McLaren Vale centre of organic, biodynamic winemaking

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By Melissa Keogh

McLaren Vale – one of South Australia’s most renowned wine regions – is often noted for being home to some of the world’s oldest grape vines.

But did you know that McLaren Vale is also home to a high concentration of sustainable grapegrowers and winemakers?

A local industry program, Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (SAW) is an initiative of the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Association (MVGWTA) and says the region is the nation’s centre of sustainable winegrowing.

The program captures data from 130 local vineyards and wineries who can identify as sustainable through a set of environmental, economic and social considerations.

MVGWTA general manager Jennifer Lynch says grapegrowers who are part of SAW account for more than 70% of McLaren Vale’s entire crush.

Grapevines at Paxton Wines, McLaren Vale.

“The evidence-based farming practices are collected through more than 130 different data points across seven different subjects of sustainability … it’s a very holistic approach,” she says.

“The environmental indicators are quite obvious (soil health, fertiliser management, pest and disease management, water and waste management) but you have to also consider economic and social indicators, such as their worker and social relations, community relations, and overall profitability of the business.

“We are ecstatic the SAW program accounts for more than 70% of McLaren Vale’s entire crush, and for a voluntary program it’s an exceptional membership rate. It shows the industry is conscious of sustainable production.”

Jennifer says 10% of SAW McLaren Vale members are certified organic or biodynamic wineries and vineyards, while a further near 10% are practicing (but not certified) organic or biodynamic producers. The remaining percentage use low input conventional management practices to control pests and diseases.

Organic farming uses no synthetic pesticides or additives, while biodynamic farming involves a more holistic approach, identifying the property as entire ecosystem and also taking into consideration the lunar cycle and astrological influences.

Members of SAW account for 70% of McLaren Vale’s entire crush. This includes fruit from Gemtree Wines, pictured.

But a wine business can still be sustainable without adhering to organic or biodynamic practices.

“The important point to note is that sustainability does not favour one particular farming method over another,” Jennifer says.

“Sustainability covers conventional, certified and practising organic and biodynamic, and low input management with integrated pest management practice. There are various farming methods that sustainability can encompass – it is a continuum.”

Some of the wineries at the centre of McLaren Vale’s sustainable winemaking operations include the organic and biodynamic certified d’Arenberg, Paxton Wines, Gemtree Wines, and Wirra Wirra.

Melissa and Mike Brown at Gemtree Wines went certified organic and biodynamic in 2011, building upon Gemtree’s history which dates back to the 1980s.

They say biodynamic farming practices make a “huge difference” to the health of the soil and vines.

Melissa and Mike Brown of Gemtree Wines.

“As soon as we removed the chemicals, the herbicides and the pesticides we noticed that activity was back in the soil, the vines seemed to become a bit more resilient and were able to deal with extremes a bit more,” Mike says.

“We’re not saying we’re under a beautiful cloud and we’re not affected by the weather, but the vines seemed to be able to bounce back and have much a much more even, balanced structure.”

One of the bases of biodynamic winemaking is the use of horn manure (500) to build up fertility of the soil. Fresh cow manure is put into cow horns and buried in the ground for six months prior to the winter solstice.

Last year Gemtree separated itself from the usual biodynamic producers when they aged a single-vineyard shiraz in a wax-coated French oak barrel buried for eight months underneath the vines from which the winegrapes were grown. The wine was completely chemical free, with no sulphur added. Another barrel was buried for 18 months.

Mike says the result was an “absolute reflection of the place it comes from”, and he describes the drop as “broody, earthy and textual”.

A 15 minute drive away is fellow certified organic and biodynamic producer Paxton Wines, a family owned and run wine business that, like Gemtree Wines, farms without the use of synthetic fertilisers and fungicides.

Paxton Wines chief winemaker Richard Freebairn.

Operations manager Ben Paxton is son of highly respected viticulturist David Paxton and says his father was inspired to experiment with organic and biodynamic grapegrowing after attending a conference on the movement in 2004.

By 2005 the entire vineyard was converted to organic and biodynamic practices, before full certifications were achieved in 2011.

“We had a desire to increase grape quality, we wanted the vines to thrive naturally, have better balances of acidity, sugar and flavour,” Ben says. “The disease resistance increased dramatically, and the cell walls are thicker and stronger.”

The Browns and the Paxtons both believe consumers are increasingly wanting to know where their produce comes from and how it was made, and Jennifer Lynch of SAW agrees.

“If we look at who the core wine consumers are and our future consumers as well, it’s the millennials,” Jennifer says.

“The ethical and sustainable consciousness of these consumers continues to increase.”

Paxton Wines’ cellar door.

Industry in focus: Craft industries

Throughout the months of November and December, the state’s craft industries will be celebrated as part of I Choose SA.

South Australian craftspeople make up some of our most creative thinkers and makers of sustainable and innovative goods. Read more craft stories here.

Visit I Choose SA to meet the people building business and industry in SA, and to find out how your choices make a difference to our state.

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