There is an increasing trend in the world of wine towards organic and/or biodynamic vineyard management. By and large I am happy to drink organic, biodynamic, or conventional wines and just assess what I see in the glass. Many people engaged in the debate, however, either dismiss many of the ideas, particularly around biodynamics, or conversely are very passionate in support of these two vineyard approaches, and are generally of the belief that organic/biodynamic wines are inherently superior to more conventionally made wines. A tasting at the Oak Barrel in Sydney, where Gilles Lapalus from Sutton Grange in Bendigo and Eric Semmler from 919 Wines in the Riverland, took us through a number of organic/biodynamic wines, was a great opportunity to explore and discuss this trend towards organic/biodynamic vineyard management.
To first define what each approach is (at least as far as I understand it). Organic wines are simply wines made from grapes where no chemicals, herbicides, pesticides etc. have been used in the vineyard. This organic approach is meant to result in a healthier vineyard, better grapes, and ultimately better wine. To me anyway, it makes perfect sense, and I’ve seen it in other agricultural products like chickens, tomatoes etc. They just generally taste a bit better than their conventional counterparts. The other consideration with organics is the longer term health of a vineyard. While maybe the occasional use of some chemical agent in a vineyard mightn’t ultimately be that detrimental, their consistent use year after year, over decades, must surely start to affect the health of a vineyard and therefore the quality of grapes it can turn out, at least in comparison to an organic approach. Ultimately, I don’t actually see much that is controversial in organic wine, other than it could present vineyard management challenges in a tough vintage when disease is more likely.
Biodynamics is altogether more controversial and much harder to define. To simplify it is organics with a cosmic and spiritual bent. Its starting point are the writings of Rudolph Steiner, and generally result in a more holistic approach to vineyard management. A lot of the more obvious aspects of biodynamics focus on composting and preparations that tie in to some extent with organics, however tend to go a step further into some somewhat obscure practices. The most famous of which is Preparation 500, which involves burying a cow’s horn full of manure in the vineyard in winter, and then digging it up in spring to release a whole bunch of apparently helpful microbes into the vineyard.
After that biodynamics moves into some of its more controversial aspects such as working in sync with moon cycles. Semmler from 919 wines, claims that the key determinant to his vines ripening are the moon cycles. While heat and the season obviously play a major role, Semmler says that the moon moving into a waxing cycle will bring on the ripening he requires to pick, rather than a heat wave or any other factor.
It’s probably quite easy to be cynical about these things (and to be honest I’m still a bit of a sceptic). The thing, however, that I will say in defence of those that practice biodynamics (at least those that I have met), is that they are far from the imagined airy fairy hippies dancing naked around their vineyards. Often they are pragmatic, experienced vignerons who have worked in both conventional and organic/biodynamic vineyards over many years. Experience has shown them what they believe to be a better approach.
So to some of the highlights of the evening -
2010 “919” Vermentino (Riverland)
Vermentino loves the heat and would seem a good grape to be growing in the Riverland. This is a white wine that offers a point of difference. Green apples, citrus, spice and a lovely creaminess. It has a nice sense of texture and grip. Would be fantastic with white meats.
2009 Ngeringa Pinot Noir (Adelaide Hills)
This is an understated Pinot Noir that really sneaks up on you. Light, fresh, and savoury with some lovely sour cherry. It never loses focus, and has a very long finish. Lovely Pinot.
2009 “919” Tempranillo (Riverland)
Once again this wine offers a point of difference. It has a nose of dark cherry and liquorice all sorts. It’s a rich and powerful wine, but retains a sense of balance with flavours of cherry, earthiness and some lovely tannin. Nice
2009 Dard & Ribo Hermitage Rouge (Rhone Valley)
This is such a fresh and sexy wine. Its characterised by beautiful juicy fruit and is dangerously easy to drink. Lovely berry fruits and spice. Mellifluous. Would buy and drink a lot of this if it wasn’t $100 a bottle.
2006 Sutton Grange Syrah (Bendigo)
This wine is a tannic beast, and I love it all the more for it. It has a beautifully perfumed nose with a nice touch of funk. The palate is one of plush dark fruit, spice, and those amazing tannins. If Bendigo Shiraz can ever look like a Barolo then this wine is it.
These wines were undoubtedly wines of character, interest, and terroir. I really enjoyed tasting through such a line up. Did they, however, strike me as inherently better or more enjoyable than a line up of perhaps more conventionally made wines? Not necessarily. The trend towards organics/biodynamics I view as a positive one, but at the same time as just one element in amongst numerous others vineyard and winemaking inputs that go into producing the wonderful end product.