Biodynamic Wines by Monty Waldin
Mitchell Beazley, 2004
New Zealand introduction
You won’t find a country with a more consistent overall selection of Biodynamic estates anywhere in this book (except for Chile where far fewer wineries are featured). All bar Covell Estate (which sells most of its wine from the farm gate) are recognised internationally by wine professionals and consumers alike for their quality and individuality. It seems astonishing that within New Zealand the producers featured below (and their certified organic counterparts) arouse such antipathy.
One explanation is that the bulk of New Zealand’s wineries have sprung up from stock (mainly sheep) farms in the last thirty years, emerging at a time of the worst excesses of an agro-chemical industry determined to exert its grip on the new arrival for one last pay day before environmental rules were tightened.
Perhaps Kingsley Tobin of Kingsley Estate and Michael Seresin of Seresin stick out so dramatically in Hawkes Bay (New Zealand’s red wine engine) and Marlborough (the white wine counterpart) because they came to wine not from a traditional farming background but from restaurants and the film industry respectively.
Two other growers, James Millton and Nick Mills spent years in Europe learning minimal intervention in the vineyard and winery before taking on The Millton Vineyard and Rippon respectively, so never got sucked into the chemical treadmill (although in Nick’s case Rippon had always been chemical-free).
Only Bob Covell is the exception: a chemical dairy farmer who turned organic simply because his uniquely hostile soils meant to continue with the superphosphates was to destroy his livelihood. As well as antipathetic peers, New Zealand’s Biodynamic wine growers feel a degree of frustration with the administrators (see useful addresses) who administer the official Biodynamic ‘Demeter’ trademark for being almost universally teetotal (although one can hardly blame them as Rudolf Steiner whose writings created Biodynamics also shunned alcohol). As Kingsley Tobin says “there is nothing wrong with the Biodynamic association being dominated by small do-it-yourselfers, but as a vehicle geared up to worldwide marketing it is unhelpful and public perception of the Demeter logo here in New Zealand is negligible”.
However, attitudes may be changing. James Millton on North Island and Nick Mills on the South Island have started to create Biodynamic workshops as a means of dialogue with their non-organic peers. James Millton says he is finding New Zealand’s wine academics less overtly hostile to organics than five years ago, although Biodynamics still appears a bit too far-fetched for most walnut-faced wine lecturers to swallow. However a Biodynamic vineyard seminar held by Mills at Rippon in 2003 had 45 attendees, almost the entire Central Otago wine community. New Zealand is such a young wine industry, and still so comparatively small with 15,500 hectares of vines and 420 registered wineries that New Zealand’s outstanding collection of Biodynamic wine growers would not have to shout too loud, or too long, for antipathy to turn to curiosity and, who knows, even imitation.
Kingsley Estate Vineyard
Mailing: PO Box 1100, Hastings 4201, New Zealand
T:+64 21 846 392 E: email@example.com
Organic Certification: Bio-Gro (1997-2001; 2004+)
Biodynamic Certification: no
Overall Rating: * * * * *
Value for Money: * * * *
- Red: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot and Merlot.
Kingsley Estate’s owner Kingsley Tobin is the antithesis of the tree-hugging hippy one might expect to meet given his reputation for producing New Zealand’s finest organic reds. Tobin was born and raised in Napier, studied sociology and political science at University in Auckland, then moved in 1979 to Newport Beach, California, to work as a restaurant manager. This stimulated his interest in wine and in 1990 he returned to New Zealand and took a viticultural course. Tobin chose the subject of his course project to be organics. He bought land on Gimblett Road in the Hawkes Bay region of North Island during the course and planted 6 hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon and then Merlot vines, managing these bio-dynamically.
“I dynamised the Biodynamic Field Sprays with a neighbouring vineyard who was using some Biodynamic methods at the time” says Kingsley “and made Biodynamic compost too”. Both the Gimblett Road vineyard and the nearby Mere Road vineyard, also 6 hectares, have been designed, says Kingsley “to reduce the causes of pest and disease problems. Initial plantings in Gimblett Road saw the vines spaced four metres apart to encourage longer than normal permanent woody cordons from which the annual fruiting shoots grow. These so-called big vines should develop big root systems so the vine creates growth below ground, rather than too much vegetation above it. Trimming is needed only once per year around Christmas, not two or three times, and the vine puts its energy into the grapes, not the leaf and shoot canopy. An open, airy leaf canopy reduces the likelihood of humidity causing vine mildew or rot in the bunches. It also increases the effectiveness of the organic -approved sprays we use”.
Some of the vines are trained using a "Scott-Henry" system which splits the vine leaf and shoot canopy into an upper section pointing skywards and a lower section pointing to the ground, each of which ripen their grapes at different times. They are thus picked at different times, for optimum ripeness and for a variation in fruit flavour, which builds complexity into the blend.
