Grapes vintage at Cullen Wines

Five years ago, organic and biodynamic winemaking might have seemed left field or faddish.

But jump forward to 2018 and you see an increasing number of converts to sustainable agriculture in the Margaret River Region. Fergal Gleeson spoke to three of the regions wineries in various stages of their organic winemaking journey.

Vintage Voyager Estate 2018
Voyager Estate has 40 hectares of vineyards currently in conversion to certified organic

Voyager Estate

Voyager Estate is one of the region’s leading wineries, establishing their vineyards in 1978. Well known for their Cape Dutch style tasting room and the extensive rose garden, they caused quite a stir when they recently announced their move to become a certified organic winery.

Of  Voyager’s 120 hectares, 40 are currently in conversion to certified organic. Winemaker Steve James is just about to start on the next 40 hectares with the intention that the whole vineyard will be certified organic by 2023.

Steve sees it as “going back to how farming was done 80 or 90 years ago before the advent of modern chemicals. A return to a simpler way of farming working with natural products.”

“Voyager have been using organic farm practices for a number of years but the move to become certified organic by Australian Certified Organic was the natural next step to improve what we are doing,” he says.

Steve points out that the climate in Australian wine regions lends itself to organic because there is not much summer rain so there is less disease pressure. He sees that many parts of Margaret River already use sustainable practices.

However if organic was that easy everybody would be doing it.

“Organic is harder to practise in the vineyard than in the winery, which is simple. The biggest challenge is weed control for which there is no silver bullet. We use mowing, different cover crops and tillage. In winter we graze sheep who operate like natural lawnmowers but they must be quarantined for a few weeks.” (So that they don’t introduce any inorganic materials to the vineyard).

Does organic wine taste better? “Many of the best wines of the world are made organically or biodynamically. Great wines are an expression of site and soil. Organic is an important part of  that because you are working deep down with the roots. The characteristics of the wine would be less overt fruit and more textural and savoury. You are dealing with soil that’s alive and healthy.”

Steve concluded by saying “I’ve been farming for 30 years. It’s been really refreshing to think about things differently and not go for the easy option of spraying. If you love farming. It’s a lovely way to farm.”

Many of the best wines of the world are made organically or biodynamically. Great wines are an expression of site and soil

Rosily Vineyard
Rosily Vineyard became certified organic in May 2017

Rosily Vineyard

Rosily Vineyard is a family-owned winery based at Wilyabrup, whose first plantings were in 1994. They have built a strong reputation for delivering high quality, value-for-money wines from their estate vineyards and have recently introduced a reserve cabernet and chardonnay.

After two years of trials and three years of conversion, their vineyards were certified organic in May 2017. Winemaker Mick Scott is no eco warrior. His reasons for taking Rosily organic are based on a mixture of pragmatic as well as environmental considerations.

“Our vineyards are 20 years old,” he says. The productive life of vines is 50 to 60 years. So the question was ‘will they continue to produce well?’ I wanted to make sure that we were looking after the vineyard as well as we could.

“There was the hope that the fruit would taste better and more complex. There are some preliminary tests out of California which, in blind tastings, show that organic and biodynamic wines do taste better.”

“We are a small, family run business. There are just two people in the vineyard and me. I grew up in the same street as one of the guys. The amount of chemicals a farmer sees is a million times more than the ordinary person does. No matter how careful you are you can’t avoid exposure to it.”

“Then we were thinking of the future. Large wineries like Voyager were talking about it. The question will soon be, ‘who is not organic rather than who is?’ You’ll be a dinosaur and forced to change later when you’ll be behind the eight-ball.”

Like Voyager’s Steve James, Mick echoes that farming organically is challenging. Weevils caused extensive crop damage of up to 40% over two years. Mick feels it’s possible that the vines were weak for the first three years after moving to the new organic fertilisation practices as they were lacking the nutrients they’d become accustomed to. They have since introduced a new system where a cloth is wrapped around the base of the vine which acts as a physical barrier to the weevils.

“Organic wine is more expensive to produce as there is more labour and there is the risk of crop loss. However the picture will become clearer when we’ve been running organically for longer.”

One of Mick’s bug bears are the winemakers who say things like, ‘we use organic principles’. “It’s very easy to say that and to use it most of the time. But then they just get out the pesticides when the weevils arrive. That’s why it’s important to understand who has gone through certification.”

“There were raised eyebrows six years ago from the industry when I first broached organic. The attitude was, ‘why you would bother?’ But there has been a lot of interest from consumers and from the trade since we made the switch,” says Mick.

“There’s no turning back. At Rosily, we enter a lot of wine shows and we analyse the results data from the shows. We have had the best results ever in the last couple of years since we made the changes in the vineyard.”

At Rosily, we enter a lot of wine shows and we analyse the results data from the shows. We have had the best results ever in the last couple of years since we made the changes in the vineyard

Vanya Cullen - Cullen WInes Wilyabrup
Cullen Wines a certified biodynamic winery and the first in Australia to become certified carbon neutral

Cullen Wines

Cullen Wines are one of the pioneering wineries of Margaret River, founded in 1971. They are a certified biodynamic winemaker. They are also the first winery in Australia to become certified carbon neutral.

Vanya Cullen takes up the story on where her interest in sustainable winemaking came from.

“Mum and dad cared for the environment and used minimal chemical inputs. For example in the early 90s mum trialled seaweed as a fertiliser. We began the conversion to organic from 1998, becoming certified in 2003. Then I became interested in biodynamic which I saw as a step above. A sort of organics plus.”

By 2008, the Cullen and Mangan vineyards and the winery had been certified biodynamic.

But what is biodynamic winemaking?

Biodynamic is similar to organic farming in that both take place without chemicals, but biodynamic farming also views the vineyard as an ecosystem. It takes astrological influences and lunar cycles into consideration in the timing of when activities happen in the vineyard. 

Over time, methods and preparations create deeper topsoil, increase root mass and depth, and increase water holding capacity of soils – thereby improving plant health and improving the plant’s resistance to pests and disease.

Vanya sees it as “the embodiment of terroir in its sustainability and connection to the soil”.

I asked her to explain the idea of root, fruit, flower and leaf days.

“They are related to the planetary aspect and determine what activities should be conducted on particular days for example – planting on fire sign days and watering on leaf days.”

Biodynamic winemaking has its sceptics who see all of this as mumbo jumbo. I asked Vanya if it was scary going out on a limb from the rest of the industry.

“Australia doesn’t have a tradition of sustainable agriculture, but we are getting better. With biodynamics there is a real focus on quality and sustainability. It feels lovely to honour nature. Initially we got dropped off the mainstream as we were given the ‘environmental’ tag. But now, sustainability is becoming a greater priority for everyone.”

Many of names of Cullen’s wines reflect the biodynamic approach to wine making: Dancing in the Moonlight is her rosé–, Dancing in the Sun is a sauvignon/semillon mix, Rose Moon is a pet nat rosé.

“I believe that you can see the detail and completeness in the wine. You can see the difference in the vibrancy of a pure product.”  

With biodynamics there is a real focus on quality and sustainability. It feels lovely to honour nature