The Castagna Vineyard is situated at an altitude of 500 metres five-and-a-half kilometres outside the beautiful town of Beechworth in Northeast Victoria, high in the foothills of the Australian Alps. Our soil consists mainly of decomposed granitic-loam on a base of clay. The climate is distinctly Mediterranean with hot days and cool nights during the important part of the growing season. The land is farmed biodynamically; using Rudolf Steiner's biodynamic principles, because we believe it is the best way to achieve optimum fruit quality that best expresses its terroir. The vineyard is hand-pruned and the fruit is hand-picked. We crop at a bit less than two tons per acre. The winemaking is very traditional using only our own vineyard's indigenous yeast with minimal interference. Elevage varies between 18-20 months using only the very best, tight grain French oak available, about half of which is new each year. Our intention is to make, as simply as possible, wine which is an expression of the place where it is grown.
Some Thoughts on drinking well!
OVER THE LAST MONTHS I have been looking at alot of wine, some only available in our local market, but much destined for the Chinese market, and what I saw, to say the least, was disappointing even perhaps a bit alarming. I believe that China has the potential to become our most important market and I hope we are not taking that market for granted and selling them indifferent wine at inflated prices. Wines at all price points should have their own personality. Too much of what I have tasted recently – some with very high points …scores – had no individuality, tasting very much the same. Is the current financially-difficult market creating a culture where price overrides all other considerations? Because if so, ultimately it will be very damaging to our many premium wines and damaging also to the story Australia must communicate to the world, one of quality and diversity, if we are to survive the current difficulties. I’m reminded of the late Len Evans’ ‘Theory of Capacity’ which is very eloquent on the subject of not only quantity but more importantly also quality. I quote him in part:
“To make the most of the time left to you, you must start by calculating your future capacity. One bottle of wine a day is 365 bottles a year. If your life expectancy is another thirty years, there are only 10,000-odd bottles ahead of you. People who say, “You can’t drink the good stuff all the time” are talking rubbish. You must drink good stuff all the time. Every time you drink a bottle of inferior wine it’s like smashing a superior bottle against the wall. The pleasure is lost forever. You can’t get the bottle back. Wine is not meant to be enjoyed merely for its own sake, it is the key to love and laughter with friends, to the enjoyment of food and beauty and humour and art and music. It rewards us far beyond its cost.”
It’s a dictum we should very much consider when buying or selling wine – price should not be the only criterion.
More on the future of Australian Wine [28th August 2010]
In an earlier Newsletter I made comment as to my views on the sameness that Australian wine is increasingly being perceived as, by reviewers in our main export markets; a perception that I believe is ill-formed and ought to be countered more effectively by our governing bodies. I expressed an opinion that our governing bodies have a Big-company, South Australian-centric view of our industry and on the whole are not very open or encouraging to the small producer, and that they do not communicate nor help to communicate to our overseas markets the wonderful and diverse wine which is available across this nation from the very many small producers. I suggested that it seemed to me that policies like ‘Brand Australia’ seem to encourage sameness rather than individuality and that such a policy is short-sighted and counterproductive, especially when one looks at emerging competition from producers in the south of France, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, even Spain. My opinion was, and still is, that the future and the reputation of wine in Australia rests primarily with the small and medium, passionate producers, not controlled solely by bean-counters, but by producers who put their livelihood on the line each and every vintage. I was severely criticised, almost vilified for my opinion. It is, therefore, interesting to read an opinion on Robert Parker’s eParker.com by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW, who is now the main reviewer of Australian wine for The Wine Advocate; I quote.
One wonders if anyone is listening.
On the future of Australian Wine
As I travel around the world attending various bio-dynamic conferences and tastings, I am constantly amazed by the reception our wines are accorded. Amazed, not because they like the wines, why wouldn’t they, but totally amazed and saddened by the perception held by many people who think Australia is incapable of making anything other than non-gastronomic, sweet, high-alcohol wine. Amazed, also, because when I tell them of the very many other wonderful small producers making wine which is real - how it used to be - they are surprised; surprised at our industry’s lack of communication in that regard.
