It’s a bit cooler up here. Especially when the clouds pass overhead and obscure the sun that is shining down on the bare patch of brown earth below. Four men are working together on a gentle crest that marks the top of a 6 acre property which looks out over Pokolbin, in the Hunter Valley. One of them drives a tractor, which is hitched to a large green tub filled with water and connects another two men, following close behind, holding what looks like a modified pogo stick that shoots out a jet of water from the end where the spring would normally be. One of them bends down and shoves something into the ground. A fourth man trails behind, a little further back, filling in the holes the pogo stick makes.
“I don’t think anyone has done planting like this, in the Hunter, for about 80 years,” says Usher Tinkler, third generation farmer and winemaker for Tinklers Wines in the Hunter Valley.
Usher Tinkler and Michael Corbett are two of the men trailing behind the tractor, planting shiraz vines on a new patch of the Tinkler’s property, which is going to be farmed biodynamically.
Michael Corbett is the associate winemaker for Crush House wines, of which Usher is a part-owner, and has his own label, Vanguardist, with his first vintage release being this year’s 2014 HVB (tasting notes below). Michael, originally from New Zealand, has been making wine and tending vines for almost 10 years, from his home in Hawke’s Bay, to Marlborough and Central Otago, Sonoma in California, and Minervois and Roussillon in France. He’s also done two previous Hunter vintages at Tyrrell’s and has just completed his third with Usher at the Crush House. His interest in biodynamics began in New Zealand, having converted a chardonnay vineyard in Hawke’s Bay over to BD.
“The first time I saw a biodynamic vineyard, I thought it was pretty crazy,” explains Michael, “but then I saw the vineyard flourish in a tough year…. it was healthy and the fruit still looked good, and for me, it felt like the right thing to do.”
Michael has convinced Usher to plant a brand new vineyard on this property, which Usher had always been planning to do anyway, but certainly not in the way Michael was suggesting. This vineyard is to be close planted, with vines spaced about a metre apart (instead of the usual three, which allows enough room for a tractor). It will be worked by a draught horse, farmed biodynamically, and, to top it all off, it is to be completely dry grown, meaning no irrgation.
“The Hunter has vines that are over 100 yeas old, and they’ve never been irrigated,” explains Michael, “so obviously, it works.”
“I reckon this is one of the best sites in the Hunter Valley,” says Usher. “Underneath us is a rich mix of expanding clays, which have good water holding capacity. Everything stacks up with this site and we’re giving it every chance… there’s a forecast for no rain over the next four weeks.”
Some people have laughed whenever Michael explains that they’ve bought a horse to work in the vineyard, but there’s a good reason behind his decision, and, for Usher, he likes the challenge of producing a wine without synthetic energy inputs.
“We’re using the draught horse to reduce the amount of compaction of the soil,” says Michael, “because these vines will eventually have a root system that goes out laterally as well as vertically. Tractors and other heavy machines roll over the same places every time when they drive down a row, which compacts the soil and makes it hard for any microbial life to thrive. So,” continues Michael, “the horse offers a lot less weight, and the pressure points are going to be spread out much more evenly.”
“We’re also interested in the idea of making a wine without any diesel or electrical energy inputs, and keeping it totally natural,” explains Usher. “They use horses a lot in Burgundy and that’s a challenging idea.”
Deciding to manage the property using a biodynamic regime offers Usher the chance to do something unique and challenging with his wines, and, for Michael, it’s the chance to really get involved with biodynamic winegrowing, from the ground up, as it were.
“This has been my dream to do something like this for four years now,” says Michael, “and when I met Usher, he had the resources and open mindedness to want to have a crack, if nothing else.”
“To me, it’s not just about biodynamics,” says Usher, “it’s about doing new and positive things that are challenging and interesting… The wine’s are going to be pretty unique from this site,” he continues, “and we want to make a wine in that traditional Hunter style… it’s going to take a lot of work, but that’s what happens when you’re trying to make something that no one else can.”
“Usher’s support, which is rare to find these days, makes it more exciting to do something special and unique in the Hunter,” says Michael, “and I hope this will inspire more people to do it.”
Ultimately, it’s about making, or rather growing, a great wine. Michael believes that any notions of greatness and it’s links to expressing terroir cannot happen if you’re spraying synthetic chemicals on you’re vineyard.
“I think it’s hard to believe in the concept of terroir if you’re spraying with herbicides and using synthetic nitrogen and other chemicals,” says Michael.
“The focus is to make a great wine and we think we can do that here from this site because of the way we’re managing it,” says Usher. “The wine comes from the vineyard, so the vineyard has to be the best that it can be.”
It will be at least 5 years before Usher and Michael can make wine from this new biodynamic vineyard in the Hunter Valley. The plan is to plant a little over 2000 vines this year, and follow it up with another lot next year. If all goes well, Usher may consider the prospect of expanding the biodynamic regime out over the rest of the property in the coming years. It’s a risk that takes an enormous amount of foresight, attention and observation, not to mention money, to successfully accomplish, but the rewards are certainly there.
“I think, as a region, we’ve been very slow to pick up organics and biodynamics,” says Usher, “there’s a few people pioneering it and they seem to be doing OK with it… We’re going to give it a shot, and if it doesn’t work, at least we can say we gave it a good go.”
It’s not just the biodynamic preparations that are being broadcast out over that hillside vineyard in the Hunter, to give the shiraz roots their best chance to grow. There’s an awful lot of optimism and enthusiasm being spread out too, and as James Millton, the godfather of biodynamic viticulture in the southern hemisphere says, “enthusiasm is the greatest fertiliser.”
D// – The Wine Idealist
Vanguardist, HVB (Hunter Valley Blanc), Hunter Valley, 2014 :: 100% semillon from Tinklers Poppy Block vineyard, 80% whole bunch, wild ferment (pied de cuvee), on skins for 30 days, no adds (SO2 110ppm), un-fined and un-filtered. Not organic/biodynamic.
A pastoral scene. Pale gold hay being baled up on a misty morning in the Hunter Valley. Brittle cheddar, lemon, dusted floral and fresh early morning perfumes. Curved textures. Strange for a sem so young. Refreshing and gently sweet, melon, ripe pineapple and sparked acids linger, salivate, and skulk behind embedded flash phenolics and avant originality. Curious, delicious… something good’s about to happen.