“We’re very uncool,” says Richard Angove, from Angove Wines, based in the McLaren Vale, South Australia. “But, our philosophy definitely starts in the vineyard, and everything else comes after that.”
Angove Wines is an old family business, founded in 1886 by Richard Angove’s great, great grandfather, Dr William T. Angove. He had emigrated from Cornwall, in England, to the foothills of Adelaide, South Australia and set up a medical practice. Initially, Dr Angove planted 10 acres of vines and made mostly fortified wines, as a kind tonic for his patients. It wasn’t until 2004, 118 years after the first Angove vines were planted, that Richard and his team decided they would pursue a more sustainable farming system to manage the Angove vineyards.
“We started with an experimental patch in 2004,” says Richard. “Organic viticulture came about from us really wanting to look after our vineyards in the best way possible, and in the most sustainable way. We knew that it took three years to obtain organic certification, so we understand that this is a long term undertaking.”
Angove own and manage a total of 400 acres, both in the McLaren Vale and the Riverland, 180 of which are certified by Australian Certified Organic (ACO). There is another 60 acres currently in conversion, while a further 70 has just begun the conversion process this year. Their intention is to eventually convert the entire 400 acres over to certified organic viticulture.
“It’s going to be a long process,” says Richard, “because it does cost money, but we’re just going to keep chipping away at it.”
“The first year of conversion (to organic viticulture), you see a reduction in yield, because you’ve basically switched the vine off from these steroids (synthetic chemical inputs),” says Richard. “In doing so, you force the vine to work harder to get the roots to go deeper down into the soil and establish a different type of balance.”
“What we saw two years into conversion,” continues Richard, “was that the vines came back and the vineyard itself was much more balanced and producing really nice, clean fruit. Even in bad seasons, our organic vineyards tend to do much better than our conventional ones.”
Richard cites the winegrowing horror show that was vintage 2011 and believes that that was the moment when everyone at Angove recognised the benefits of organics as an effective method of farming grapes. He says that the vines themselves were much stronger and more able to roll with the punches.
“2011 was a really challenging vintage,” says Richard, “because it was wet and cool and there was a lot more disease pressure. We found that our organic vines just out performed the conventional vines… you could easily see the difference. That was the vintage that confirmed for us, and anyone who wasn’t a believer, that there was something in this.”
There are a number of challenges that any viticulturist faces once they’ve stopped using synthetic chemicals to grow their grapes. A perceived increase in disease pressure and unwanted weeds can deter many a grower from switching to a more softer approach, but where the Angove vineyards are planted, in the Riverland and McLaren Vale, it makes converting to organics a bit of a no brainer.
“The suitability of the McLaren Vale and the Riverland is so conducive to organics,” explains Richard, “because there’s low disease pressure, the growing season is generally warm and dry, with very little rainfall.”
Organic viticulture forces a grower to be more involved with their vineyard, because they’re having to be out amongst it, almost everyday. They need to know what’s going on out there in order for them to be proactive, rather than reactive, whenever disease and weeds become an issue. Mechanical weeding can be a time consuming aspect to organic growing, but Angove have been trialling a few alternatives in recent years.
“Nick Bakkum, our vineyard manager, has been trialling high pressure steam spraying for weed control,” explains Richard, “which is basically a large steam unit fixed to the back of a tractor, and rather than going through and slashing, this jets out a high pressure steam that sprays over the mid row weeds. When you come back to check, 45 minutes later, they’re all dying.”
“We’ve also been using pine oil, because if you look under a pine tree, where the pine needles fall, generally nothing grows,” continues Richard. “That’s because the oil of the pine is a natural weedacide, so we use that to help control weeds as well. It does make the vineyard smell a bit like Pine O Clean…”
By stopping the use of herbacides and other harmful synthetics to remove weeds, and converting over to an organic growing regime, Richard believes that this is ultimately better for the soil, where everything comes from.
“(Since converting to organics) we have much healthier soils,” says Richard, “because at the end of the day, the vines’ roots are in that soil and we want it to be sucking up all of the good stuff, and none of the bad, so that we can produce really good quality fruit.”
Once you achieve good quality fruit, it should follow (provided you have a competent winemaker) that you can make good quality wine.
Angove make organic wine accessible to the everyday wine drinker by producing, amongst others, a selection of wines that can compete with many other wines within a lower price bracket, dispelling the myth that organic wines are always more expensive.
Within their entry level organic range, Angove produce a sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, merlot, and shiraz cabernet, with 70% of the fruit coming from their vineyards in the Riverland, and 30% from the McLaren Vale. The Riverland fruit is machine harvested, while the McLaren Vale is hand-picked.
“Growing grapes in the Riverland provides us with efficiency and good economies of scale,” says Richard, “and the additional component of the McLaren Vale lifts the quality of our wines.”
The Angove Organic range of wines are made with no sulphur additions in the vineyard, or during crushing/pressing, because, under Australian certification standards, an organic wine cannot exceed 150ppm, and Richard says they like to use the least amount of sulphur possible, anyway. Their chardonnay, for example, is fermented using indigenous yeast, and is left on lees while it matures in oak for up to 6 months. A small addition of sulphur is made on the first racking (moving the wine), and then lightly filtered at bottling. Much the same is done for the reds, however, Richard says they will add a cultured yeast to control the ferment to make sure it ferments dry.
“We can’t use a yeast nutrient, like DAP, to help with the ferment,” explains Richard, “so we need to make sure we’re growing the grapes properly and ensure they already contain the right levels of nitrogen in the first place, and mushroom compost is great for doing that.”
There are some winemaking additives that are allowable under Australian organic certification, such as enzymes, acid, or tannin additions, but Richard will always prefer to pick the grapes at the right time, lest he undo all of the hard work done in the vineyard over the last 12 months.
“We try to pick our grapes with good natural acidity and tannin ripeness, so that we don’t have to rely on making any additions at all,” says Richard.
“We’ve been growing grapes for a hundred odd years,” says Richard, “and we want to be growing grapes for another hundred odd years. The best way to do that is with organics, because we want our vines growing in the best possible soil, so the grapes have got really nice flavors, and so do our wines.”
D// – The Wine Idealist