Wednesday, September 28, 2011

And the winners are ... best wines from the 2011 Australia / New Zealand Organic Wine Show

This is my pick of the best wines from the 2011 Australia/New Zealand Organic Wine Show, which was judged by myself and four others in Sydney on Monday September 26.


2009 Lowe Zinfandel, Mudgee - BEST RED, WINE OF SHOW
An excellent expression of zinfandel, and a testament to the quality of the Lowe vineyard in Mudgee: dark, dense and brooding, it has lots of woody-spicy fruit framed in a complex, dusty tannin structure.

2011 Battle Of Bosworth Puritan Shiraz, McLaren Vale - BEST PRESERVATIVE FREE WINE
This preservative-free red fair bursts out of the glass: heaps of joyful black fruit, but layers, too, of more complex flavour - garrigue (wild thyme, dried oregano) and game (rare seared venison, I think).

2009 Tamburlaine Noble Chardonnay, Orange - BEST WHITE           
A glorious sticky for sipping with rich parfait and brioche toast: super-rich and peachy to start - almost like apricot syrup - it finishes with, and is balanced by, fresh citrusy acidity.


2011 Thistle Hill Riesling, Mudgee - SILVER MEDAL
A good follow-on from the trophy-winning 2009, this lean and savoury riesling has lovely crystalline green acid line and structure. Should develop well in the cellar.

2008 Robinvale Wines Kerner, Robinvale - SILVER MEDAL
A perennial favourite at this and other shows: rich fruit flavours, like mandarin juice and butterscotch, balanced by fresh acidity. Very drinkable wine.

2009 Ascella Semillon, Hunter Valley - SILVER MEDAL
Gently easing into what looks like being a happy life as a classic Hunter sem: some tangy lemony richness, developing classic waxy complexity and length.           

2010 The Millton Vineyard Riverpoint Viognier, Gisborne, NZ - SILVER MEDAL
Bloody ripper of a viognier, this: rich and creamy, honeyed and fine, with lovely weight and complexity.

2011 Salena Estate Ink Series Vermentino, Riverland - SILVER MEDAL
Some of the judges thought this was one of the best examples of Australian vermentino they’d ever seen: crisp green apple and feijoa fruit; bright, chalky texture.

2010 Richmond Plains Pinot Noir, Nelson, NZ - SILVER MEDAL           
Terrific, lighter style of pinot that screams its origins: juicy, sappy, herbal, powdery, some beetroot juice, rhubarb, forest floor and tamarillo. Phew ...

2008 Cape Jaffa Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Benson - SILVER MEDAL
Tastes more like a big Spanish red (think Toro, Ribera del Duero) than a typical Limestone Coast cab, but loadsa fun: mocha oak, blackcurranty fruit, ample sooty tannin.

2004 Temple Bruer Reserve Cabernet Petit Verdot, Langhorne Creek - SILVER MEDAL
This rang many judges’ bells because it has more than a touch of mature Bordeaux about it: cedary oak, dark, licoricey blackcurrant fruit, savoury tannins.


I thought the following two wines were very good indeed, but my fellow judges weren’t quite so enamoured. Both wines are quite tight, tannic and savoury. I perceived these qualities as positive expressions of terroir and vineyard; other judges perceived them as ‘lacking varietal character and fruit’. As I was totally out on my own on this one, I had little chance of talking all of my fellow jurors round - I’m no Henry Fonda - and, after all, the whole point of having multi-person panels in wine shows, surely, is to encourage consensus, not bullies. But I thought I’d tell you about them all the same. Just in case, like me, you like tight, tannic, savoury wines.

2010 Switch Organic Wine Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills           
From a new label on the organic wine scene, Switch’s pinot is all about powdery tannin, dried herb aromatics, brooding black fruit and cellaring potential - classic Hills pinot characters, really, I would argue.
2009 Lowe Wines Reserve Shiraz, Mudgee
I thought this wine was stunning; it certainly had a very commanding presence. Tight and sinewy, with iodine and black soil and graphite rippling though it, it’s a wine I’d love to have in my cellar.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Rain stops play? How biodynamic and organic vineyards fared in 2011

It started last November. Back when the heavens opened on vineyards across south-eastern Australia, bringing every grape-grower’s worst nightmare: the triple fungal whammy of downy mildew, then powdery mildew and, finally, botrytis.

When the downy first appeared - as distinctive yellow ‘oil spots’ on the vine leaves - I heard a winemaker utter a phrase that would be repeated across the industry time and time again: “This is one year you really wouldn’t want to be organic or biodynamic.” By the end of the wettest, most disease-ridden vintage since 1974, this view seemed to have become accepted wisdom: that unless you used systemic chemical fungicides during the growing season, 2011 was a write-off.

But is that true? After speaking to dozens of Australia’s organic and biodynamic winegrowers it is clear that, on the whole, they did not fare any worse than their chemically-assisted counterparts. Indeed, in some instances, being organic or biodynamic has been beneficial.

Sure, there are stories of total or near-total crop loss in organic and biodynamic vineyards. The Cooper family at the recently-certified Cobaw Ridge vineyard in the Macedon Ranges, for example, did not pick one grape - partly because the incessant rain made it so hard to get into the vineyard to work and partly because they refused to resort to systemic chemicals: “If we had it would have meant loss of our organic status for three years,” says Alan Cooper. “And we have invested too much emotionally to go back to the start.”

The Baldasso family at Protero in the Adelaide Hills also eventually succumbed to mildew rather than lose their biodynamic certification: they managed to pick just a couple of tones of pinot noir and cabernet, but this may not be released under the Protero label. “Vintage was a disaster for us,” admits Rosemary Baldasso.

