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Wine

A Beginner’s Guide to Organic Wine

Know the difference between organic, biodynamic and vegan wines with this simple guide from Wine Selectors!

If you’re an attentive wine lover, you may have noticed an increase in the number of wineries using terms like organic, natural or biodynamic on their labels, or when speaking about their product.

These aren’t mere marketing diversions, either. Instead, each term reflects distinctive approaches to winemaking, many of which have emerged in response to a rise in the number of people practicing conscious consumption, and a desire on the part of growers and winemakers to experiment and embrace more sustainable techniques.

So, what makes each different from the next? Let’s find out.

ORGANIC WINE

At its simplest, organic wines are exactly what they sound like – wines produced with organically-grown grapes, free from herbicides, pesticides and other artificial chemical agents. To control for weeds and bugs, growers utilise cover crops to attract benign bugs known to repel the nasties, or have livestock like sheep graze between the rows to reduce weeds. The idea is that the vineyard becomes a self-regulating ecosystem.

It doesn’t mean that these wines are free from sulphur or other additives, however – many of which are also organic – but they are often present in lesser quantities.  There are two certifying bodies in Australia that wineries will cite to prove their organic credentials. One is Australian Certified Organic (ACO), while the other is the National Association or Sustainable Agriculture (NASAA). Seeing their logo is your assurance that the wine you’re thinking of drinking has passed the requirements for organic classification.

They’ve certainly come a long way since they were first introduced to market, with wineries such as the Hunter Valley’s Tamburlaine turning out award-winning examples of the category. And with younger drinkers in particular choosing organic produce wherever possible, we believe organic wines will only grow in popularity.

BIODYNAMIC WINE

Not to be confused with organic wine, biodynamic wine is an approach to winemaking that takes inspiration from the work of late 19th-century spiritual thinker Rudolf Steiner. Like organic wines, growers and winemakers refrain from pesticides and chemical fertilisers, and consider the vineyard as an integrated and holistic system.

One key distinction from organic wines however is the use of biodynamic soil ‘supplements’ and astrologically-informed planting, pruning and harvesting schedules. From chamomile and yarrow formulations to cow horns loaded with manure, buried and then dug up again according to specific lunar timings, it’s a blend of solid scientific thinking and inspired mysticism ­­­– with the resulting wines gaining increasing recognition for their quality and varietal expressiveness.

Think of it as a supercharged version of organic farming, which is finding more and more fans and proponents of its distinctive approach.

PRESERVATIVE-FREE WINE

As mentioned above, just because you’re buying an organic wine doesn’t mean it will be preservative-free. For that, you’ll need to seek out a preservative-free wine – often referred to as a wine created through ‘minimal intervention’.

The most common preservative used in wine is sulphur dioxide (SO2). Often, you’ll see it listed on the label as ‘preservative 220’, or even ‘antioxidant 220’.

It’s an entirely natural by-product of winemaking, and not necessarily a bad thing at all. It’s typically produced by yeast during the fermentation process – and happens to act as protection against bacteria and other nasties, while helping neutralise the effects of oxygen exposure during the winemaking process.

Sulphites are common as preservative agents also – hence the ‘may contain sulphites’ notice you’ll see on many bottles. But the better the grapes are handled in the vineyard and the better the quality of the fruit, the less need there is to add any such preservatives.  And, despite the common misconception, sulphites aren’t really to blame for your wine headache – a more likely cause is the phenolics (tannins), the alcohol content, or even the wine’s natural acidity.

However, if you’re someone who experiences tightness in the chest, coughing or symptoms similar to asthma when drinking wine, they are likely signs of a sulphite allergy or intolerance – making any wine labelled ‘preservative-free’ the best choice to indulge in when it’s time for a tipple.

VEGAN WINE

A lot of people may wonder, how is my wine not vegan already? It’s a fair question, as wine is essentially fermented grape juice where yeasts facilitate the conversion of the fruit’s natural sugars into alcohol… isn’t it?

Well, yes… but that’s only part of the typical winemaking process. Where things get un-vegan is in the fining process, which is meant to clear up the ‘haze’ created by the proteins, tannins and tartrate during the creation of a wine. To speed the settlement of this haze, winemakers generally use fining agents such as isinglass (fish protein), gelatin (animal protein), catein (a milk-derived protein), and egg whites (albumin) to act as coagulants, binding the elements that make up the haze, and making them easier to remove from the final wine. 

