The Sauvage family are American mid-west cotton and wheat farmers, originally from Oberlin, Kansas, who own land holdings right around the world, including a cotton farm in Moree NSW, Australia, and the wine estate known as Koehler Ruprecht, in the Pfalz region of Germany. Son, Marquis Sauvage, is a heavy metal fan and passionate about wine. He owns a wine bar in Colorado, and a wine distribution company that sells wine throughout a number of US states. In 2002, along with his wife Diane, Marquis purchased a much sought after property in Central Otago, New Zealand, and called it Burn Cottage.
“Marquis and Diane were visiting the Mornington Peninsula and then spent a few days in New Zealand,” explains Burn Cottage viticulturist, Shane Livingstone. “When they arrived in Central Otago they fell in love with the place, and decided to buy some land there.”
Shane Livingstone is Burn Cottage’s newly appointed viticulturist, having started working for the Sauvage family back in May 2014. He’s taken over from Jared Connolly, who established the vineyard with the Sauvage family in 2003, along with Californian winemaker, Ted Lemon of Littorai wines fame, and Peter Proctor, New Zealand’s own biodynamic master teacher.
“The Sauvage family decided to go biodynamic right from the start,” says Shane, “and approached Peter Proctor to help them through those early stages.”
The vineyard was initially planted with Pinot Noir, partly because of Ted Lemon’s experience with the grape in Burgundy, having been the first American to manage a Burgundian estate, at Domaine Guy Roulot in Meursault. Pinot accounts for over 93% of the total vineyard area, which is nestled between two large hills either side, protecting the rows from both northerly and southerly winds. Smaller plantings of Riesling and Grüner Veltliner soon followed to complete the 11 ha site.
“The grapes are planted on a mix of clones and rootstock,” explains Shane, “which have been carefully matched to each block. All of the Pinot is planted on north and north east facing slopes and the Riesling and Grüner are planted on an east facing slope, down in a gully on the property.”
“There aren’t too many other vineyards around Burn Cottage,” Shane continues, “and it gets really nice early morning sun. The hills cast a shadow which allows the site to accumulate a little more moisture than usual, which is a good thing, because moisture is a rarity in Central Otago.”
The average rainfall in Central Otago is between 350-600mm, making it the lowest average anywhere in New Zealand. Couple this with the region’s large diurnal range of hot days and cold nights, and minimal organic matter on the surface of the land, and you have an extreme region for growing grapes. Thus, careful management of the soil is extremely important.
“Biodynamics deals with an individual place or farm,” says Shane, “and invokes the whole property, which gives it a sense of personality, while also helping to build up healthy soils.”
According to Peter Proctor’s book, Grasp the Nettle, “an essential part of the art of farming is the observation of soil quality. When the biodynamic activity is working well in the soil on the farm, soils… have a common look to them.”
This common look is indicated by a slippery feel, dark chocolate-like colour, and a sweet earthy smell, otherwise known as humus. Biodynamics works by increasing the humus, or organic matter of the topsoil, which is derived from natural (rather than synthetic) inputs, such as compost. The preparations, especially 500, which is derived from fermented cow manure, boosts the microbial and bacterial communities, as well as fungi, within the soil, thereby increasing soil fertility. This means that the plant that resides within the soil can retrieve all the necessary nutrients it needs to grow, healthy and strong.
“One of the things about conventional (chemical) agriculture is that you’re bringing in all these inputs onto the farm, topping it up and force feeding it with synthetics until the property no longer resembles what it once was,” says Shane.
These synthetic off-farm inputs, in effect, end up stifling, or masking the true nature of the farm, or vineyard.
When a vineyard’s soil is healthy and fertile, the roots of the plants are free to forage further down in search of water, beneath the topsoil and into the subsoil, which is where ideas of terroir begin to take root, so to speak. Here lies all manner of clays, rocks and other minerals wine lovers cherish for providing a wine with a sense of place that is unique to a particular area. For example, the famous Kimmeridgean soils of Chablis are comprised mainly of limestone, clay and fossilised oyster shells. In Chablis, it’s said that these distinct soil types are what gives the wines their steeled, flinty and austere character, something which is unique to the region, and therefore denotes notions of terroir.
Without that healthy, fertile layer of humus in the topsoil, a vine’s ability to access and actively seek out water and nutrients from beneath the earth is severely stunted, and usually results in the roots lazily spreading out along the ground. Biodynamics promotes vitality not only within it’s farmers, but more importantly within the soil itself. This leads to healthier, more fertile soil, and therefore, more nutritious produce can be grown, such as grapes. Once in the hands of a skilled winemaker, these healthy grapes can be transformed into a wine that is able to express an authentic sense of place.
“We’re looking to make good wine, the best wine possible, which gets expressed through the careful management of the property… biodynamics helps us to do that,” explains Shane.
Burn Cottage is more of a mixed farm, rather than just a vineyard. In addition to the 11 ha of vineyard, there is a further 20 ha of farmland, which is home to grazing cattle that provide manure to make the cow pat pits and 500, as well as meat for staff. Sheep graze the grass and weeds and chickens scratch and spread out the manure, while bees help to pollinate other plants around the property, which promotes biodiversity and creates many natural biological controls to ward off unwanted pests and disease.
“We’re making more and more compost teas from the plants used in the biodynamic preparations,” says Shane, “because, ultimately, what we’re trying to do is build up the resilience of all these plants and animals so that they can stand on their own two feet, because they all interact with the property and bring out its character.”
By actively encouraging more biodiversity within a vineyard and incorporating other plant and animal species – similar to how a rainforest works – a sustainable integrated network, or web, from the soil up, is created, and helps the entire farming organism to be much more healthy and resistant to the types of pressures usually faced in a monoculture farming system.
“Instead of using up your entire chemical arsenal to try and fix a problem, biodynamics gives you a bigger toolbox, with more natural options to help tackle the kinds of problems farming presents,” says Shane.
D// – The Wine Idealist