Lark Hill achieves full biodynamic certification

Lark Hill achieves full biodynamic certification

Name: David Carpenter

By David and Sue Carpenter

Since the inception of Lark Hill in the Canberra District in 1978, the aim has been to make New World wines in an Old World style, and this has been achieved most particularly with the strengths of the Lark Hill vineyard, especially its Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

One of the most daunting problems is the severe climate with cold winters and frequent dry periods. Lark Hill is at 860m, set on the escarpment overlooking Lake George (often dry after prolonged periods of drought). Wind, poor soil, inadequate water, and the large diurnal temperature swings are all antagonistic to vine growth.

Despite this, or maybe because of this, the hard-won fruit has ideal winemaking parameters, delivering wines of power yet subtlety and finesse. Over many years, the vineyard has been managed close to organically to improve sustainability, and this has now been formalised with Lark Hill recently achieving full biodynamic certification under NASAA.

Biodynamic management
Biodynamic management was a logical next step for Lark Hill, and is already delivering better fruit qualities than anticipated. Biodynamic agriculture is based on the concept of sustainability, and uses composting and various 'preparations' to stimulate soil organisms. The goal is to bring the soil and plants into balance and harmony, using no chemicals or artificial fertilisers. The most well-known preparation is the '500', made from composted cow manure, created in oxygenated and vitalised warm water then sprayed out on the soil to activate and energise soil organisms.

The mechanisms of biodynamics, and its effects on soil organisms, can be readily explained using conventional knowledge of biochemistry and plant physiology. However, given its holistic approach, biodynamics can have deeper implications involving cosmic forces and energies, and can attract as many fringe and extremist attitudes as any science or religion, which sadly many people find rather off-putting.

At Lark Hill we use a lot of composting and the basic biodynamic preparations. The vineyard is chemical-free (copper and sulphur are allowable as anti-fungal sprays). We use whey and canola oil as fungicides, and composted fish and seaweed as fertilisers, plus deep mulching with stable litter for weed control. In the winery, we continue to use the standard preservatives, although at low levels. The winemaking is generally conventional, although our chemical input is very low, and we use wild ferments in our barrel wines.

Probably the hardest thing about biodynamics for some people to come to terms with is the emphasis on celestial bodies and cosmic forces. We synchronise many vineyard and winery activities with moon phases for best effect. This was quite normal for many gardeners and farmers only a couple of generations ago and is being increasingly accepted again now.

Running a biodynamic vineyard is not for the faint hearted, and involves a great deal more manual work in the vineyard than conventional viticulture. Quick fix solutions are not possible, and it may take years to bring a farm into balance. Biodynamic farms have a diversity and a certain unkemptness perhaps not found in conventionally-managed farms; Lark Hill has a plethora of herbs and grasses in the vineyard, and an ever increasing wildlife and bird population.

The road to certification
Our formal pathway to biodynamic certification began with the seminal workshop at Beechworth in the spring of 2004. We had already spoken with organic and biodynamic producers at the National Sustainable and Organic Viticultural Workshop in June 2003 in Mudgee the previous year and were ready to start the process.

The most daunting leap was the act of faith to abandon the use of systemic chemicals for fungal and botrytis control. We shuddered at the thought of a disease outbreak yet it has not occurred, even in years when nearby conventionally-managed vineyards have succumbed to disease.

In the winery, our leap of faith was wild ferments; we put clear Chardonnay juice in barrels and more or less crossed our fingers; it was incredible to walk into the barrel room after a few days and smell the air perfumed with a wonderful wild ferment.

The most difficult battle we had was the reality of no herbicide use. Our district is cool and dry, so we have reduced disease pressure, but equally we cannot afford the competition of undervine vegetation. We tried many solutions and they were all labour intensive and difficult. The volunteer regrowth was by its nature invasive and aggressive given that colonising species of weeds are the most successful. We tried steam (impractical), undervine weeders (impractical given we have many rocks), brushcutting (successful but only short-term), hand weeding (hard labour and daunting). Our soil is too fragile to cope with clean cultivation. Our most successful solution is deep mulching under the vines, with the continuation of mown sward between the vine rows that has been used here in the 30 years since establishment.

After a year of trials with composting and mulching materials, and borrowed or leased equipment, we embarked on a fullscale program of mulching and invested
in the equipment necessary to deal with the material and spread it.

The full article can be found in the March/April issue of Australian Viticulture.

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