There’s Something in the Water in Canberra

Taste Explorer talks to Canberra wine maker Chris Carpenter from Lark Hill about biodynamics, Gruner Veltliner and what’s next for Canberra Wine.

Canberra has often had a reputation as being famous (or more accurately infamous) for three things. Porn, politics and pyrotechnics. Of course the Canberra district has a lot more going for it than that. The district, surrounded by gently undulating hills is home to wonderful music and arts festivals, outstanding galleries & museums and a burgeoning culinary scene. It was almost a year ago that I discovered another string to the Canberra district’s bow. Cold climate wines.

I tried for the first time, a Gruner Veltliner by Lark Hill. It was a revelation. If you had asked me what a Gruner Veltliner was prior to trying it, I probably would have guessed it was an East German 3 wheeled van with a penchant for breaking down every 500 metres. Happily this was not the case. Naturally this revelation required further research into Canberra wines. After
much meticulous research (which continues to this day) I am happy to report that as a wine district, Canberra punches well above its weight when it comes to a quality drop.

Lark Hill Gruner Veltliner

Wineries such as Lark Hill, Capital Wines, Eden Road, Clonakilla & Helm Wines produce great wines across a spectrum of varieties from popular varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Shiraz and Pinot Noir to emerging varieties such as Gruner Veltliner and Tempranillo.

Like many parts of Australia in recent years, the Canberra district has seen its share of wild weather to which grapes are particularly susceptible. In a year where some vineyards have seen their crops damaged by weather or disease, others have not been affected to the same degree.

Biodynamic Producer Lark Hill is one of the wineries not to have been affected and winemaker Chris Carpenter firmly believes that adhering to biodynamic principles has helped his winery  some of these difficult periods and produce better wines as a result.

So what exactly is Biodynamics? In simple terms it is an advanced form of organic agriculture with an emphasis on fruit quality and soil health and as such, uses no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Pioneered by Rudolph Steiner, it is commonly thought to be one of the first forms of ecological farming.

As a method of farming, it’s not without its detractors, some who question the value of planting to an astronomical calendar or applying some of the preparations integral to the biodynamic method of farming.

I think these detractors miss the point though. Biodynamic winemaking requires lots of manual labour, and this hands on approach is evident when you drink the wine. Scientific studies conducted independently of Biodynamic organisations have shown soil quality to be improved when farmed using Biodynamic methods and the key factor? The wines taste great!

Taste Explorer spoke to Chris Carpenter from Lark Hill about Biodynamics, Gruner Veltliner and what the future holds for Lark Hill.

 

Have your family always been based around the Canberra district? What informed the choice to start Lark Hill in its current location?

Not really. My parents bought Lark Hill in 1976 after a few years of looking for a suitable cold-climate site to emulate the Alsacian Rieslings they loved. They were from scientific research & statistics backgrounds – and happened to be in Canberra at the time. So it was a combination of right-place right-time, a desire for a particular climate, and a desire to plant grapes in an area that was less well known at the time (for grape growing).

Why Biodynamics? Did the fact that your vineyard sits in an environmental protection zone influence this decision at all?

Lark Hill Vineyard

Well – yes in some ways. We have always been “environmentally friendly” which is a good way of saying organic without committing to much. In 2002 we started to see another serious drought cycle starting (having survived a serious one through the 1980s) and decided that since we cannot irrigate (our bore-water is slightly saline) we needed to make the most of the water we had rather than farm as if nothing had changed.

So we set about getting access to a deep mulching spreader and sourcing the kind of mulch we needed – which ended up being taking waste sawdust from Equestrian centres across Canberra. This sounds trivial but the volume of mulch required to spread a band 30cm deep and 30cm wide under the vines on our 14 acres every winter is huge – certainly an order of magnitude more than we anticipated.

In solving this problem we eliminated our last non-organic vice; herbiciding weeds under the vines. So we started looking at Organic certification, went to a Biodynamic conference in Beechworth and never turned back.

We started Biodynamic farming in 2003 and sought certification immediately. We are certified by NASAA (National Association of Sustainable Agriculture of Australia) who require 3 years before a transition label can be granted, and a further 2 before full certification is considered. So our 2008 vintage wines were fully certified.

Since you went fully Biodynamic in 2003, have you noticed changes in the quality of the wine or the health of the vineyard?

Definitely. There are a few key indications that we feel show a huge increase.

The first is that we used to pick our grapes late, with high sugars for ripe flavours. Our standard picking point for Chardonnay was 13.8-14 % potential alcohol. This was late in the season and the vines were already going dormant before picking – most of the leaves would be yellow or brown and the vines looked stressed out and tired. They were struggling to get their fruit physically ripe.

Now we pick earlier, with ripe flavours developing around 1-1.5% lower potential alcohol and with green, healthy vines. They usually stay green and healthy for 3-4 weeks after picking – which means they spend 3-4 weeks storing energy for the next season – a pretty good result in terms of more sustainable growth every year.

