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Bio dynamos

As more world-class wineries go bio-dynamic, even the skeptics are starting to go au naturel.

There are two glasses of Victorian Shiraz in front of me. One is 2005 barrel sample from Avonmore Estate vineyard, located in the hot, flat country north of Bendigo ; the other is a 2004 shiraz from Hochkirch vineyard, down in the cool, wet country in the far south-west of the state. Both wines scream their provenance: the Avonmore is pitch-black purple, full of rich berry fruit, and finishes with a warm alcoholic glow, while the Hochkirch is pale purple-red, spicy, herbal, lighter, juicy.

Nothing unusual here: I find myself with multiple glasses of wine in front of me almost every day of the year. What makes this occasion different is the fact that I also have two slices of roast lamb on a plate in front of me – one from a sheep allowed to graze through the vines at Avonmore, the other from an animal given similar free reign at Hochkirch. And these utterly regional, site-specific matches of succulent meat and flavoursome wine are spectacular.

There is another difference, too – and another reason, perhaps, why the flavours of this lunch are so vivid. Both Avonmore and Hochkirch are biodynamic farms: allowing the sheep into the vineyards helps to keep the weeds under control.

The lunch was held during a biodynamic wine workshop hosted by Vanya Cullen and your correspondent at Charlie Melton’s cellar door in the Barossa Valley earlier this year as part of the biennial Shiraz Alliance talk-and-taste-a-thon. Biodynamics – ‘BD’ to its friends – is a hot subject at the moment in the wine world: we ran three sessions and each one was packed with winemakers, viticulturists and marketers, all keen to find out more.

How times change. As recently as five years ago, there was widespread skepticism about BD in the wine industry. And it’s not too hard to understand why. Unlike ‘ordinary’ organic farming, which is all about not using artificial, man-made herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, BD farmers go one step further and apply ‘homeopathic’ doses of ‘preparations’ such as manure that has been buried in a cow over winter, or finely-ground quartz, also buried in a horn, this time over summer. Not only that, but byodynamicists farm according to lunar cycles and the constellations.

So how has that former skepticism turned into the current intense interest?

Well, for a start, look at the fast-growing list of the world’s top winemakers publicly embracing BD – Le Domaine Leflaive, Domaine Leroy and Domaine de la Romanee Conti in Burgundy; Maison M. Chapoutier in the Rhone; Zenato and Riecine in Italy; Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon in the United States; Cullen, Jasper Hill and Castagna in Australia; Millton Rippon and Seresin in New Zealand – to name a few.

As Shiraz Alliance moderator, wine writer Robert Joseph puts it: “It looks a lot like a club that, if I were a winemaker, I would very much want to be a member of”.

More importantly, BD more often than not delivers a noticeable difference – in both the vineyard and particularly in the glass ( or indeed on the plate ). It was this ‘extra quality’ that convinced skeptical large-scale McLaren Vale grape grower David Paxton.

The last time we met Paxton in these pages was in my February 2005 column after the ground-breaking inaugural Biodynamic Wine Forum in Beechworth, Victoria in late 2004. The grower couldn’t stand all the cow-horn, moon-planting mumbo-jumbo he heard at the forum – but when he tasted the wines from many of the producers mentioned above he was so blown away that he returned to McLaren Vale to start vineyard trials.

“And within three months,” Paxton tells me, “the place felt different. Now, two seasons on, when you look at the soil, it’s dynamically different. Since then, we’ve changed more than 70 hectares – well over 50 per cent of our vineyards – to biodynamics.

At the workshop in the Barossa, Paxton’s viticultural manager, Toby Bekkers, explains the motivation for switching to BD; “We’re doing it because we think it can help us grow better fruit. And we’re doing that because, to be honest, we’re chasing the extra point – whether that’s the extra point on the grading scale of the wineries we sell grapes to, or an extra point from the judges or the critics”.

But while the motivation may have been primarily financial, the adoption of BD has – almost by default – led to a significant change in attitude.

One of the best things about it is that we’re having a lot of fun,” says Bekkers. “Look, I come from a science background, so I have to put the spiritual stuff to one side.” He pauses – and then continues, for all the world sounding like the most romantic of French vignerons: “but I taste a difference in quality, texture and mouthfeel in BD wines, and I think growing grapes this way can give our vineyards a uniqueness”. None of which is new to old hands at the BD game, of cause. As John Nagorcka of Hochkirch says, with a smile: It’s just such a satisfying way to farm”.

Article written by: Max Allen Wine writer and Critic
Publisher : Gourmet Traveller 2006

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