If someone told you that filling a cow’s horn with manure and planting it at a certain phase of the moon would help produce healthier grapes and vines, you could be forgiven for thinking they had gone nuts.
Weird, it may sound, but this is one of the fundamental steps in biodynamics, a form of organic viticulture embraced by hundreds of wineries throughout the world, which originated in Europe more than 90 years ago.
Dramatic changes to our planet have changed the way we think about those components we typically take for granted - the water we drink, the food we eat, the air we breathe and the way we treat the land that makes this all possible.
To some, the words ‘’sustainability” and ‘’organic’’ may come across as soft and fuzzy buzzwords – and are often misused, but grape growers are grabbing onto it, with many winemakers and viticulturists making a move towards more sustainable farming methods and gaining a better understanding of biodynamic and organic farming and winemaking.
While it may have started out as a cottage industry in the 1970s, organic winemaking in Australia has gained significant popularity to the point where there is now a rising number of organic farmers in the Australian wine industry.
At the same time, a growing proportion of skilled and business-savvy wine-makers have embraced innovative production processes and cutting-edge technology to produce critically acclaimed, award-winning and commercially successful organic wines.Organic wine is wine made from grapes grown in accordance with principles of organic farming, and like organic foods,is produced without the use of artificial chemical fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. It is said that there are an estimated 2000 organic wine producers globally, with more than 900 of these organic producers based in France alone.
Bio-dynamic farming often referred to as ''an advanced method of organic farming'', is all of the above but goes further by introducing the principles established in 1924 by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Steiner advocated a system that emphasises manure and compost -and an astrological approach to planting and harvesting based on the phases of the moon and the stars. Decisions such as when to spray the preparations, when to weed and when to pick should all be made according to a calendar that details the phases of the moon and stars.
Practically speaking, biodynamic wine is made from grapes grown on land where the environment as a whole (not just the vines) plays a role in the process. For instance, other crops and even animals are used in the farming mix to make the land healthier, sustainable and more fertile.In other words, rather than focus on the health of individual plants,Steiner’s system teaches that good health requires that the entire ecosystem in which the plant is growing be thriving. This includes the other plants, the soil, the animals and even the humans who are working the land.
So, is all this nonsense? Not so, according to the ever-increasing number of wine producers in Australia and internationally who have embraced biodynamics.Choosing an environmentally sustainable approach to viticulture is obviously to be applauded in these times of climate change. However,talk to biodynamic producers, and you’ll find that superior wine quality and environmental protection is the number one motivation for adopting biodynamic methods.
To become a certified biodynamic producer, a farm needs first to be certified organic, and then if biodynamic principles are added to the farming program, the term biodynamic can apply.
It's hard to get an accurate number of just how many wine producers are employing biodynamic principles. It’s a method of cultivation that is rapidly catching on among wine producers and therefore a very rapidly changing picture. In addition, besides those already certified as biodynamic, there are also those who are experimenting with part of their production.
Here in the Hunter Valley Tamburlaine Organic Wines, Krinklewood Biodynamic Vineyard, Ascella Organic Wines and Macquariedale Organic Wines are the most recognised organic and biodynamic wine producers in the region.
As a group, they have a deep commitment to the environment and together they share a passion to make wines that capture the unique flavours of the Hunter Valley and are reflective of the local terroir. Since their biodynamic beginnings in the 1990s, Mark and Lou Davidson of Tamburlaine Organic Wines have seen a noticeable difference in the health of their vineyards and quality of the fruit.
Tamburlaine has never lost its enthusiasm, nor its preparedness to tread the path less travelled. But, by far the biggest departure Tamburlaine has taken from the norm is its progressive and rigorous testing on what it now describes as “contemporary” organics.
Mark Davidson, Managing Director, says that holistic vineyard management has worked in even the most testing of Hunter vintages.
”And heaven knows there have been plenty of those in the last 12 years,” he adds.
In the winery, new technologies have been embraced along with certified organic wine production. Mark says the combination is brilliant for the wine.
Tamburlaine is consistent in its principles. It has addressed the inherent waste issues in wineries, particularly in electricity use, and achieved carbon neutrality.
“That may not be important for all our wine consumers, but it is important to us,” Mark said.
Today, the 52-year-old winery has an enviable reputation in the Australian market with one of the largest wine clubs in Australia and is recognised as being one of the largest certified organic wineries in the Southern Hemisphere - based on 100 percent organic and biodynamic
farming and turning out in excess of 80,000 cases a year.
Ross and Derice McDonald started Macquariedale Organic Wines back in the early 1990s as an escape out of the Sydney corporate world and in 2005 became the first certified organic/ biodynamic vineyard in the Hunter Valley.
Ross believes that growing their wines biodynamically makes for more authentic wines with an inherent sense of place. Located in the Broke-Fordwich region of the Hunter Valley, Ascella
Organic Wines is possibly Australia’s largest family-run organic vineyard. Owners Barb and Geoff Brown have been using biodynamic principles since 2005, and their conviction in its effectiveness is unwavering.
Geoff, who is responsible for all things organic in the vineyard, said that there was strong growth in the organic sector with the demand for organic wine increasing both locally and overseas and that further growth was expected in the coming years.
“’A growing number of wine lovers are seeking out organically certified options,” he said.
“Organic wine is viewed as a quality product and is fast becoming an essential choice in some of the better restaurants and retailers.
“The interest in biodynamics is growing nationally and locally, and we would love to see more biodynamic vineyards in the Hunter Valley.”
Rod Windrim and his late wife Suzanne, first came to the Hunter Valley in 1977, planting their first vineyard in Pokolbin before moving on to establish Krinklewood Biodynamic Vineyard in Broke. By 2007, Krinklewood became fully accredited as organic and biodynamic.
“Biodynamics allows us to create wines with a clean taste and with greater fruit intensity," said Rod.
"As biodynamic farmers, we are in search of quality, not quantity of wine, with any intervention in the winemaking process kept to a minimum to allow for the best expression of our place – our terroir."
The 20-hectare vineyard occupies less than a third of the whole property, and as you take a tour around the estate, you can see how the whole farm is one living organism, not just one crop, with each element working together to find the balance that’s required to work without the interference of chemicals. They’ve got sheep, geese, chickens, ducks, peacocks, Wessex Saddleback pigs and cattle that graze amongst the vines to weed and fertilise the soil. There are fish in the dam, bees, a veggie garden, an orchard and an olive grove - and they are all just a wonderful part of the cycle.
The obvious question, of course, is what is better - organic or non organic wines? Well, as with just about everything, the proof is in the tasting, so next time you’re looking for a new wine to try, why not put biodynamics to the test and see if you can taste the difference. ■