Happily for vegans, a number of wines are appearing today that use alternative fining agents like activated charcoal, or bentonite – a clay-based agent. More and more winemakers are also leaving their wines to ‘self-fine’ or stabilise without the use of any such protein agents.

That means that if you’re a vegan wine lover, you’ll find more options out there to satisfy that love than ever – but make sure to check the label for the vegan symbol, the words vegan-friendly, or for whether the wine is unfined/unfiltered. If in doubt, ask. For more info on vegan wines, check out our guide here

A WIDER WORLD OF WINE

No doubt, innovation and an increasingly educated consumer base has broadened the availability and acceptance of such wines. And the best thing about it all is that there really is no trade-off in quality, unlike the bad old days when organic wines were largely to be avoided. Today’s organic, biodynamic and vegan wines are delightfully delicious expressions in their own right.

So, who’s for a glass of wine with fewer chemicals, a smaller ecological footprint and perhaps less chance of leaving you a little sorry the next morning? We’ll drink to that!

Interested in experiencing that organic flavour for yourself? View our range of organic and vegan-friendly wines here!

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An organic matter
There is little doubt the organics movement is sweeping the world, particularly in relation to food. The reasons for this are simple – the belief that organic food not only tastes better, but is better for you and for the environment given it is sustainably farmed. When it comes to the wine world, the same fervent push of the organic movement is no less forceful, it’s just taken longer to catch on. Mark Davidson, Managing Director and Chief Winemaker of Australia’s largest organic wine producer, Tamburlaine Organic Wines, reckons he knows why – a lack of understanding of organics in wine production, and a difficulty in breaking down long held practices in viticulture. While conventional viticulture uses chemical fertilizers annually to maintain grape yields, and pesticides to indiscriminately kill bugs, organic farming only uses natural biodegradable inputs and treats bugs with a range of beneficial biodiversity such as companion plants and good bugs. “At its heart, organic viticulture is about improving the health of soils naturally,” says Mark. “It’s about restoring organic matter, which is the home for moisture and microbiology in soils – that’s what makes soils and vines healthy.”
Conventional to contemporary While Mark is a flag bearer for organic farming, he hasn’t always been. When he first started in winemaking at Tamburlaine in the Hunter Valley in the mid 80s, he too used conventional farming. “I came in fairly naively, thinking the chemical providers to the wine industry must have identified what works and what doesn’t. But they didn’t always work and every time they didn’t, there was an excuse,” explains Mark. “We have some challenging soils in the Hunter and I’d made 14 years of chemical applications to improve soils, but without much effect. So what was the alternative? That’s when I started thinking organics. “After a long period of vineyard observation and trials, in 2002 we took the first steps toward organic certification for some of our Hunter Valley blocks. This meant a full management program which replaced synthetic chemicals, improved soil organic matter and simulated the vines’ natural defences.” It was hard work. While there was some limited information on organic farming, hardly any of it was in relation to the wine industry, so Mark’s work into organic viticulture was pioneering. And viewed as somewhat risky. “People thought I had lost it,” he says. “But it actually reminds me of the period when Australia changed to screw caps. Winemakers around the world thought we were mad. Nowadays, science and quality of wines aged under stelvin have proven we were right to ditch cork. I am confident it will be the same with organic winemaking. When you step back, it is really sound contemporary thinking.” Scientifically sound The other challenge to convincing people about organic wines is that it’s not just a bunch of hippies growing grapes and trying to make them into wine without any winemaking knowledge.   “Twenty years ago, what had been produced in the name of organics was not necessarily good stuff,” Mark says. “But that has got nothing to do with what we do today in terms of contemporary organics farming. There is a whole lot of background science to this – it is not just some ethereal feel good philosophy. “Science has moved quickly in our direction in providing biodegradable certified organic products for vineyards and wineries. So now there are many more tools at our disposal to make top class wine. “I know that, so does Vanya Cullen (from Cullen Wines) in West Australia, Chester Osborn (d’Arenberg), Prue Henschke and various professionals around the country, and the world, are moving this way. “We’re all enthused not only about the outcomes, but how practically and effectively we can farm using contemporary organic systems because science is providing improved solutions. “So we’ve got the answers now that we didn’t have 10 years ago, to prove what we know benefits the vines without using inputs that are potentially destructive to soil. As far as sustainable viticulture goes, we now have the answers.”
