been exposed to Steiner’s philosophies while studying. Dirk also experienced biodynamics first hand in his travels throughout Burgundy, one of the most prominent regions to use the biodynamic farming method.
“We don’t use any herbicides, so we use a brush cutter to manage growth underneath the vines,” explains Dirk. “The disease pressure here is mainly for powdery mildew, not so much downey mildew, so we spray with sulphur and eco-carb (a natural potassium bicarbonate based fungacide), and sometimes a bit of copper if we need to. We also use seaweed sprays in conjunction with the biodynamic preparations, mainly 500 and occasionally 501 to help bump up the baumé,” says Dirk.
Dirk attended the biodynamic conference at Castagna in Victoria, in 2003, a conference which was the catalyst for conversion for many present day biodynamic winegrowers throughout Australia. These included Paxton in the McLaren Vale, Lark Hill in the Canberra District, and Macquariedale in the Hunter Valley. Like many of the winegrowers who attended that three-day event, Dirk immediately began the conversion of his vineyards over to biodynamics because he believes that BD offers a way back to the soil, away from the technology-fueled, dehumanised nature of modern agriculture.
“Biodynamics puts winegrowing back into reality, in a way,” say Dirk. “Science starts with observation and note taking, and working empirically with what’s actually there in a particular place. I observe and respond to my place, my vineyard, and use all of the tools (of biodynamics) I have at my disposal to get the best out of it.”
One of the most common arguments against the practice of biodynamics, in light of scientifically led conventional agriculture, are the spiritual aspects of BD.
“The danger of biodynamics, as with anything, is that you can become as equally dogmatic and self-righteous as the so called ‘other side’. I think keeping an open mind and listening to what other people are doing is important… and you’d be a fool not to do that,” says Dirk.
Steiner was writing about what was happening in 19th century Europe with small farms being taken over by chemicals, right at the start of modern, industrial agriculture. So, it’s important to contextualise some of the more philosophical and spiritual aspects of his lectures within Steiner’s own time.
“We can’t just take what (Steiner) was writing about, holus-bolus, in Germany at that particular time and apply it to the here and now. But, the methodology and the spirit and intuitions that he wrote about can be translated to our time, provided they don’t become dogmatic,” says Dirk. “With the absence of chemicals it’s a lot nicer to work in my vineyard, you don’t have to mask up… it’s a big joy.”
As with most biodynamic winegrowers, Dirk believes that it is redundant to manipulate the fruit from his vineyard too heavily back in the winery. He prefers to coax the grapes through the transformative process of wild fermentation in order to create the wine, which Dirk sees as a gift from nature.
“Wine is like nature’s poetry. It’s a gift of nature and you don’t want to put yourself in front of it and say ‘I’m the gift giver’, because I’m not the gift giver, I’m only sharing the gift,” explains Dirk. “We should respond to this gift, as with all gifts, with gratitude, rather than just forgetting all about the vineyard where the wine actually comes from.”
As the saying goes, ‘nothing added, nothing taken away’, and so Dirk does very little to actually convert the grape on the vine into a bottle of d’meure wine. No yeast cultures, no acid, tannin or any of the other usual additions are used, and no new oak, and no fining or filtration. d’meure wines are natural wines.
“If I add a manufactured, cultured yeast that I can choose out of a catalogue, such as a yeast that gives my wines a cherry flavour, or is a particular strain of killer yeast, what I’m adding is something out of a packet that wasn’t there in the first place, which kills or masks anything that is indigenous to the fruit that I’ve actually gone to the trouble of growing,” says Dirk.
“I can add enzymes and tannin, use bentonite or fish and egg products to fine my wine, rather than leave it in the barrel long enough for it to do so on its own. All of these processes are just cosmetic or market driven stuff…. but, by doing all this, all you have left is a sterile product… you’ve got to do something which retains some integrity of the work you’ve done in the vineyard,” says Dirk.
d’meure wines do contain sulphur, which Dirk adds right at the end, just before bottling.
“I adjust the already present levels of sulphur (as a result of fermentation) to about 15ppm, which is incredibly low (the maximum allowable limit is 300ppm for Australian wines),” explains Dirk.
Some would argue that Dirk’s way of ‘making’ wine is lazy, but he just counters that argument by saying, “if the product was undrinkable, then I suppose it is lazy winemaking, but I haven’t heard too many complaints… I’m doing the work in the vineyard and I’m being true to the integrity of the fruit that’s being produced, rather than being heavy handed.”
The d’meure vineyard is not certified, because Dirk doesn’t think it’s worth the time or the money to do so.
“You’d be mad to be certified,” says Dirk. “Certification is used for marketing purposes. For me, the wine should speak for itself, because if I’m serious about taking the responsibility of growing and managing the vineyard, I can’t hand over the decision-making to people in an office somewhere, away from the vineyard.”
“At the end of the day, it’s what’s inside the bottle, rather than what’s on the label, and besides, I only make around 300 cases a year, so I’m too small for (certification) to be worth my while,” he adds.
Nature, the eternal gift giver, has found Bacchus a new home amongst the vineyards of Tasmania, and Dirk has taken advantage of her accord by sharing these gifts with us. We should be thankful that his wine arrives in our glass untainted, as a true and pure expression of place.
“I’m the beneficiary of someone who’s found a beautiful place to grow some grapes and make some wine. My role as custodian of this place is a great gift.”
D// – The Wine Idealist