Jim Barry Wines winemaker chooses biodynamic option

Name: Luke Steele

In today's environmentally unstable age, a minority of grapegrowers have turned to organic viticulture, shunning industrially synthesized compounds such as fertilisers and pesticides to utilise naturally occurring substances. Others, however, such as Jim Barry Wines in the Clare Valley, have taken the next step from organically grown vines, to biodynamic viticulture.

Jim Barry Wines winemaker, Luke Steele, is passionate about biodynamic viticulture and as a result, has embarked upon a 'restricted/orthodox' biodynamic regime for a newly acquired but mature vineyard block.

'I decided to introduce the notion of biodynamics to Jim Barry Wines after working vintages at Maison Chapoutier in Tain l'Hermitage in the Rhone Valley in 2005 (one of the biggest biodynamic Domaines in the world) and Joseph Phelps Vineyards in the Napa Valley of California in 2006,' Steele said.

'I had strong beliefs in this form of agriculture/viticulture before working overseas and the quality benefits that I have seen firsthand through my work at these Domaines has only galvinised my attitude towards biodynamics.

'This coincided with a purchase of a fairly run-down vineyard which just happens to be adjacent to our famous Armagh vineyard,' he said. 'The vineyard had not been looked after and had been on the market for a number of years prior to our purchase.'

Put simply, biodynamic viticulture is based on an understanding of the ecological, the energetic and the spiritual in nature. Steele said the viticulture at Jim Barry Wines has been fairly eco-friendly for a number of years and this is helped by the fact that there are minimal pest and disease pressures in the Clare Valley and most of these problems can be solved using organic practices.

'We have been cover-cropping our vineyards for a number of years now and cultivation is used as an effective means of weed control,' he said.

'Our first vintage off this vineyard (the biodynamically grown vineyard) was in 2006 and the quality was not that great, the second vintage was in 2007 - a tiny crop, the quality was very good, but something was hampering its potential. This coupled with the fact that vine health was obviously in decline caused us to change our thought process on this property.

'The decision was taken after the 2007 harvest to immediately cease all synthetic fertilisers and herbicides on the established part of the property and rejuvenate the soils using biodynamic preparations to ameliorate perceived deficiencies.

'For the 2007-08 growing season we embarked upon a 'restricted/orthodox' biodynamic regime for a newly acquired but mature vineyard property.

'Compost application has become an essential part of our practice on this vineyard and from 2009 onwards we will be creating our own biodynamic compost on site using the by-products from this block.

'By restricted/orthodox I mean we are trying to adhere as close as possible to the accepted biodynamic principles, but due to the nature of our business we are not practicing biodynamics to the letter of the law.

'Our biodynamic block is around 10ha in size, around half of this was planted in 1975 to roughly an equal mixture of Grenache, Shiraz and Cabernet. The other half of the property is some new plantings of Malbec and Shiraz,' Steele said.

While there have been no specific wines produced from this block, in terms of quality, the wines from the recent 2008 vintage had impressive colour and texture and expressed a certain vitality that other wines from the district failed to display this vintage.

'The 2008 vintage was the first harvest from this property that we ran 'biodynamically',' Steele said. 'Considering the year that most people have had in terms of excessive heat during ripening, I was astounded that the last fruit that we picked from Clare was the Grenache (we had two picks, one root day and one fruit day) from this property. This fruit was picked on flavour ripeness and the maximum Baumé that we saw was 14.4, with no shrivelling. More amazing is the fact that it came in after our Cabernet from the Coonawarra.'

'The biodynamic practices that we are utilising are also cost-effective, especially when you compare them to similar synthetic chemicals that would achieve the desired effect.

'The immediate and long-term rewards of being or striving to be biodynamic are healthy soils, which in turn grow balanced vines which hopefully make exceptional wines.

'I imagine the challenges of being biodynamic are the constant struggle of wanting to market the fact that you are using biodynamic methods in your viticultural system for monetary gain. Something that Jim Barry Wines has no desire to do in the near future.

'In the short term, we are not looking to market any specifically environmentally friendly wines under the Jim Barry banner. Although this has not been completely ruled out,' Steele said.

This article was first published in the September 2008 issue of the Australian and New Zealand Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine. To get your copy of this issue or to subscribe to the magazine please contact Winetitles at +61 8 8292 0888 or email [email protected]

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