Tobin did put all his vineyards into the Bio-Gro certified organic programme but withdrew in 2001 after a frost severely limited his yields. “It made no sense to pay lots of money for certification on a vineyard producing no crop, and there appeared to be no room for negotiation over the financial side with the organic certification authorities. They appeared keener to shuffle paper than to develop a relationship with farmers”.
However Tobin will put his vines back into certification from the 2004 harvest, as “I have never used anything considered non-organic in my vineyard. I am not an evangelist for organics, but I’ll help those who show an interest, but my own view is why would you want to be anything other than organic or Biodynamic?”
Although Tobin is unprepared to take small losses from the organic bureaucrats he is however prepared to take a loss from Mother Nature. “We planted wildflowers to attract predator insects of pests which worked well, but you can’t expect to have 100% pest-free vines if you are organic. That’s not the idea, and you must tolerate a small loss for the greater good both of the wider environment and your own. Pests are as much part of the food chain as the beneficial insects which we encourage to thrive”.
Compost Tea based on oak bark (for Calcium) and Comfrey (for Magnesium) is sprayed on the soils and the vines to correct the lack of Magnesium, which is very common in Hawkes Bay. Soils lacking in Magnesium can push the vines into showing an excess of Potassium, which weakens the vine’s resistance to disease by thinning the grape skins and also causes a drop in wine acidity, leading to flabby wines with a short shelf-life. Tobin makes his own Biodynamic Horsetail concoction (508) to control the fungal disease; grey rot (Botrytis Cinerea).
Weeds under the vines are ploughed out, but weeds between the vine rows are mown, not ploughed. “Ploughing releases too much nitrogen which creates too much vigour, destroys the soil structure, burns lots of fuel and is not sustainable” says Tobin. “We now have fifteen different species of plants between the vines and there are always flowering plants over winter to encourage insect predators”.
The vines are hand picked and have been fermented in a number of local wineries where vat space is rented, although Tobin hopes to build a gravity-fed winery next to his Mere Road vineyard from 2005 (wooden, rather than stainless steel fermenters, which are currently used have been earmarked). The quality of Tobin’s long-term vineyard planning and annual vineyard management is immediately apparent in his Cabernet Sauvignon red wines.
For a start they taste ripe, which may seem an odd thing to say of a Hawkes Bay red in general and a Gimblett Gravels red in particular, but too many Hawkes Bay Cabernets in my experience taste stretched, as if the vines were out of balance, as meagre root systems struggled to feed over-mighty leaf canopies on a diet of soluble chemical fertilizers drip fed through irrigation lines. Tobin’s Cabernets have presence and depth, are not overawed by partial aging in new oak barrels and taste of plum, soft black berry, black currant, and mint with an authentic touch of earthiness, with none of the herbaceousness one is told to expect in New Zealand Cabernet, and absolutely none of that artificial chocolate texture that comes when winemakers have added tannin (in powdered form) to wines made from unbalanced grapes containing too much sugar at picking, and not enough flavour. They only begin to approach drinkability after five years, the moment their peers begin falling apart.
Tobin’s Cabernets have up to 14% Merlot blended in, but Tobin does make a Cabernet/Merlot blend too which is two thirds Cabernet, one third Merlot and a seasoning of Malbec.
The fruit is firm and the tannins are sweet (ripe) tasting, the perfect combination (for me) in the New World where the fruit is often over-sweet (due to excess alcohol) and the tannins are too firm because picking had to be rushed to get the grapes off the vine before the acid level dropped too far, leaving the tannins undercooked. Tobin’s straight Merlot is as refreshing, and contains 14% Malbec.
Even more refreshing than his wine is Tobin’s attitude. Despite winning a string of awards for his wines, and much critical acclaim he says, “I don’t have all the answers and am still very much on a learning curve”. Perhaps the same could be said of the New Zealand industry as a whole, and not just this Biodynamic outpost?
When organic means awesome
by TiZwine writer Daryll Hutchison
It is only fair to start with an apology, to Hawke's Bay winemaker Kingsley Tobin. He is looking forward to reading a story about Kingsley Estate that doesn't highlight his organic management system in the headline. Sorry, Kingsley, this is not that story.
It's not that the enviable success of his Bordeaux-style reds isn't worth a headline of its own. Kingsley Estate Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots have won a raft of trophies and gold medals, and merited high praise from judges including Jancis Robinson (UK), Bob Campbell and Michael Cooper (NZ), and James Halliday (Australia).
It's just that Kingsley's organic methods are an integral part of his story. The Gimblett Gravels winemaker is confident that his stunning success has been in part because of those methods, not - as consumers expecting ëorganic' to be synonymous with ëcheap' might suspect - despite them.
"The quality of the wine is the product of many things," he says, "the location, the soil, crop levels and harvesting. And I think the organic aspect can only be viewed as an extra benefit."
