Organic Wine Evolutions
Organic wines have come a long way, but there remain many natural nuances worth delving into. Selector takes a closer look and asks some top producers around the country to explain their differing approaches.
There may be a buzz around all things sustainable today, but organic wine hasn’t always been in such hot demand. Even 20 years ago, there was a general perception that organic wine was bad or faulty, or at least not as good as conventional wine.
But fast-forward to now, and that pendulum has swung. Maybe it’s the reality of a changing climate, the boom in organic foods, our wines becoming so much better, or people simply making more informed choices, but organic wine is in favour.
Following the phenomenal rise of minimal-intervention and natural wines, it’s not always clear what constitutes organic, with the lines a little blurred. So, what actually is it? In Australia, in general terms, it’s wine that’s made from grapes grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or fertilisers, and with minimal inputs in the winery.
Sulphur dioxide, for example, which helps preserve wine, is among the additives still allowed, but at around half the rate used in conventional production. To be fully organic, a winery needs to be certified, which involves a comprehensive three-year conversion phase. There’s also an annual renewal process to ensure wineries continue to meet all criteria, and independent audits are conducted on the wines, too. In short, it’s a whole lot of work.
It’s therefore surprising to consider that Australia doesn’t have any regulations in place to prevent non-certified wineries from promoting themselves as organic. They may not be able to use the certified logo, but they can potentially put the word ‘organic’ in their wine’s name. So, if you can market your wines as organic without jumping through all the certification hoops, why not save the time and expense, and simply slap it on the label? And aren’t all vignerons working sustainably, whether they’re certified organic or not?
The barrel room of Kalleske Winery and Vineyard.
Troy Kalleske, pioneer of Barossan organic wine.
GRASSROOTS AND GRAPES
Talk to the family behind the Barossa Valley’s Kalleske, and it’s clear that certification is the only way. “It proves that we are actually organic by getting audited by third parties and not just saying we are,” says winemaker Troy Kalleske.
When Kalleske became the first certified organic winery in the Barossa in 1998, they copped a little flak. “The initial general response was rather negative, sceptical and somewhat mocking,” Troy says. So much so that when Kalleske launched their inaugural wines in 2004, they chose not to put the certification logo on their labels; this was not a selling point. “It’s shifted dramatically,” Troy says. “There are still some naysayers, but the proof is in the pudding.”
The Kalleske family has grown grapes in the Barossa since the 1850s, so they’ve always farmed organically because they simply pre-dated chemicals. At one point, Troy’s dad John experimented with fertilisers – not in the vines, but elsewhere on the property – and he would feel sick after spraying the chemicals. John also noticed their soil quality decreased rather than improved, so he reverted to their generations-old methods of composting and other alternatives. They have since also certified biodynamic, which, among its processes, follows a calendar that dictates when to undertake the various vineyard tasks according to the sun, moon and more.
Troy, who works alongside his dad, mum Lorraine and brother Kym, can’t imagine doing things any other way. “I’ve seen the results in the soil, vines, grapes and the wine, and not being organic wouldn’t be to the same quality,” he says. “Being organic not only makes the vines more robust and resilient, but it also has so many environmental benefits with no chemical residues, and it’s better for the workers on the vineyard and farm. Ultimately, it produces quality wines that people love and purchase, so it’s economically sustainable.”
Hunter and Elizabeth Smith, Judi Cullam and Barrie Smith - the family behind Great Southern's acclaimed Frankland Estate.
Regardless of the approach, sustainability is a distinct common priority right across the Australian wine industry (Image credit: Wine Australia).
It’s a similar story for family winery Frankland Estate in Western Australia’s Great Southern. They became fully certified organic in 2009 – at a time when Hunter Smith was hearing other wine people discuss their organic credentials when he knew they didn’t have any, which remains a frustration today. “We decided to get certified to give our customers the knowledge that we really were organic,” he says.
Hunter says his parents Judi and Barrie had always used very minimal herbicides and pesticides on the property, so certification was a logical move. One of their first steps was to invest in machinery that mows under vines as an alternative to using chemicals to kill those grasses and weeds. “That was really the start of it,” Hunter says. “You do one thing and then it’s easy to do the next, and you find new solutions. Very quickly, we knew we were well down the organic pathway.”