It is a story about the exaggerated influence of some powerful but myopic journalists in Australia’s main overseas markets; a wine industry dominated, controlled and shaped by the big companies; and an official wine body ruled by a South Australian-centric view of wine to the detriment of the rest of Australia. A mandatory, export approval system which can and does deny export approval to wine that is not what ‘they’ consider the ‘norm’ or is unfamiliar, by branding it faulty, which they sometimes do even when laboratory tests clearly show otherwise. Perhaps it might also be true to say that as much as the wine show system has helped deliver much improvement to the general quality of Australian wine, it has created a culture around a small group of the in-crowd who seek to control the direction of Australian wine, from style, to who gets to sit at the table when important decisions are made about our industry, or, who are given access to important wine press from overseas when they arrive in Australia. Has this self-appointed club put self-interest before what this country needs? - individual, high quality, terroir- driven wines made by people who eat, breathe and live their land in pursuit of something special.
It is time Australia had a revolution from the ground up, one which shakes our industry’s mixture of self-satisfied smugness and corporate neglect. The fact is, there are very many small Australian producers making wine, at many price points, that the world actually wants to drink. We simply are not communicating that fact. Our industry bodies are meant to represent all wineries in Australia but seem incapable or unwilling of supporting all sections of our industry equally.
If ever there was a time for the small serious producers to take matters into their own hands, it is now. If we leave it to those who seek to lead us, Australian wine will continue its slide into sameness and mediocrity. I for one will not be surrendering to those who seek to trivialize the small, independent winemakers. Many of us are more committed than ever to the pursuit of the highest quality; individual wine of terroir. It is time to expose the world to the wonderful wines made by small estates which have been till now forced, on a world stage, to take a back seat to the mediocrity which has been marketed and promoted as Australian wine in the last few years.
On What is Biodynamics
Biodynamics was first detailed in a series of agriculture lectures given by Rudolf Steiner in 1924 and is internationally recognized as a leading organic method working across al1 agricultural systems.
The biodynamic method involves the use of specially developed preparations, better known by the numbers 500-508, which assist in connecting the whole farm unit with the dynamic rhythms of the earth and of its atmosphere. Instead of just acting on the physical, biodynamics goes a step further and works both, with the living soil and the less understood but powerful invisible energies of nature. Biodynamics recognizes that great wine starts in the vineyard, not the cellar, and that a wine-grower must understand his soil and site before he can make a great wine.
Biodynamics - because of this connection with the world of invisible energies - helps to dramatically increase the possibility of individuality in wine. The French call this individuality Terroir.
I am continually looking for ways to further help the fruit complexity from our vines, shine through in our wine. Even the highest quality, finest fine-grain French oak, needs very careful handling. I was therefore very excited when last year I tasted a Pinot Noir which had been matured in an egg-shaped food-grade concrete tank. The wine from the egg tank had bright Pinot fruit characters with really fresh expressive complex aromas – to my mind a better wine than the same wine matured only in oak, although both were wonderful.
The egg shape has been referred to as ‘the most perfect shape in physics’.
I couldn’t help searching out these tanks and buying some, to add them to the mix of container types we use for maturation. They hold 900 litres and are the most beautiful wine tank I have ever seen. Their shape reduces pressure on the lees and also deposits the lees over a larger surface area which should eliminate battonage.
On Lunar Cycles
Those of you who have followed us from the beginning will know that I place great faith in the Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar. I never make any major decisions with regard to our wine on root days, indeed I try not to even taste wine on those days, my palate simply lies to me on such days. Many of my colleagues think this trait of mine ‘quaint’ and have often told me so. So it is with great interest that I recently read a report of its use by the big end of town, from the London-based NNA news agency, part of which I reproduce here.
Lunar cycles and the taste of wine
LONDON (NNA) Maria Thun's "Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar" is probably one of the better kept secrets of the wine trade. Yet, as the London Guardian newspaper recently revealed, for major supermarket chains such as Tesco and Marks & Spencer it has long been used as a tool to determine the best days to invite critics to wine tastings.
"The biodynamic calendar is a very familiar concept to people who work in the wine trade, and has been for decades," Mary Rochester Gearing, Tesco BWS PR Manager, told NNA. "Tesco have been referring to the calendar when choosing a date for their tastings for the press over the past years, something that Marks & Spencer also do and have done for a long time," she added.
Maria Thun's calendar is used by biodynamic farmers to determine the optimum days for sowing, pruning, and harvesting various plant crops, based on the rhythms of the moon, planets and constellations. Days are categorised as fruit, flower, leaf or root days, depending on these astronomical relationships.
"Although biodynamic practices are to do with the work in the field and the tending of the vines - winemakers in Burgundy in particular operate according to these methods - the theory also goes to the extent that wine will show more flavour on certain days," Mary Rochester Gearing explains, "but from a very basic perspective it makes sense to try and show wines at their optimum which is why we try to hold our tasting on fruit or flower days."
