So-called ‘Green Wines’ have been a much discussed area of Australian wine production and they were much in evidence at the recent Artisans of Australian Wine event. Is this style of winemaking a fleeting trend or does its basis in good science mean it is the future of Australian wine? Leading British wine writer and biology PhD, Dr Jamie Goode, looks at the evidence.
Biodynamics: sense or superstition?
I remember when I first heard about biodynamic farming. I was in my 20s, and I’d just finished a PhD in plant biology. As a scientist, I listened in almost disbelief when I heard otherwise smart people talk about alignment of planets, burying cow’s horns, and spraying strange preparations on vines at prescribed times. It sounded like witchcraft, or as one person dubbed it, ‘Harry Potter does viticulture.’ This was in the early 1990s, and since then biodynamics has become widespread in the world of wine, almost to the point that it no longer needs explaining. Since then, I’ve come to understand biodynamics a lot better and I have cast aside my scientific fundamentalism. I’ve spent time on vineyards farmed biodynamically, and even been involved in digging up cow’s horns, applying dynamizing preparations and spraying them on the vines at 6 am. I wouldn’t say that I completely agree with all the mechanisms claimed by some biodynamic wine practitioners, but this is often a language issue. Although it’s not been studied much, I can see how some of the effects of biodynamics might be explained scientifically.
Biodynamics: organic viticulture on organic steroids
At its heart biodynamics is a supercharged version of organic farming and together biodynamic and organic viticulture have become much more common over the last 20 years. When I first visited Australia in 1996, there were just a couple of organic vineyards (they were seen as pretty fringe) and no biodynamic ones. This situation has changed dramatically. On my most recent trip, which was admittedly focusing on producers working more naturally, most of the vineyards I set foot in were organic or biodynamic. While Australia has been a bit slow to the game in comparison with some other wine nations, there are now scores of Australian vineyards farmed organically and biodynamically, and this number is rising. Australian green wines are on the rise.
Biodynamics: what are the issues?
If you want to grow wine grapes successfully, then you can’t just plant vines, harvest the grapes, prune the vines and then begin all over again the next season. You also need to make sure the vines have adequate nutrition, enough water, are protected from diseases and pests and aren’t overgrown by weeds. When vines first arrived in Australia in the 19th century and until the middle of the last century, all the vineyard work would have been done by hand. Copper and sulphur would have been used as remedies for the main fungal diseases (downy and powdery mildew, which afflict grapevines worldwide), and compost would have been applied to add nitrogen and other elements that the vines used up from the soils. Weeds would be controlled by hoeing. Then, along came agrochemicals; synthetic fertilizers which were an efficient way of replacing nutrients, herbicides which were a much cheaper alternative to manual tilling of weeds, and new chemical solutions to fungal diseases, systemic fungicides which worked from inside the plant, and insect pests. This made viticulture cheaper and more productive, and so the lure was irresistible. What we now know as conventional viticulture was born, and the old ways, with their inefficiencies and lower yields were abandoned. Inevitably perhaps, there was a backlash against this incessant and potentially damaging use of chemicals. With environmental concerns leaving the realms of 70s hippydom and into the mainstream consciousness in the 90s and 2000s, and with the rise of a new generation of consumers who were concerned with what went into the food and wine, so the call for greener methods became ever louder, and this has led to a switch back in vineyard management methods.
Converting from conventional vineyards to organic or biodynamic viticulture is not easy. Fungal disease is tricky to control with just sulphur and copper as the key defences - though these are chemicals, they are allowed because they are traditional in viticulture, and are not synthetic. These also need to be applied at the right time and applied well because they have to cover the whole canopy and fruit zone, and if it rains they need to be reapplied. Weeds are also quite hard to control manually - especially under a row of vines as accessibility can be tricky.
The main focus of these ways of farming is to create healthy soils with lots of microlife. It’s inadequate to view soils merely as an inert medium that the vine grows in, despite the claims of certain Californian winemakers, and now people are beginning to talk about agroecosystems – seeing the vine as just one player in a more complex network of life.
Yields and prices
One factor that can’t be ignored is yields. Organic yields tend to be lower, and to a grower, this means less money in the bank. Some accept lowered yields because of the attendant increase in quality if the organic farming is done well. But this requires getting a higher price for the wines to offset the increased cost of farming, and this isn’t achievable for all. I remember very clearly standing in a vineyard with a winegrower, who pointed to the soil. ‘It’s like the ocean under our feet’ he said, ‘We just don’t have an awareness of what is going on under there.’ The life in the soil matters, and the main deficiency of conventional viticulture is that it ignores this. Conversely, the wisdom in organics and biodynamics is that the soil life is recognized as being important to how the vine grows and the quality of the grapes that it produces. This is something that we are only just beginning to catch up with. Vanya Cullen is one of the pioneers of biodynamic wine growing in Australia. Visit her vineyards in Margaret River and they look and feel different to many of those of her neighbours. Is this reflected in the wines? I think so, but of course it’s impossible to prove. Julian Castagna is another of the most visible proponents of biodynamics in Australia, and his wines have detail and layers of flavour that could be attributed to this. Ron Laughton’s Jasper Hill vineyards in Heathcote have been biodynamically farmed for longer than most in this country, and the wines are great. And while Michael Dhillon won’t talk publicly about biodynamic farming, he practises it and produces some of Australia’s finest wines from his vineyard in the Macedon Ranges.
Green wines: fad or future?
So is this shift back to green vineyard management just a fashion for those wealthy enough to spend more on their vineyards? Let’s face it; for all the noise that it’s creating, it’s still only a small proportion of vineyards that are being farmed this way. If we’re really to see a greening of Australia’s vineyards, it has to work economically. For many growers in the warm irrigated areas prospects are currently quite bleak from an economic point of view. For those winemakers who are struggling to make ends meet, organics is just a pipe dream. It’s a luxury for a few. Financial sustainability is very much a part of sustainability as are issues such as water use which simply isn’t addressed by the organic or biodynamics approach. Besides, there’s no such thing as a perfect viticultural solution. Mechanical weed control involves repeated passing through the vineyard, risking soil compaction and burning diesel. The use of inefficient contact fungicides also requires more passes through vineyards with tractors, and risks copper build up in the soils. Tilling the soil may not be the best way of encouraging soil life and risks building up pans below the surface. What is needed is a more intelligent approach to viticulture, taking into account the specific vineyard conditions and making use of a viticultural toolkit, borrowing the best bits from organics and biodynamics and supplementing them with intelligent scientific solutions, such as biological control of pests. Viticulture is complex, and simplistic blueprint solutions aren’t necessarily all that useful. For some, the solution is biodynamics. For others, organics. For many more though, the right answer might be intelligent sustainable viticulture carried out by farmers who know their land and have an eye for detail. Focusing on the top end of the market, where the cost of organic farming isn’t prohibitive because they get a lot of money for their wines, is all well and good. But if we really care for the environment we have to look at the majority of vineyards where margins are tight and sustainable solutions have the potential to raise quality and preserve the environment, without being prohibitively expensive.
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