The family had also been inspired by the high-quality ‘precision’ wines they’d seen from international organic and biodynamic producers. “Viticulturally, we’re in a unique location in the wine world, so organics was about further enhancing that uniqueness. Take away the synthetic fertilisers and the vine has to grow within its means and not be influenced by the strong attributes of added nitrogen or minerals. It was really about trying to express our sites as much as possible.” For the same reason, they add only sulphur to their wines. “And we use the least amount we feel is needed,” Hunter says.
Now in the process of becoming certified biodynamic, Hunter says it’s exciting to keep finding effective ways to work with nature. One example is the South African garden weevil, which is one of their biggest pests. “They attack vines with lower sugar levels, and this happens at a very set time of year, so we can get good sugar levels in the leaf of the vine with a booster of humates and seaweed rather than a hit of fertiliser,” Hunter says. “For the past five or six years, we’ve rarely seen weevils causing any issues in the vineyard. For me, that means we’ve hit a lovely balance and it’s working nicely.”
The clincher, he adds, is their wine quality continues to rise, as validated by many reviews and accolades. But Hunter is quick to acknowledge they are lucky to get the right conditions that allow for organic practices. “I look at some regions that are more coastal and humid with more rainfall, and no doubt that increases the challenges, but for us, we feel it’s a very good climate to be easily certified organic.”
Krinklewood is exploring a number of sustainability-led initiatives.
Located in Hunter Valley's Broke Fordwich region, Krinklewood is part of the organic evolutions.
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
Climatic challenges are very real for viticulturist Chris Martin of the Hunter Valley’s Krinklewood, which has been certified organic and biodynamic for more than 15 years. Having joined the winery last year from Tasmania’s Stefano Lubiana
– another leading organic and biodynamic producer – Chris is adapting to the different conditions. “Most of the time in Tasmania, it’s fairly dry and the humidity’s lower, so we don’t have too many issues,” he says. Chris knew Krinklewood would have its challenges – it was a big part of what drew him to the job – but with the property flooding just two weeks before he joined, he’s had something of a baptism of fire.
Originally from New Zealand, Chris has previously worked on conventionally farmed properties, but isn’t a fan of using chemicals on vines. “I’m also generally the spray operator when I’m on those properties, so I’m mixing and applying chemicals, which I’m not too keen on.” At Krinklewood, they work their vines in other ways, which are producing positive results. Methods include composting and using biodynamic preparations to build soil health, mowing under-vine weeds, and pruning vines in ways that minimise the need for fertilisers. The pests, however, are a whole new ballgame for Chris, who says the birds, bats and even wild pigs are “crazy about the place”.
With new owner Oscar Martin (no relation) now behind Krinklewood, plans are brewing to step up the winery’s organic offering with some related new experiences, such as organic food, prefabricated sustainable cabins, and an education centre on organic and biodynamic wines. It’s clear that Krinklewood’s serious eco credentials were a major drawcard for the entrepreneurial new owner, and it signals an exciting next chapter for this long-time champion of organics.
There is a fast-growing body of fully certified organic wineries around the country, but Australian Organic CEO Niki Ford says there’s still a lot of work to be done. The association was previously one of several certification providers, but they demerged five years ago after recognising there was no singular voice to government on the related matters. “Our number-one issue is definition,” she says of their lobbying focus. “We’re the last developed country in the world not to have a consistent definition of organic.”
The association works on behalf of all different sectors, from livestock to grain, manufacturing and more, so Niki knows how much greenwashing goes on, particularly when it comes to wine. “We can buy a bottle at the shops that says it’s organic when it’s not, and that’s a problem. You can even put it in the wine name and there’s no way for the ACCC to stop you doing that,” she says. “If you go overseas to Europe, China and many other countries, when you buy something organic, it’s been grown in line with the standard.”
The inconsistency with international standards creates added hurdles for Australian certified producers when exporting their wine because they must prove they meet all requirements. “To put this in perspective, Australian organic wine is very well received in Europe, but to get there, they have to align with the EU standards, and they can’t access that market without additional certification,” Niki says.
And what does this all mean for us wine lovers? “Buyer beware,” according to Niki. “Look for the certified logo on labels – that’s the guarantee.”
Mark Walpole of Fighting Gully Road prefers a sustainable-based approach.
Walpole employs "the best bits" of viticulture picked from his decades of experience.
