On a north-east facing ridge, which slopes down towards the banks of the Hay River near Mount Barker, in Western Australia’s Great Southern wine region, there lies a biodynamically managed vineyard, flanked by Blue Gums and olive trees, set against a big sky, and comprised of shiraz, merlot, cabernet, semillon and sauvignon blanc wine grape varieties. The 6ha family owned property is managed by Matt Eastwell, a musician who used to write punk songs in his early 20’s, and now spends his time spraying out preparation 500 and fermenting grapes to make wine for his relatively new label, Freehand Wines.
“I spent my early 20’s playing in bands,” says Matt, “and I wanted to keep on the path of creativity, but study something at uni that I could eventually make a living out of.”
Matt studied a double degree of oenology (winemaking) and viticulture at Curtain University, in Perth, where his passion for creativity was sated by the art of fermentation. Despite his degree only making the slightest nod to organics and biodynamics as a viable alternative to agrochemical winegrowing, it was on a field trip to Cullen, in Margaret River, that Matt was properly exposed to BD for the first time.
“At uni, we had a field trip out to Cullen and I was struck by the health and vitality of the vineyard, versus other vineyards we’d been to,” says Matt.
Matt explains that seeing biodynamics in action on the Cullen vineyard was like flicking a switch, which changed his approach to managing his family’s vineyard, almost immediately.
“Biodynamics really caught my attention, because it’s like organics but with extras, and it just makes a lot of sense and resonates with me,” says Matt. “It’s like it flicks a switch and you think ‘well, if this can work, why would you do it any other way?'”
The Eastwell Estate vineyard, where the Freehand wines come from, was converted over to biodynamics (not certified) in 2008, despite being told many times by others in the region that it just wouldn’t work. Since then, Matt has noticed he’s a lot more engaged with what’s happening out amongst his vines, and is seeing an increase in overall fruit quality during vintage.
“The colours and the flavours in the reds we picked this year are just amazing,” explains Matt. “Every year we get better and better at what we do and I feel like I’m more in front of the vineyard. We based our picking decisions, this year, on the BD calendar and I used it to pick on fruit days and really saw a difference in the quality (of fruit) we picked.”
“Except during vintage when we hand pick, we do everything ourselves,” says Matt. “We do all the spraying, slashing, weeding, pruning, shoot thinning… because we’re cool climate we get a bit of rain so we need to keep the canopy open to reduce disease pressure. We work hard to reduce fruit load by paring things back to increase the airflow, which has really made a big difference.”
Matt has been making wine since 2003, initially salvaging whatever fruit he could from that which was left behind by some of the bigger winemaking companies in the region he sold his fruit to. It wasn’t until 2010 when Matt really put his hand to the plow and began making wine for his own label, Freehand Wines.
Freehand Wines are made without any winemaking additions, including acid, tannin, enzymes or sulphur, not even at bottling. Matt makes preservative free wines, but they aren’t, what many proponents of these types of wines would call natural wines, because he inoculates with a packet yeast.
“We inoculate using a packet yeast to get the fermentation up and going, quicker and earlier,” says Matt. “We want to retain the purity of fruit we’re getting from our vineyard, and because we don’t sulphite the must, we made the decision to get the ferment going as quickly as possible with an inoculum. It’s going to give us faster CO2 coverage and help us to keep that fruit purity that we’re really chasing… it’s a calculated decision,” says Matt.
Once the ferment has stopped and the skins, stems and seeds have been pressed off, the left over grap marc is piled onto the composting bays Matt has built, which then get broadcast back out over the vineyard to prepare for the next vintage. By doing this, Matt believes that he can cultivate a specific set of yeast strains that he has grown up in the winery, which will eventually become the basis for his move over to wild yeast ferments.
“If we decide to use indigenous yeast, which we’d really like to do at some point, we’d probably still inoculate,” explains Matt. “I would go out into the vineyard the day before and pick a small sample of grapes, crush them and get that natural ferment going, so that when I bring in the larger amounts of fruit, I can inoculate with that starter culture. This would still be a cultured yeast, but it’d be an indigenous cultured yeast,” says Matt.
In a way, Matt is a bit like an immigration officer for particular strains of yeast cultures. Ensuring the future prosperity of his vineyard and the quality of wine that grows there.
“Because the vineyard had been managed using chemicals before I owned it, I now want to make sure that the indigenous yeasts that are in the vineyard are the one’s I want,” says Matt.
Aside from the packet yeast inoculation, Matt makes no other additions to his wines. The whites are run through a course filtration, “just to brighten them up a little bit,” but the reds are bottled without any fining or filtration, and both whites and reds contain no added sulphur at bottling. The decision to make preservative free wine stems from Matt’s love of drinking natural wines and not wanting to undo all the hard work he’s done throughout the year, in the vineyard, just when it matters most.
“We’re growing fruit biodynamically, so to go and add anything synthetic to the wine seems like a backward step. In our minds, to not add sulphur, if we can do it, is almost like the holy grail of winemaking.”
D// – The Wine Idealist