Kingsley says his target market is not the typical "greenie". "Most of my wines have sold to people simply looking for good wine and prepared to pay $35 plus for it, with the organic factor as an additional point of interest."
He says the prime Gimblett Gravels location of his vineyards, the type of management and crop levels will never generate $15 -20 bottles. "The direction I'm going is to a higher-priced wine that is of a superior quality, and if the organic factor is not important - as I've found in some overseas markets - it needn't be a major factor in the marketing."
When Kingsley planted his first grapes in 1991, niche marketing played no part in his decision to run his winery organically. He says he'd long had "a green view of things", and didn't like the idea - as the tractor driver - of spraying chemicals on himself. But he had really made his decision earlier, halfway through his viticulture studies, during which he had investigated the organic option.
"It felt right, and it became an extra challenge" he says. "Twelve years ago it was definitely lonely out in left field, but after three good vintages I knew I'd made the right choice."
The organic production of wine involves no chemicals - pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. Kingsley still sprays, but his sprays are organic, giving him the bonus of being able to continue right up to harvest, six weeks longer than if he used chemicals. And, rather than try to wipe out all creatures from his vines, he deliberately attracts some predators - with wildflowers - to keep pests in check naturally.
Weed control is largely by mechanical cultivation of the soil under the vines, but Kingsley doesn't aim for a weed-free environment. "Weeds aren't as big an issue as some people think," he says. "Traditional vineyard management revolves around a very tidy looking vineyard with no weeds. The accountant might think it looks tidy, but it's not the benefit it appears."
"It took me many years to be able to look at weeds and not panic," he says. "You need to stop worrying about what people think and what it looks like, and start worrying about what [the product] tastes like."
As with conventional winemakers, Kingsley Estate is constantly on guard against botrytis. Kingsley uses an organic spray to strengthen the grape skin and boost his plants' immune system, he ensures his bunches are not crowded in large clusters, and he leaf-plucks to reduce humidity.
He is applying the same management system to his latest plantings - of Syrah and Viognier, his first white.
Despite being New Zealand's most-acclaimed organic winemaker, Kingsley Tobin is not surprised that he's in a small minority. He says most growers would still regard organic management as too risky, even though his own experience suggests otherwise.
But he has noticed the start of a shift in the past few years. "I think it's a very gradual thing, and it'll probably be market-driven ... the demand will be so great, producers won't have an option."
For now, Kingsley Tobin is happy to talk about organic management but he steers clear of preaching. In fact, the success of Kingsley Estate's organic management system probably speaks for itself.
If only it wasn't mentioned in the headline!
This story was printed from theTiZwine.com site.
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Nationally recognized author, educator and industry consultant Don Lahey heads our 12-member professional tasting panel. Don ensures our featured selections are both extraordinary and rare.
A selection from this month's featured wines, October 2005
Kingsley Estate Cabernet Merlot Gimblett Gravels 2000 – New Zealand
It is no secret among wine drinkers that New Zealand fashions some very serious, if not outright fascinating wines. And what was once considered to be solely white wine country is now crafting world-class reds as well as whites. Yet, the question inevitably arises in iconoclastic minds as to the breeding of New Zealand wines, especially among wine snobs and those who see themselves as fundamentalist terroirists (those who believe that the land and microclimate alone determine a wine’s breeding and definitive quality). Invariably, the terroirist line of thinking neatly divides wine into two categories: New World upstarts, whose fruit driven wares reflect the bestial mark of technology, and their European forbearers, whose names, soils, and traditions are legendary and therefore better – the elect if you will. To the terroirist, only the latter can possess a soul and are worth savoring and cellaring. It is the classic good versus evil, them versus us, battle that the world is so fond of waging and our age is masterful at perpetuating. However, there is thankfully a voice in the wine wilderness that heralds a new day – and that voice belongs to Kingsley Tobin.
Tasting Notes: Kingsley Tobin’s 2000 Cabernet Merlot possesses every bit as much breed, elegance, flavor and individuality as any classified Bordeaux. Upon first sip, Kingsley’s meritage blend recalls the Old World visage of St. Julien – Bordeaux’s quintessential claret. Immediately, the likes of Château Beychevelle and Leoville Las Cases spring to mind. Like its Bordeaux counterparts, the Kingsley Cabernet Merlot is deeply colored and heavenly scented, offering up beguiling aromas of blackberry, cassis, cedar and of course earth, which speaks of terroir, n’est-ce pas? Yet, plenty of pure fruit overlays this wine’s moderately tannic structure, with balance as the supreme result. In short, the Kingsley Cabernet Merlot is immensely interesting as well as plain delightful to drink. At last, a wine from the New World that enjoys the distinct signature of the land and climate from which it comes and the deft hand of it creator. Allow at least thirty minutes of aeration for optimum enjoyment