Marks & Spencer, too, believes that using the biodynamic calendar helps to present the wines to best advantage, even going so far as to advise customers to avoid disappointment from the best bottles by making sure not to open them on root days, the Guardian reports. "Before the tasting I was really unconvinced," the paper quotes Jo Ahearne, winemaker for Marks & Spencer, as saying after having sampled more than 140 wines over two days, "but the difference between the days was so obvious I was completely blown away."
And even the Guardian itself found the calendar worked: "The Guardian tested the theory this week and tasted the same wines on Tuesday evening, a leaf day, then again on Thursday evening, a fruit day. Five out of seven bottles showed a marked improvement," the paper writes.
Although Maria Thun's yearly ‘Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar’ is available in Australia and is a marvelously, interesting book to read, it is designed for use in the northern hemisphere, so the dates and times are not correct for use in Australia. Fortunately there is an Australian version.
Brian Keats has been publishing a Southern hemisphere version for 22 years ‘Antipodean Astro Calendar’. It is available direct from him at www.astro-calendar.com or from Biodynamic Agriculture Australia at www.biodynamics.net.au which is the premier Biodynamic teaching organisation in Australia.
"Biodynamics tends to be presented with a high level of mythology and talk of etheric forces and so on, but if you analyse the preparations you find they are in fact, if properly made, highly concentrated inoculums containing high levels of trace elements and a varie–ty of micro-organism."
The starting point for the compost preparations are the flowers of several plants which Rudolf Steiner specified should be picked on the first day the flowers opened.
“Each of the specified flowers has different characteristics that makes them ideal substrates for specific groups of micro-organisms and picking them on the day they open ensures they contain the most concentrated levels of trace minerals. Different flowering plants use different trace minerals as catalysts to produce odours that attract insects for successful pollination. The plant pumps the minerals, which can be in short supply in some environments, up into the flower on the day it opens to maximise its attraction to pollinators while the receptor are fresh. It then recycles them by translocating them to the next flower that opens and so one; repeatedly re-using the minerals to the plant's maximum benefit. So picking fresh flowers ensures maximum trace mineral content in the preparations.
When people come to visit us, they often ask questions and want to find out more about biodynamics. I try to explain that to fully understand biodynamics requires a shift in thinking, a shift in thinking that requires judgments to be not solely scientific. I suggest that embracing biodynamics requires an instinctual understanding of the space we inhabit, the land we farm, and an understanding of the importance of intuitive perceptions. Acceptance of intuition is something that our scientific community finds difficult to embrace. In an earlier Newsletter I quoted a scientist – Professor Stuart B. Hill now of the University of Western Sydney – about the scientific basis of the BD preparations. I would like to quote him again if I may, this time about intuition:
"A purely scientific approach does not allow for the intuitive understanding of the ‘good’ farmer. Most people, including scientists, make decisions partly based on ‘feelings’ and intuitions, probably more often than they recognise, but science makes no allowance for that. In fact, most aspects of science are in denial about the phenomenon, and scientists set-up experiments which ignore it. Those feelings or intuitions are, in fact, based on readings of inputs we don’t consciously recognise, and while most tertiary courses provided no support training for use of those intuitive registers, and in many instances actively worked against them. In social ecology we talk about mystical or spiritual dimensions, which are not scientific but represent our best attempts to acknowledge that conscious human knowledge represents only a minute portion of the sum of knowledge in the world."
To illustrate his point he refers to an image, used by André Voisin, a French agronomist, where a minute dot beside a huge circle represents the sum total of human knowledge with the circle representing the knowledge there is to discover.
"There is no doubt we need to get better at recognizing and making use of these intuitive inputs”.
To further reinforce his point he talks of his grandfather, an ‘uneducated man’, who knew intuitively just when and where to plant particular vegetable crops.
"He couldn’t explain it. He just knew the time was right and that is what he should do. Although the reasons may have been inexplicable, but the inputs he was tapping into were still real, and the results he achieved with his intuition out-stripped those of people taking the more limited ‘scientific’ approach. It’s the same with really good farmers, although the modern trend to put farmers through degree programs strongly focused on conventional science is tending to kill that by closing them off to intuitive inputs, which are real even thought they can’t be easily measured."
I wonder if the criticism now being leveled at Australian wine of ‘sameness’ would be tempered if our highly-skilled, highly-trained, science-based winemakers listened to their inner-self, their intuition, a little more often.