The 2nd is that we measure YAN – Yeast Assimable Nitrogen. This is a measure of how much nutrient is in the juice for yeast to use during ferment. The magic number is >300mg/L – which is required for a healthy happy ferment.

When we started we were seeing YANs in our juices of around 200. These are now over 350 and require no additions in the winery.

As a guide, local vineyards we make wine for often struggle to break 100mg/L and require huge and repeated nutrient additions – which impacts on the wine quality as well as purity.

This is doubly interesting for us as we are achieving such juice nutrition without applying fertilisers on our vineyard. The Biodynamics enlivens so many soil microbes that the soil has become a self-sustaining and renewing organism that can support our vines in a balanced, long term manner.

The final noticeable change is a perceived vibrancy and balance the the wines that we think we see in our wines since the changeover – but that’s a far more hedonistic assessment!

You come from a very scientifically minded family. Do you see Biodynamics as a scientific approach to winemaking?

Biodynamics is frequently criticised for being a quasi-religion or strange cult, mostly due to a misunderstanding of the philosophical thinking behind Steiner’s original lectures. Biodynamics is about the holistic improvement of an eco-system with the view to achieve better crops. On the surface it’s doesn’t appear to be a scientific approach, but many elements are actually very scientific in their method of action – even if the approach is fairly rough and ready!

The corner stone of Biodynamic farming is the use of Preparation “500” – cow manure fermented (over winter) in a cow horn. 500 is mixed in luke-warm water for 1 hour and sprayed onto the soil. This is in fact a microbe starter for the soil – which supplies a few important organisms; a fungi which swaps sugars for potassium and nitrates at the cell-wall of plant roots (and opens up an order of magnitude more nutrients to the vines) and Rhizobium bacteria – which fix atmospheric nitrogen into nitrates.

Cow Horns used for Biodynamic Preparations

Many of Australia’s and indeed the worlds top wines are now made using Biodynamic principles including Henschke Hill of Grace which is picked according to the lunar cycle. Why do you think there has been a shift towards Biodynamic principles in winemaking?

Biodynamics is about a return to farming of 100 years ago (and hundreds of years before then), when chemical fertilisers were not available and chemical sprays were not used. More so than that is that a complete Biodynamic regime is about treating the farm as a closed loop eco-system, with no inputs and few outputs. This is a very relevant concept in societal thinking these days – and something that winemakers of great following and wines of great quality can strive to achieve.

But a side impact of Biodynamic farming is that such focus is given on vineyard health and the quality of the fruit that there is an inescapable increase in grape and wine quality. So I think what we’re seeing is that winemakers pursuing excellence are seeing Biodynamics as a very strong and positive tool to get the best out of their vineyard and their wines.

I also believe that Biodynamics is a pathway to a better sense of Terroir in a wine. We have found such a renewed connection with our vineyard and our eco-system that we are doing less in the winery to alter the expression of place delivered by our fruit. As we aren’t using chemical sprays in the vineyard, we have a very strong native yeast population and so even our ferments are unique to our vineyard and site.

In recent years, Lark Hill has pioneered the introduction of the Gruner Veltliner variety in Australia where it has been very successful. What influenced the decision to plant Gruner?

Our quest for Gruner Veltliner started at a similar time as our foray in to Biodynamics – and in fact are coincidentally linked.

In 2002, Jancis Robinson (a famous UK Wine writer) visited Lark Hill after two of our Pinot Noirs placed 2nd and 3rd at the International Wine Challenge. She strode to the top of our windy hill and proclaimed “you should grow Gruner Veltliner”. We actually hadn’t encountered the variety and so the concept was lost until we started looking at Biodynamics – and tasting some famous European examples of Biodynamic wines. High among these were some Austrian winemakers – (Domain Nikolaihoff especially) and they produced both Riesling and Gruner Veltliner side-by-side; so we started tasting Biodynamic Gruners.

We decided that the link was too strong to ignore and so we found some vines in 2005 (two vines in a CSIRO nursery in Tasmania) and I drove down and brought 20 cuttings back through quarantine.

We have since propagated from these 20 ‘mother’ vines and now have almost 1000 producing vines in a close-planted vineyard on the highest part of Lark Hill.

What other innovations can we expect from Lark Hill over the coming years?

I think our focus now is on refining the Gruner style – we are now starting to see mature fruit from the vines (although the oldest are only 6 years old – babies according to most) and the varietal definition we are starting to see in the wine will only strengthen from here; so we have much to learn in terms of creating an Australian Gruner Veltliner with our Terroir.

So for now, expect a cycle of inward focus rather than explorative innovation – but that doesn’t mean there’s more of both to come in the future.

Images republished courtesy of Lark Hill

Lark Hill Winery

Cnr Bungendore Rd & Joe Rocks Rd
Bungendore, NSW 2621

02 6238 1393

http://www.larkhillwine.com.au

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Author:Jeremy Bowell

Jeremy Bowell is the founder and editor of Taste Explorer. He also writes for InsideCuisine.com, TheGrapeHunter.com, SoBadSoGood.com and has featured in the Sydney Morning Herald's Good Living section. He is an avid connoisseur of all things food and drink related.