It was a similar story for Julian Castagna in Beechworth: “We discarded more than 60 per cent of our grapes on the sorting table - and what wine we have made is not typical and therefore unlikely to be released as Castagna.”

But “disasters” like this aren’t limited to organic or biodynamic growers by any means: plenty of “conventional” vineyards that were sprayed with synthetic chemicals also lost some, most, or all of their crop. It was, remember, the vintage from hell - as Julian Castagna points out, “We had more rain between the end of November and the middle of March than we've had in the last 10 years.”

And for every tale of woe, there is at least one tale of survival. Larry Jacobs from Hahndorf Hill reports that a spray regime consisting solely of organic-approved doses of sulphur and copper and applications of biodynamic preparations resulted in minimal crop losses for most varieties - particularly the Austrian grapes gruner veltliner and blaufrankisch - and that, thanks to rigorous fruit selection, “what ended up in the tanks is really excellent.”

Some growers are even more positive. “We came through vintage 2011 with some of the best fruit we have seen for years,” says Sue Carpenter of the certified-biodynamic Lark Hill vineyard in Canberra. “Acid levels were high, fruit flavours were pristine and delicate, sugar levels were moderate.”

Biodynamic Barossa winegrower Troy Kalleske is more cautious in his assessment. “Overall we fared pretty well this vintage,” he says. “Some wines are good, some great and a couple so-so. There were some people in the region who thought the Kalleskes would be screwed this year and it’s quite the contrary. We just did our usual biodynamic spraying regime, but just a couple more times than normal. And we were able to pick all of our blocks - unlike many vineyards in the Barossa, who sprayed up to 15 times with chemicals, and still ended up dropping grapes on the ground or leaving them hanging.

“People think that organics is only good in an easy growing season but I think the opposite: that a tough, wet, disease-prone season is really where organics comes into play. I do genuinely believe that because we have been farming this way for so long now, the health of the soil has given the vines a natural resilience.”

Angove winemaker Tony Ingle is also impressed with how the company’s certified organic block at Nanya vineyard in the Riverland and the biodynamically-farmed shiraz in McLaren Vale held up this year.

“There were a few revelations,” he says. “Firstly, the vine leaves appeared to be sturdier and more resistant to disease pressure in the organic blocks. Secondly, we noticed with the shiraz that the skins seemed thicker than conventional fruit. Not just on our own vineyard: we took fruit from other growers, and saw the same thing, where organic fruit came in fine and other fruit was rejected. And we also discovered that some organic certified fungicides worked better than the synthetic chemical products - and we ended up using them instead on the conventional vineyards towards the end of the season.”

According to Yalumba winemaker Heather Fraser, the various South Australian growers who supply fruit for the company’s range of organic wines fared no worse - and in some cases better than - “conventional” growers.

“On the whole, the organic and biodynamic vineyards took longer (if at all) to show signs of disease than neighbouring non-organic vineyards,” says Heather. “The biodynamic chardonnay vineyard, for example, was almost the only Riverland chardonnay block to show no sign of powdery mildew. And in the Pewsey Vale Contours vineyard in Eden Valley, which is in the first year of conversion to organic and biodynamic management, we saw no disease other than a small percentage of botrytis, and there was no significant difference between this and the conventionally managed blocks.”

So, yes, 2011 was as challenging for organic and biodynamic growers in the south-east as it was for everyone else. But a total write-off? Not at all.

(This article was first published in Gourmet Traveller WINE magazine in August 2011)

Into the mystic

Agricultural scientist John Gladstones is a demi-god in Australian wine circles. A thesis he wrote in the 1960s helped to inspire the establishment of the Margaret River wine region, and his 1992 book, Viticulture and Environment, is regarded as a seminal work. Given Gladstones’ status, his new book, Wine Terroir and Climate Change, will no doubt be read as gospel. Appropriately, it tackles some very big themes.

Like a one-man IPCC, Gladstones has waded through the climate literature and concluded that not only is global warming not as bad as we’ve been told, but climate variability is natural, none of it’s caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gases, and the next few decades are likely to be cooler.

In other words, don’t panic.

This is a view that will no doubt provide succour for many - despite the fact that it contradicts the work of almost every other scientist involved in wine-related climate research.

I’m sure many people will also agree with Gladstones’s stand on organic and biodynamic, or “BD” viticulture. Being a natural-BD-wine-loving old hippy, of course, I don’t.

Gladstones supports the pragmatic, quantifiable aspects of organics - improving wine quality, for example, through composting. But he dismisses biodynamics, with its homeopathic preparations and following of lunar cycles, as “nonsense”: “rituals” practiced by “true believers”. And he warns, gravely, that because BD is founded on the ideas of controversial philosopher Rudolf Steiner - “medieval superstitions that science has long superseded” - adopting BD in the vineyard is but one step away from practicing witchcraft or sacrificing virgins: “[It is] an unhealthy retreat into irrationality and mysticism, such as the world has too much suffered from in the past. [It has] no valid place in an enlightened 21st century.”

I think he’s missing the point. He’s not asking the human question: if there’s no place for mysticsm and irrationality in our oh-so-modern world why are so many of us attracted to biodynamics? Could it be that we feel dissatisfied with the too-rational approach to grape growing and winemaking? Could it be that we are yearning for greater depth, beauty, and even spiritual nourishment from the wine we drink?

Ironically, Gladstones himself answered these questions two decades ago in Viticulture and Environment: “Post-industrial man is instinctively returning (to wine) as a remaining link with the natural world,” he wrote, “as an antidote to the barbarity of his mechanistic surroundings. Quality in wine is an artistic goal in its own right. Like other artistic goals to which humans aspire, it is a civilizing influence. The world needs such influences.”

Indeed we do. Even if they’re irrational. Or a bit mystical.

(This article was first published in The Weekend Australian Magazine on 6 August, 2011)