“One of the weaknesses of Australian wine is that many producers try to be all things to every body, and when you do that you tend to lose focus,” says Peter Fraser, Manager and Chief Winemaker at Yangarra Estate, in the McLaren Vale, South Australia.
The first vines to be planted at Yangarra were back in 1946, by Bernard Smart and his father, when the property was first known as ‘Lallah Rookh’ (love nest). They started out by planting grenache in the ironstone sands, approximately 15kms from Gulf St Vincent. In 2000, the less musically inclined Jackson family from America bought the property and re-named it Yangarra, after the aboriginal word, meaning, ‘from the earth’.
Nowadays, the property is a patchwork of many southern Rhône varietals including, roussane, viognier, picpoul noir and picpoul blanc, as well as grenache, shiraz, mataro, cinsault, and carignan, temparanillo, graciano, terret noir, vaccarèse, counoise, muscardin, bourboulenc, and clairette. These diverse varietals sprawl across 146 acres with 100 acres planted to vine, which are separated into 35 different blocks.
“My frustration, back in the early days, with Australian wine, particularly in South Australia, was that they were big and gloopy,” explains Peter. “So I wanted to be making wines that were potentially brighter in fruit with much more character of place, and biodynamics is a vehicle that helps us to get there.”
The Yangarra property has been farmed without the use of synthetic inputs and other agrochemicals since 2008, after Peter attended a seminar on biodynamic farming, where the importance of biodiversity in the soil and on the farm was highlighted to him.
“You’ve got all of these biological systems going on in the soil,” explains Peter, “and, by using chemicals, you’re removing their environment and really limiting what the plant can get from the naturally occurring minerals and elements that exist there.”
Peter returned to the property and began explaining his new approach to Yangarra’s viticulturist, Michael Lane, who originally trained as a horticulturist, and has been working with Peter for over 15 years.
“Our main priority (at Yangarra) is to capture the expression of the grape variety in our wines,” says Michael, “and if using biodynamics helps us get to that true expression, then why wouldn’t we use it?”
Making the transition from chemical agriculture to organics or biodynamics can be a daunting decision to make, especially from a financial perspective. Organic and biodynamic growing, of anything, will usually result in lower yields, which means there’s less fruit grown in the vineyard, meaning there’s less wine to make, and therefore sell. When there are bills and other financial commitments to service, those losses in yield, production and therefore potential income, usually means it’s easier to just stick to what you know.
“The first couple of years were the most trying,” says Michael, “but, we were fortunate enough to be able to purchase some specialised equipment. The Jackson family were supportive of what we were doing, so the initial capital outlay made it slightly easier,” he adds.
“Because we’re dry grown, we haven’t seen much decline from transitioning to organics,” explains Peter. “We’re probably down around 15% off our yields compared to a chemically farmed vineyard, but we’ve always aimed for around 3 tonne per acre, which is low anyway, and the vineyard is much healthier now because of how we’re managing it.”
Michael and Peter both describe a change in the overall look and feel of the vineyards at Yangarra, since converting over to biodynamic agriculture, describing it in terms of an unquantifiable feeling of positive energy and emotion.
“For the person who’s used to seeing a perfectly manicured row of vines, our vineyards can look untidy, but I reckon they look much nicer than any chemically sprayed out sites,” says Michael.
“When we apply the biodynamic preparations, there’s some positive emotions associated with spraying those preps out,” explains Michael. “We’re seeing quality increases in our wine, which may be due to biodynamics, because it makes us more focussed on the vineyard. Growing like this means we can’t be reactive, so we need to be proactive to try and prevent disease.”
“It’s like someone who eats junk food all the time,” says Peter. “They’re always having to go to the doctor to get antibiotics, which keeps them relatively healthy, as opposed to someone who simply eats healthy nutritious food, and exercises. The ammonium nitrates and glyphosates of the world are like feeding the vines junk food,” continues Peter. “If we can feed our vineyard in a healthier, more nutritional way that reflects the natural biological systems that existed long before chemicals were introduced, we’re going to have a much healthier vineyard, and more reflective wines.”
At first, Peter and Michael were cautious about obtaining certification for Yangarra, but after hearing so many stories that just didn’t seem to stack up, they decided that getting certified was important to show that they were genuine about what they were doing.
“The wine industry is full of stories,” explains Peter, “and out of all that comes some pretty extreme ones. Biodynamics is one of those stories that I see talked about in the marketplace and people will tell you that they’re kind of organic, or kind of biodynamic and it just gets thrown around as just another story to tell. So, we wanted to have the integrity that certification gives you,” continues Peter, “which validates us and cancels out anyone who might call us bullshitters.”
Yangarra’s vineyard and winery has been certified biodynamic since 2013 by Australian Certified Organic.
“Certification doesn’t mean that we’re better than anyone who isn’t,” says Michael, “especially if they truly are genuine and honest about it. But for us, it just shows that we’re committed to what we say we do.”
So, what about the wine’s that Peter makes?
“The winemaking is all done in the vineyard,” says Peter. “There’s a difference that you see in most of the best producers. The winemaker is as close to the vineyard as they can be, at all times. I live on the property, so I’m always talking with Michael about what we should do, and I’ll always help out with anything that needs to be done, as much as he’ll let me.”
D// – The Wine Idealist