Ten years ago, organic and biodynamic winemaking might have seemed left field or even faddish, but jump forward to 2019 and the interest surrounding wines produced biodynamically or organically is heading toward unprecedented heights as consumers increasingly turn to wines that reflect their raising consciousnesses – drinking more sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wines from winemakers who have embraced these values in their winemaking philosophies.
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.
Consumer demand for high quality, sustainable, organic, fair trade and eco-friendly food products has never been higher, and it’s no surprise that this demand has overflowed into the world of wine.
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 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.
The label "organic" is used for 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 more than 2,000 organic wine producers globally, with Europe accounting for around 70% of global organic wine production.
Bio-dynamic farming often referred to as "an advanced method of organic farming", includes many of the credos of organic farming (i.e., no chemical intervention) 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. It also adds to them certain specific preparations for optimal soil management and harvest. There are processes and timelines for enriching the soil, planting, pruning, and harvesting fruit, based on the phases of the moon as well as astrological signs.
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 organic and biodynamic producers, and you’ll find that for some producers, being organic is a fundamental philosophy of their business and a necessity for the environment and longevity of their land. Quality too is a key reason with many producers believing that land free of chemicals improves the quality and taste of their wine.
There is also a growing sense that the demand for organic wine is increasing and will continue to grow in the years to come. This is supported by claims that organic wine consumption has almost doubled in the past five years.
To become a certified biodynamic producer, a farm needs first to be certified organic, and then if biodynamic principles are included in 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 is, 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 and Ascella Organic Wines tell an alternative Hunter wine story as some of 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 for making wines that capture the unique flavours of the Hunter Valley and are reflective of the local terroir.
As Australia’s largest producer of organic wines, Tamburlaine Organic Wines 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.
Since the integration of biodynamic methods into the organic management of their vineyards in the 1990's, Mark and Lou Davidson of Tamburlaine Organic Wines have seen a noticeable difference in the health of their vineyards and quality of the fruit.
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 15 years," he adds.
Mark sees organics as "the embodiment of terroir in its sustainability and connection to the soil".
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.
Today, the 53-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 per cent organic and biodynamic farming and turning out more than 80,000 cases a year.
Ascella Organic Wines is possibly Australia’s largest family-run organic vineyard where owners Barb and Geoff Brown have been using sustainable organic farming practices since 2005, and their conviction in its effectiveness is unwavering.
Together, they have built a strong reputation for producing high quality, value for money wines from their estate vineyards located on Thompsons Rd in the Broke-Fordwich region of the Hunter Valley 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.
"Great wines start in the vineyard – and organics is a system that allows us to grow the best and most flavoursome fruit, which is a key ingredient to creating premium-quality wine", said Geoff.
"As a result, a growing number of wine lovers are seeking out organically certified options."
"Organic wine is viewed as a quality product and is fast becoming an essential choice in some of the better restaurants and retailers."
Geoff sees organic farming as "going back to how farming was done almost 100 years ago before the introduction of modern chemicals. A return to a simpler form of farming and working with natural products".
However, if organic farming was that easy everybody would be doing it.
"Organics is harder to practice in the vineyard with the biggest challenge being weed control for which there is never an easy solution, and of course it is more labour intensive."
Krinklewood Biodynamic Vineyard is one of two certified biodynamic wineries in the Hunter Valley.
The owner, 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 in 1998. After a few trials, they made the shift to organic and biodynamic farming practices and by 2007, had become fully accredited as organic and biodynamic producers.
Rod believes that growing their grapes biodynamically makes for more authentic wines with an inherent sense of place.
"Biodynamics allows us to create wines with a clean taste and with greater fruit intensity," said Rod.
"The interest in biodynamics is growing nationally and locally, and we would love to see more biodynamic vineyards in the Hunter Valley."
"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."
Biodynamics promotes biodiversity in the vineyard, establishing an ecosystem in which many species of plants and animals can co-exist side by side.
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, 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 are 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 organic and biodynamic wines to the test and see if you can taste the difference.
Image Two: Mark (L) and Aaron from Tamburlaine
Image Three: Geoff and Barb Brown of Ascella
Image Four: Krinklewood Cellar Door