We often get asked about why we have growth down our vineyard mid-rows. It’s because we’re certified organic! We then get asked how hard this is to be certified. It’s not hard once you get your head around it.
We make wine from the ground up, literally. We have certified our vineyards and our winemaking to the Australian Certified Organic standard, as an independent verification of our claims. Our varieties were selected to perform well in our hot climate, so they have the potential to produce amazing wine with less water. You will see varieties originating from the hotter parts of Spain, Portugal, Southern France and Italy in our portfolio, rather than cooler climate varieties. Our varieties are resilient when we reduce water use, and tough when the soil temperature is high. The high temperatures mean our vineyards have less disease pressure, and so we need to use fewer sprays to keep the vines healthy. The grapes hold their acidity and flavours in the heat so the wines are crisp and flavoursome, and the tannins are firm. Our alcohol may be slightly higher than a cool climate wine because the flavours and sugars in the grape develop at different times.
It’s not hard to convert to organic farming practices. The biggest change is in how the grapegrower thinks about the interacting parts of the vineyard. To us, the soil is as valuable as water, and we encourage the build up of soil carbon by incorporating plant organic matter. Mid-row cereal crops help to hold the soil and prevent wind and water erosion. They cool the soil by providing shade, and reduce evaporation. They keep the soil friable by putting their roots down. When the plants die, the root cavity provides micro-channels for air and water. The plant material mulches the soil, reducing weed growth. Over time the plant material breaks down through the action of soil microbes and fungi and releases the nutrients back into the soil to be used again. If we plant field peas, nitrogen is released from the peas and acts as a natural fertiliser.
The mid-row cover smothers many (but not all) weeds, meaning we don’t spray herbicide. Because the cover crop has shallow roots and dies down over summer, it doesn’t compete with the vines. This means our drip irrigation is spent mostly on the vines. We do have some wild growth beneath the vines, including salt bush, native grasses and wild lettuce. Our kangaroos love the wild lettuce, and will stuff themselves on it instead of on the grapes. They only eat our grapes in the very hottest weather when the grapes are juicy and ripe, but our losses are minor because they prefer the native grasses.
The diversity of plant life in the vineyard means we have a diverse community of insects, including predatory mites, native wasps and spiders who hunt down potentially damaging infestations. Similarly our low-input methods form smaller vine canopies that are less prone to mildew and other diseases. This means we use less anti-fungal spray (as allowed under the organic standard), which helps to preserve insect life. The insect life attracts a variety of birds. We counted 37 different species in the vineyard a couple of years ago. Sadly this has reduced to about 20 species more recently, possibly due to the encroachment of “civilisation” or the recently arrived Australian Ravens. The good news is that this year we have seen a small flock of the endangered Regent Parrot move in.
Our winemaking techniques are gentle. We use a hydraulic basket press to extract juice and wine. A basket press typically extracts less than other forms of pressing, so while there is a little juice or wine left in the skins, the wine that we “cut” has no hard, furry or green phenolics or tannins. This means that our wines don’t need to be fined to remove coarse characteristics, and they don’t need to be “filled” to replace flavours and textures removed by fining. Our wines typically are made using only four additives to the grapes: enzyme at crushing, to help improve extraction, tartaric acid derived from grapes to adjust the acidity for flavour and microbial hygiene, yeast starter culture to kick off fermentation, and a low level of sulphites to preserve the wine. Our white wines and fortified wines get a little bentonite clay to help clarify them, and that’s it. All our grapegrowing and winemaking complies with the Australian Certified Organic standard, and in fact we only use a very small number of the allowable additives. I think of it like having a tool kit in the boot for emergencies, but only ever using a screwdriver and hammer. Just because you have a tool in the toolbox doesn’t mean you have to use it every time. All the best winemakers take this approach, and produce lovely wines with great purity of flavour. Sadly, there are many wines in the world that are made to a recipe using many of the tools whether they are needed or not.
We have been asked whether the certification process is hard. We do need to be careful about what we do and how we approach problems such as shortages of approved sprays, and we do need to keep a good paper trail. But this is no different to the problem-solving and documentation practises of any good farmer. Our crop is slightly smaller than conventionally grown crops because we don’t use massive amounts of water or fertilisers, but the quality of the wines we produce make it all worthwhile.