In 2009, the Black Saturday Bushfires ripped through much of the state of Victoria, destroying 2,100 homes and properties, including Kate Kirkhope’s vineyard at Tarrawarra, in the Yarra Valley.
“The fires tore through and obliterated our entire property,” says Kate, “and it was just way too big an expense to try and rehabilitate the property for winegrowing again.”
Until this time, Kate was making wine under her own label, Kiltynane Wines, in Tarrawarra. A couple of years before the bushfires, Kate started working for a family down on Basil’s Farm, on the Bellarine Peninsula, located south-west of Melbourne, opposite Mornington. Here, she was asked to convert the property, and it’s vineyard, over to biodynamics, by current owners Jim and Tina McMeckan. After the bushfires torched her vineyard in February 2009, Kate sold the property at Tarrawarra and moved Kiltynane Wines down to Swan Bay.
“The bushfires left us with, pretty much, nothing,” explains Kate, “and the McMeckan’s offered to buy out my business and move it down to the Bellarine Peninsula, so we could start again. We’ve grown exponentially since moving here, adding a cellar door and buying in more fruit from our growers than we initially anticipated. Now, we’re looking at buying some surrounding properties and vineyards.”
Basil’s Farm is located in a wetland region, in the cool climate of the Bellarine Peninsula, where temperatures throughout the growing season don’t get up much above 23˚C.
“Basil’s Farm faces south-west and we get gales off the southern ocean, which can cause problems with salt burn on the leaves during the growing season,” explains Kate. “The soils range from sandy loam over ironstone and pebbly clays, through to calcareous shelly soils, closer to the coast.”
Kiltynane Wines produce pinot noir, shiraz, and chardonnay. Most of the pinot is grown on the Basil’s Farm vineyard, which was first planted in 1997, and has been managed biodynamically since Kate took over in 2007. It is not certified. More pinot, as well as the shiraz and chardonnay come from other grower’s vineyards around the area, which, according to Kate, “don’t spray anything other than copper and sulphur, so no herbicides or other chemicals… We’re as coastal as you can get and disease pressure is relatively low.”
Biodynamics, for Kate, is logical. She utilises its (beyond) organic approach to viticulture to achieve greater quality fruit by getting the vines to be in balance with their environment, which, she says, will enable her to make the best wine she can.
“I wouldn’t use anything else, because biodynamics is the only logical way to make the best wine you can,” says Kate. “I want to concentrate all of my efforts towards maximising soil microflora, which allows me to have healthy vines and try to make the best, most complex and balanced wines I can from this place.”
Herbicides, like Round Up, which contains glyphosate, one of the most popular (and most toxic) systemic herbicides, not only destroys weeds, it also kills good soil bacteria, and can affect a plant’s – e.g. a vine – micronutrient uptake and disease resistance . Soil bacteria and other microbiology is absolutely essential for good vine health. The aim of biodynamic agriculture is to boost soil microbiology, via the application of certain organic inputs, called preparations, which will strengthen and increase vine health.
“Organics is a great way to grow things, but biodynamics is like an extra level of detail that enhances microbiology and life in the soil, and enables the vine to become much more efficient,” explains Kate.
By not using herbicides, like Round-Up, the vine is able to grow and develop properly, establishing fine root hairs on the roots of the vine, who’s job it is ‘to collect water and mineral nutrients present in the soil and take this solution up through the roots to the rest of the plant’. Their large surface area ‘makes absorbing both water and minerals more efficient using osmosis’. Glyphosate not only kills the weeds and grass that competes for water and nutrients with the vine, it also destroys the microbiological flora within the soil, and these important fine root hairs of the vine, or plant… It has also been found to be ‘probably carcinogenic in humans’.
“Preparation 500 is not a fertiliser, it’s more like a natural bacterial inoculate, which increases the fertility and life of the soil,” explains Kate. “This increases the vine’s fine root hairs on the plant and those root hairs are the mechanism for unlocking vital nutrients in the soil. Biodynamics allows the vine to be balanced and healthy.”
Growing healthy, balanced fruit is one thing. Transforming it safely into wine is another. Kate didn’t study winemaking at university. Instead, she went to France, and learnt how to make wine in Burgundy.
“I didn’t want to go to university,” says Kate, “I wanted to go to France and learn winemaking there. I wanted to make wine naturally, not in a laboratory. I wanted to learn about wild ferments, and focus my attention on the soil and the vine and how it grows, and then how I can express that in the glass.”
Kate’s aim for winemaking is to express time and place in a glass. For her, it’s all about the vintage and she says there’s no such thing as a good or a bad vintage, it just is what it is.
“All of our fruit is hand picked and fermented in half tonne cuvées using indigenous yeast for the ferments,” explains Kate. “Sometimes we’ll cold soak, or we might use whole bunches, but it’s all dependent on the individual parcels and what the vintage has provided.
“Learning winemaking in France taught me to decide on where the wine might go during the season,” continues Kate, “and to just follow the vintage. There’s no good or bad vintages, you just have to accept the way it is.
“I believe you can always have a great vintage,” says Kate, “so long has you’re sensitive to what the grapes need and how they should be handled.”
D// – The Wine Idealist
Links and Further Reading:
- Kiltynane Wines
- Bellarine Peninsula (map)
- Biodynamics is Way of Life (by Kate Kirkhope)
- Widely Used Herbicide Linked to Cancer (Scientific American)