​ Better wines With 14 hectares of vines in the Hunter certified organic and 200 hectares recently certified in the Orange wine region, Tamburlaine’s award-winning wines are proof that organic winemaking is not only viable, but is the way of the future. Ultimately, consumers will decide by buying wines they love. But if you ask Mark two questions about his experience with organic winemaking at Tamburlaine Organic Wines, it is convincing. Are the soils better, now? “Yes, more organic matter and better pH –  they’re the two measureables.” Are the wines better? “Absolutely. The wines we are making are better than ever. And, they are of consistent quality, and that’s really important.”
Wine
Meet Richard Freebairn of Paxton Wines
What was it that drew you to the wine industry? I grew up on a sheep and cereal grain farm in South East of Western Australia, and I enjoyed the outdoors and hands-on side of farming. However, I love the diversity of winemaking. You can be filling barrels or digging out a ferment one day, and the next hosting a five star dinner in Sydney. Always interesting and great challenges. You have worked in vineyards all over the country, including the Margaret River, Swan Valley, Sonoma Valley, Barossa Valley, Clare Valley . What is the best thing about working and living in McLaren Vale ? McLaren Vale has it all, I live in Adelaide with my wife and work in the most beautiful wine region five minutes from the ocean and 30 minutes (depending on how you drive) from the city. What’s your must-do for visitors to McLaren Vale? BYO picnic basket to our beautiful cellar door surrounded by 1850s stone cottages and rolling green lawns.
What have been some of your highlights of your time at Paxton? We have won some nice Trophies and received some great James Halliday scores, but I think it is teaching people about Organics and Biodynamics . It is a fantastic way of farming and can really make a big difference to the fruit and especially the wine. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given when it comes to winemaking? Be patient, wine is not a picture or a snapshot, it is like a movie – always evolving and moving with you. Be patient with wine and enjoy the ride! Do you have an all-time favourite wine to make? Why is it? I love making our Pinot Gris , because I don’t use carbon to remove the colour, I use hypoxygenation (basically oxidise it with oxygen). The wine looks so murky and brown all through ferment and stabilisation until one day, generally about three months after harvest, all the brown drops out and you are left with a bright, almost green, hue. It is such a relief! In 2011 Paxton became a fully certified organic and biodynamic wine producer. Can you tell us more about this certification, what it means, how it is achieved etc.? We are very proud to be Organic and Biodynamic at Paxton; it gives us a great sense of growing and making for the future. The vines look healthy and the wines have vitality. The certification process takes three years from the dates of application. From that point everything you do must be approved through your certifying body, we are certified through NASAA Certified Organics. The Paxton Organic MV Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 is our Wine of the Month for June – what makes this a standout wine? The beautiful aroma of winter greens, it is such a fragrant wine. I love smelling this Cabernet Sauvignon . The other great part is the palate, a perfect wine for the colder months. It has power and poise, bright fruit, as well as lovely tannins. A great wine with stews, soups and hearty winter dishes. What do you do to relax when you’re away from the winery? I play golf, not so relaxing, but it gets my head out of the winery. What’s your ultimate wine and food match? Paxton MV Cabernet Sauvignon, lamb loin chops (from our farm in Western Australia) mashed potato and peas. What is your favourite… Movie? The Lion King Book? Power of One Time of day? Any time of the day is a great time in McLaren Vale! Restaurant? Ruby Red Flamingo in North Adelaide.
Wine
Diversity in Wine
Words by Michael Davey on 8 May 2018
Diversity is a word that sits well with Australian wine. The continent is large, with a vast range of soils and climates. We also have a wide range of cultures, which are most evident in the food we share, and the wine we drink.  In the 1990s, Australia was known for predictable, consistent, mass-market, well priced, flavoursome wines. Predictable and consistent are great when you turn on a tap, not when you open a bottle of wine. The past two decades have seen Australians embrace the new and the different. This change parallels Corrina Wright’s winemaking career. Fifteen years ago, she was responsible for producing 18 million bottles annually of Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay. Upon returning to her family’s McLaren Vale vineyard, Oliver’s Taranga Vineyard, the technical, hands-on discipline of Lindemans gave way to a low intervention, hands-off approach. At home, this sixth generation winegrower quickly made her mark, producing exemplary regional wines, particularly Shiraz . But rather than letting this define her, Corrina turned her hand to crafting a diverse selection of alternative varietals including Fiano , Vermentino , Mencia and Sagrantino . “We have ultimate freedom here to do whatever we want. We did our homework and planted heat and drought tolerant varieties, with high natural acidity.”  