“Everyone has heard of the Garden of Eden,” says John Nagorcka, winegrower and farmer from Hochkirch Wines in Victoria, “but, you haven’t heard of the Garden of Monsanto, or DuPont.”
John comes from a farming family, but moved away from the land to study radiology at university in Melbourne. He worked in the field for a while after graduating, but soon the intrinsic feelings for farming returned, and in 1990 he and his wife, Jenny, purchased the family farm in Tarrington, within the Henty wine region of Victoria, and set about establishing a 3 acre vineyard on the property.
“We planted according to best practice in Australia at the time, which is low density, high fruiting wires, wide rows, and a whole stack of different varietals,” says John, “simply because we weren’t sure what would work.”
Vines hadn’t been planted in the region for over 100 years, so John had very little to go on, in terms of what grape varieties would be best suited to the cool climate of Henty. The vineyard was managed ‘conventionally’, using synthetic chemicals, such as herbicides to counter weeds and disease pressures, but the layout of the vineyard, as well the types of grape varieties they planted was wrong. So, in ’95 and ’96, John replanted. Noticing the similarities in climate in Henty with Burgundy, John focussed on Pinot Noir, planting 4.5ha alongside smaller plantings of Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Semillon and Shiraz.
“We did some more planting in 1995 and 1996,” says John, “and modified the way we did things, ending up with much higher vine density, lower fruiting wires, and narrow rows, because we learnt that that method worked much better in our environment.”
John continued to use glyphosate, or Roundup as it’s more commonly known, to combat weeds, but soon found that the health of the soil was slowly being depleted, becoming cracked, hardened and more compacted.
“We used Roundup initially, and did so up until 1999, for weed control,” says John, “which was the only non-organic input we used. But, that’s a pretty significant non-organic input.”
Roundup is a systemic herbicide used to kill weeds and grasses that are known to compete with commercial crops, such as grape vines. It works by inhibiting an enzyme involved in the synthesis of certain amino acids, and absorbed through the foliage of the plant or weed, which gets translocated to its growing points.
“Roundup destroys soil, and I could see the soil (of my vineyard) becoming progressively compacted. Then problem weeds started appearing, which were fairly resistant to glyphosate,” explains John. “Herbicides tend to kill some plants very easily and other plants with great difficulty,” John continues, “so you end up selecting for certain weeds and plants that are resistant to herbicide, meaning that they proliferate and you have a very unnatural selection of different species of weeds that are very resistant to glyphosate.”
This unnatural selection and proliferation of Roundup resistant weeds means that stronger doses need to be applied each time. This, of course, simply forces the weeds to evolve to become even more resistant, meaning you then have to use a broader and more powerful mix of chemicals, which can be highly toxic to not only the soil and plants they’re being sprayed on, but also to the humans who are doing the spraying.
“It’s a troublesome spiral,” explains John,” because you’re actually creating the problem of weed control. The whole point of management is to reduce and avoid problems, and by using herbicides you’re creating problems… and that’s a highly unsatisfactory method of weed control, even without the environmental and detrimental soil effects.”
(In the immortal worlds of Dr Ian Malcolm, “life, ah… finds a way.”)
Dissatisfied by the damaging effects of Roundup and the costs associated with having to continue buying more and using more each time (much to the delight of Monsanto!), John went looking for a better way of doing things. He stopped spraying glyphosate and transitioned to organic viticulture, and then discovered biodynamics.
“Biodynamics is something that arouses passions in people, either positive or negative,” says John. “I’d expected it to be something somewhat arcane, and tending towards mysticism, but what I found was a method of farming that made a good deal of sense by focussing on farming from the perspective of nature.”
“The point is,” continues John, “there’s nothing natural about farming, it’s a very unnatural activity, even though, in our technological world, farming is about the only natural thing that goes on, but it’s not. As soon as you start to farm, you disrupt nature’s organisation and then you have to maintain a healthy environment and a productive enterprise that best deals with that disruption.”
Biodynamics puts the human element back into agriculture by cultivating a very natural method of farming, despite agriculture’s intrinsic unnaturalness, and allows, or rather encourages, a farmer to work with nature, rather than against it.
“Biodynamic farmers really enjoy and love what they do,” says John, “whereas a lot of conventional farmers don’t. If you look at conventional farmer’s kids, many don’t want to continue to farm, which accounts for the progressive loss of people living and working on the land. If you’re livelihood requires you to use all of these nasty chemicals,” continues John, “well, that’s not how people want to live. If you’re farming organically, or with the BD method, you’re riding the tiger of nature and using it to achieve your ends, which is a much more exciting thing to do.”
One of the best elements of biodynamic viticulture, or farming of any kind, in addition to its harm minimisation of the environment, is that it allows the products grown in this way to taste better, which of course is fundamental when it comes to wine.
“Conventionally grown wines tend to taste fairly flat, in comparison with many biodynamic wines, which can taste more alive,” explains John. “When things grow naturally, funnily enough, they taste better. They have better flavour, better nutrient balance, and they end up being a totally different product.”
John doesn’t do much when it comes to making his Hochkirch wines, describing it as, “particularly boring.”
“We hand pick, and with the reds (Pinot and Shiraz) we invariably destem, but still use a lot of whole bunch in the ferments,” explains John. “Fruit is put into open top fermenters, and usually sits there for a variable period, depending on how warm it was when it went in. I like to have it sit for about 4 to 5 days before it starts to ferment, using wild yeasts. We then let it sit between 2 and 6 weeks, before it’s pressed into tank and left to settle for 24 hours. Then, it’s moved into mainly old wood, where it stays for a year. It gets racked once, and sulphured if it needs it, and then a further seven months later it’s bottled.”
John doesn’t usually make any additions to improve the wine, unless it’s been a particularly hot year, and then he’ll add acid if he thinks the wine needs it. John says, “fining and filtering is unnecessary because it inevitably strips the wine of its character.”
“Everything we do out in the vineyard is designed to avoid having to do those sorts of manipulations back in the winery,” explains John.
“The whole concept of the Garden of Eden is where things are presented at their absolute best,” says John, “and that’s our idea of nature, despite all of the stupidity of conventional farming methods, we still have this fundamental idea. What biodynamic farmers are doing is presenting a method of farming based on nature. We’re growing things with the BD method, the way nature intended them to be, and that’s what really motivates me to do what I do,” says John.
D// – The Wine Idealist