NO ONE WAY
Despite the growing commitment to organics, many top producers are using an array of legitimately sustainable practices but aren’t fully organic. Often, it’s simply about which methods produce the best results for their individual sites. Mark Walpole of Fighting Gully Road in Victoria’s Beechworth says he employs “the best bits” of viticulture picked up from his decades of hands-on experience. “I regard what I’m doing as sustainable – not organic and not biodynamic,” he says. “I guess I’m a bit fixed in between.”
There are some principles, however, that Mark doesn’t follow, including under-vine ploughing – “It destroys your roots and smashes your mycorrhizal fungi” – and the use of copper sulfate, as is allowed under the Demeter-accredited biodynamic approach to combat mould and mildew. For Mark, however, “using copper is completely unsustainable to me as it’s extremely toxic to earth worms, and sulphur, often used for powdery mildew, kills one of our key beneficial mites,” he says. “I tend to choose products that we know are quite safe on our beneficials, which may well be systemics, but I know they won’t kill them or the earth worms, so they have the lightest footprint in that sense.”
In a bid to reduce his herbicide use, Mark bought a piece of equipment that works like a whipper snipper to use on weeds under his vines, but he still wonders which method is better from a holistic perspective. “What I can do with herbicide in two or three hours on a very light motorbike now takes a few days, burning up diesel,” he says. “People don’t tend to question that.” Mark is also unconvinced about claims around some chemicals, having seen healthy soils full of worms where certain herbicides have always been used. “People say it’s toxic to everything in the soil, but there’s not a lot of evidence there,” he says.
Mark describes his approach as staying open-minded to ensure his vineyards are as healthy and sustainable as possible, particularly in a challenging, wet season like the one just gone. “People were ploughing through their vineyards and spraying every week [to prevent disease] and ruining the soils, whereas I could keep off the ground,” he says. “To me, it’s about finding the most sustainable way of doing what I want to do.”
I regard what I'm doing as sustainable - not organic and not biodynamic... I guess I'm a bit fixed in between.
The trail-blazing Chalmers family – responsible for importing so many of our now-thriving alternative grape varieties – are also not fully organic. “We use the word sustainable,” Kim Chalmers says.
“It’s becoming harder to define because it’s becoming more well-used and covers a range of methodologies. But to my mind, it means you’re conscious and aware of soil health, vine health, and biodiversity in the management of your farm. Within that, you might choose to go down the path of organics or more conventional practices, but if you’re making informed choices based on all of those things, I think that’s correct.”
Kim says they work to be as “soft” as possible on their vineyards in Victoria’s Heathcote and Mildura regions. “We don’t pursue certification because we want to retain all our tools in the kit for the difficult seasons, and this year was one of them,” she says. Kim believes choosing to use a harder chemical early in the season – a decision they didn’t make lightly – meant they saw only minimal losses in their 2023 crops, whereas neighbours working with other methods lost a lot more. “Part of sustainability is having a crop because if you don’t have an income, that’s not sustainable!” she says.
It was Kim who pushed for a period of full organic management in Heathcote, which they pursued for four years. Despite throwing many organic weed-control measures at it, the site had a “huge build-up” of undesirable under-vine grasses and the vines were visibly struggling. “We went back to using a chemical knock-down herbicide, which in Heathcote is the only general chemical – everything else is organic, like composted cow manure – and literally the next season, the vine health and fruit quality was so much better,” Kim says. “In terms of our approach to managing soil health, that’s absolutely how we farm. We customise our approach based on our situation.”
While Kim says she’d love to be organic, they’re now more sustainable than ever. “We try to make the best choices all the time, so our forklifts are electric, we irrigate with solar, our water use is right down,” she says. “It’s not about more yield or dollars – it’s about having a really healthy vineyard, and I think being in tune with your site is really important.”
The picturesque vista of Chalmers vineyards in Victoria.
The trail-blazing Chalmers family - Kim Chalmers, Bart van Olphen, Tennille Chalmers, Bruce Chalmers and Jenni Chalmers.
QUALITY IN COMMON
When it comes to the business of grape-growing and winemaking, it’s clear that each producer has their own way, and knows what works best for them and their sites. Regardless of approach, sustainability is a distinct common priority right across the industry, now playing out in so many innovative ways, whether that’s through a commitment to organics, biodynamics or otherwise. Happily, this is all good news for us wine lovers because we’ve never had so much choice before, let alone at this quality.
The best way forward? Do the research, taste widely and reap the rewards.