“If you really want to push the boundaries and express what you say you’re trying to express, ie. ‘that wine comes from that vineyard’, then you can’t be using chemicals,” says Duncan Forsyth, “otherwise… give me a break.”
Duncan Forsyth is part ‘recalcitrant, insubordinate, revolutionist, and mischievous’ owner, winemaker and General Manager of Mount Edward, a wine label from Central Otago, New Zealand, which was established in 1994, in the sub-region of Gibbston. Set below cool wisps of white cloud and the twin peak ranges of the Gibbston Valley, about 25 minutes drive from Queenstown, Mount Edward grows site specific wines that aim to reflect the stunning enclosures and dramatic summits of the Earth’s most southern winegrowing region.
“We’re not interested in producing varietal or regionally driven wines as our end result,” says Duncan. “At the moment, we have a few of those and they’re good, but ultimately, we want to walk the talk of vineyard based wines, which is easier said than done, for most people.”
Mount Edward have a number of different vineyards they use to make their wines from, including three estate owned sites located in Lowburn and Bannockburn, in the sub-region of Cromwell. Plus, the Drumlin vineyard, which was the first Mount Edward vineyard to be planted in 1994 by Alan Brady, the label’s original owner. Each of these three vineyards are managed organically and are certified by BioGro. Mount Edward also use a number of other growers’ vineyards to make their wine, which are spaced around Central Otago, and are either certified organic, or currently in conversion.
“What we’re finding is that when you start using organics and biodynamics, because we use elements of both practices, our vineyards are in much better health, than if we were using anything artificial,” says Duncan. “We wanted no outside influences or inputs from these types of fertilisers, weed sprays and so on.”
Central Otago soils are made up, mostly, of schist, loess and alluvial gravels, as a result of glacial out-washes over 40 million years ago. Most of the soils here are low on organic matter, which is compounded by super low rainfall and, as a result, a lot of the beneficial nutrients, minerals, microbes and bacteria that help nourish a vine and allow it to grow are locked away deep down within the subsoil. Duncan believes that by not using synthetic chemical fertilisers and herbicides, his vineyards are much healthier and the roots of the vines are better able to forage further to reach that all important subsoil goodness.
“Everywhere will have similar topsoil, but all vineyards will have a different and unique subsoil,” explains Duncan, “and if you want to express that in a transparent way, the uniqueness of your soil, whatever it gives you, then you have to allow the vine the ability to discover that subsoil and gain the nutrients and minerals that helps to give your wine that sense of uniqueness, specific to your vineyard.”
“For us, being organic, is about having a vineyard that is healthy and allows the vines to reach the subsoil terrain in order to get what it needs,” continues Duncan, “rather than feeding it all those synthetic fertilisers, which makes the vines lazy and less expressive.”
Unlocking the secrets of the subsoil and expressing that through wine, so that the wine is distinctly unique and exclusive to that site, that place, is one of the greatest achievements any winegrower could ever hope to accomplish when producing wine. Without that element of distinction, a wine can easily slip into the realms of any ordinary alcoholic beverage derived from grapes. Organic and biodynamic farming principals, when applied to viticulture, allow for that distinction to manifest itself more easily, than if it were done so with poisons.
“If you really want to make or grow a wine that has a marker for a certain vineyard, then the only way to do that is to do it organically,” says Duncan, “because you have to promote the best environment for the vine to express that, and you cannot tell me that the best environment is achieved by using synthetic chemicals and fertilisers… it’s nonsense.”
“I’m not saying you can’t make good wines… but, how much better could it be?” continues Duncan. “Ultimately, you’re growing something, so why would you not want it to be the healthiest it could possibly be? Ask anyone who’s sceptical if their vege garden is also sprayed with herbicide and chemical fertilisers. Unless you’ve actually gone there and seen (organics), then don’t tell me it’s just not better… not many people go over to organics or biodynamics and then move back again,” says Duncan.
Due to the large diurnal temperature range, Central Otago wines are known for their high acidity, especially within the white wines of the region. These wines are able to achieve a vivid freshness and vitality that lifts, in particular, the rieslings from this region to cool, refreshing heights. But these are mostly regional characteristics, so how does Mount Edward express site specific characteristics in their wines? Duncan says it’s all to do with texture.
“Fruit is the flesh of the wine,” explains Duncan. “The bones are the phenolics, which are kept up or down by acidity, which is how we look at it. So then the question is, as a winemaker, how much flesh do you want over the bones? Do you want something that’s big and fleshy in the mouth, or do you want something that’s leaner, where you can see right through the wine.”
“A typical Central Otago pinot noir” continues Duncan, “can easily achieve that big, ripe, fleshy, fruit, which is a regional characteristic. But, at that point you can’t see through it and it becomes all about variety and the regional take on that variety. More interesting wines will have multiple layers, which includes texture and phenolics and, for me, that’s where the markers lie for each individual vineyard.”
D// – The Wine Idealist