“Chemicals are expensive and not good for you, or the environment,” says Duncan Harris from Harris Organic Wines, in the Swan Valley, 30 minutes drive north-west of Perth, Western Australia, “so it’s safer to just leave them out.”
Duncan Harris is a Swan Valley winegrower and was brought up on a mixed farm in Tasmania, with chickens, sheep, cattle, barley, peas, wheat, and even potatoes. He left home and headed north to Melbourne, to study mechanical engineering, before arriving in Perth in 1993. By ’98, he’d bought a property in the burgeoning region of Swan Valley, and set about planting a vineyard on two, of his three hectare property.
“The only thing growing up on the farm in Tasmania taught me was how to start a tractor,” says Duncan. “I picked up grape growing and winemaking from reading books and chatting with some very helpful neighbors (in W.A.), and there’s still plenty of things still to learn,” he says.
Duncan manages his property using organic methods of viticulture, and has done so since the very beginning. The first vines were planted in 1999, and Duncan continued planting until 2002. His vineyard now consists of a mix of different varietals including verdelho, chardonnay, chenin blanc, shiraz, malbec, pedro and muscadet. It was certified in 2006 and he is the only certified organic (ACO) wine producer in the Swan Valley.
“Certification does cost a lot, but it’s important for assuring your product is what you say it is,” explains Duncan. “There are just too many in the wine industry, and elsewhere, who say they’re organic, but are not certified, or have been and since dropped certification, but are still pretending to be so.”
The Harris Wines vineyard is dry grown, with Duncan choosing not to irrigate the vines. Instead, they must delve down deep into the heavy clay subsoil in search of water and other essential nutrients in order to survive. This, Duncan says, makes the vineyard healthier, stronger and better able to resist any disease pressure the vineyard may face.
“It’s quite easy to grow organically here, mainly because of our high temperatures, and dry summers,” says Duncan, “and a non-irrigated organic vineyard can certainly be achieved in this climate, and still produce grapes of quality that are just as good as anywhere else…. you can see how much work we put into the vineyard from how healthy it looks.”
Duncan says that his vines are, ‘free range vines’, and he does everything by hand. From the pruning in the winter, to the harvesting in the summer, Duncan spends a lot of time in his vineyard. And, because organic growing prohibits the use of any synthetic chemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides being sprayed onto the vineyard, Duncan must remove weeds manually, by using what’s called a silly plough. This is a special under vine weeder that is maneuvered in and out around the base of the vine, turning the weeds up, out and over in the process. This is an effective way to remove weeds away from the vine rows, without having to use conventional poisons, such as glyphosate.
While Duncan whole-heartedly subscribes to organic methods of viticulture to manage and maintain the health and vitality of his property, he doesn’t have any plans to move into biodynamics, because he is sceptical of its methods.
“I’m sceptical of biodynamics,” says Duncan. “I can’t, for the life of me, see how stirring water and adding small doses of something to it is going to make any difference, in a homeopathic sense, in the vineyard… if someone can come along and give me the scientific basis for biodynamics, I’d be happy to embrace it.”
When it comes to winemaking, Duncan hand picks the fruit, and will inoculate the ferment with “natural yeasts,” from grapes picked from within the vineyard, a week before harvest starts. Duncan is against making unnecessary additions to his wines, but he does reserve the right to make some, including tartaric acid for acid adjustment, bentonite clay for clarification and sulphur dioxide, which under Australian organic certification standards cannot exceed 150ppm (150mg/L).
“All wines that are of a dry style have acid additions,” explains Duncan, “because the grapes will have a higher sugar content (meaning high potential alcohol) than what we’d like to pick them at. If we picked any earlier, we would get very green characters in the wines… A typical saying in the Swan Valley is, ‘acid in the must is a must’, ” says Duncan. “We do this to achieve acid balance in the wine.”
Duncan also adds ‘fluffy white tannin’, which is a specially formulated tannin compound used for white wines (and also mead) to provide structure and prevent oxidation and browning. From a sensory perspective, it can contribute to a softer mouthfeel and an increased perception of sweetness, without adding sugars. Duncan makes no additions to the wines that have 10 grams of residual sugar or more.
“All my natural dessert wines have no acid additions or any other additions,” explains Duncan, “as they are made from semi dried vine ripened fruit with concentrated acid levels due to the shrivelling.” There is no refrigeration used, no fining, no filtering, just well grown grapes are used to make these organic dessert wines.
In 2001, Duncan built an underground cellar, which provides naturally cooler storage temperatures, while reducing electricity costs. The red wines are stored down here, along with some of the port and brandy that he makes under the Harris Organic Wine label. Duncan also makes certified organic vodka from the left over grape marc, in Australia’s only certified organic distillery. Whatever is left over after making the wine, brandy and vodka goes straight onto compost piles, to eventually finds it’s way back onto the vineyard, where it first came from.
“We use everything that we can get from the vineyard,” says Duncan. “We use the whole of the product… we’re not holistic, but wholesome. Nothing goes to waste.”
D// – The Wine Idealist