It was a fine old Barolo that piqued Garry Crittenden’s interest in Italian wines. He tasted widely, read up on Italian wine growing and making methods, then took a pioneering study trip to Piedmont in 1992. The following year, Garry launched his cleverly branded ‘i’ range of Italian varietals with a Great Western-grown Dolcetto. Meanwhile, Brown Brothers were growing a diverse selection of alternative varieties in their nursery vineyard. These were vinified in small, experimental batches in their ‘kindergarten’ winery, then trial marketed at their cellar door. The food-friendly Italian varietals did well at their restaurant, and the high demand flowed on to local growers. These included Fred Pizzini, who grew Nebbiolo , and his cousin Arnie Pizzini, who grew Barbera , both sources for Crittenden ’s ‘i’ wines. Garry’s studies led to him penning the influential book, Italian Wine Grape Varieties in Australia. This resource helped new growers of Italian wine varietals avoid planting the wrong grapes in the wrong areas. Garry encountered a lot of objections early on, but found the demand for Italian varietals was led by young, open-minded wine-lovers, and enthusiastic sommeliers.
Som’ observations Australian sommeliers actively seek diverse wines for their lists. Recently named Best Sommelier of Australia, Italian-born Mattia Cianca, has lived and worked here for the past decade. In that time, he has noticed Australians move away from mass-produced wines, to more individual, unique styles and has seen a surge in varietals from his homeland. Four years at Melbourne’s idiosyncratic Attica restaurant gave Mattia an insight into adventurous Australians’ pursuit of new food and wine experiences. Attica’s philosophy, evocative menu and the mentorship of eccentric head sommelier, Banjo Harris Plane pushed boundaries and made him more courageous.  Mattia is, he describes, “excited by South Australian-grown, southern Italian varietals, like Unico Zelo’s single site Fiano and Brash Higgins’ vibrant, mid-weight Nero d’Avola , which is fermented and aged in clay amphora vessels.” Empowered Through Education The Australian Alternative Varietal Wine Show has championed diversity since 2001. In that time, it has provided a platform for less mainstream wines, and witnessed the ongoing rise in wine, exhibitor and class numbers. Pinot G has gone mainstream, and Prosecco will surely follow. The AAVWS shares intelligence via its ‘Talk and Taste’ sessions, where the wine trade gathers to share viticulture, winemaking and marketing experiences.  An increase in structured education has vastly added to Australian wine diversity. The past decade has seen Sommeliers Australia and the Court of Master Sommeliers educate and advance their members’ knowledge and wine service.  Trade initiatives like Negociants’ Working with Wine and the Galli Scholarship programs have provided diversely focussed educational forums, and the Wine & Spirits Education Trust has offered Australians internationally accredited wine levels. This has all broadened the wine trade’s outlook, empowering wholesalers, sommeliers and retailers to list new and diverse wines, giving Australian consumers more choice.
In the Vineyard There’s also great diversity amongst Australia’s wine regions and vineyards, and how they’re managed. Winemaker Vanya Cullen feels a strong connection to her family’s Margaret River vineyard, where she strives for constant improvement. While it’s always seen minimal chemical inputs, Cullen’s vineyard was certified organic in 2003, then biodynamic in 2005. This has coincided with an increase in vineyard health and fruit quality.  The soils are balanced and alive, allowing roots to plunge deeply to access nutrients. Vanya’s aim is to create a community of living systems and the whole Cullen team are on board. While scientifically trained, Vanya prefers to work with nature to grow quality fruit in a sustainable way. “The illusion is that you can’t farm without chemicals, but the reality is nature.” As well as being certified biodynamic, the naturally powered Cullen winery is certified carbon neutral. This requires great passion and commitment. All fruit is hand picked according to the biodynamic calendar, then hand sorted, pressed and transferred to barrel, or tank. The yeast is wild, and no artificial cooling, gasses or additions are used. Along with the Margaret River classics, Cullen produce the ‘natural’ Amber – a Sauvignon Blanc made with skin contact in the style of a red wine.  Diversity will continue to describe Australian wine, as long as there are brave winemakers wanting to experiment, and open-minded consumers willing to broaden their taste experiences.
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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