After beginning as a cottage industry in the 1970s, organic winemaking in Australia has become progressively professional as it has advanced into the mainstream viticulture market over the last 15 years. A growing number of skilled and business-savvy vignerons have embraced innovative production processes and cutting-edge technology to produce critically acclaimed and commercially successful wines.
“In 15 years’ time if you want to be at the premium end of the market you’re going to have to be organic or biodynamic. The consumer will demand it for the uniqueness of flavour, and for health and environmental reasons,” predicts Melbourne-based Michelle Gadd, owner of OrganicWine.com.au. Since 2003, Gadd, who sells eco-friendly vino through her online business, has been making healthy profits while contributing to a healthier planet. But the growth industry she’s now part of was almost strangled at birth by those who pioneered it.
“Ten years ago some organic producers [i.e. those committed to not using synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and artificial fertilisers on their farms or wine additives in their production processes] were well meaning but they didn’t have great skills or knowledge. They started with good fruit but ended up with poor wine,” Gadd says. “They were trying to do things such as make preservative-free wine but they didn’t have the know-how, so they’d end up with something that was oxidised, or would fall in a heap after six months. Of course, now there’s a real buzz around organic wine, people are excited by it. I’ve always marketed it on quality rather than on environmental or health grounds. With organic wine you’re getting something that is true to its source, which reflects its origins, the nutrient make-up in its soil. It has more vibrancy to it.”
Mark Davidson, Chief Winemaker and Managing Director of Tamburlaine, Australia’s largest producer of organic wine based in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley, is one of those who brought some hard-nosed business sense to what had long been regarded as a hippie pursuit. “That’s the misunderstanding people have, that there’s a tree-hugging mentality involved when, to be successful, you have to work harder and smarter in an organic setting than you do in a chemical farming one,” he says.
Since launching Tamburlaine in 1985, Davidson has been one of the Australian wine industry’s innovators. So when he began to have doubts about the safety and sustainability of the increasing number of chemicals used in grape growing he didn’t hesitate to set about revolutionising his winemaking process.
Things kicked off in 1999 with the introduction of sustainable viticulture practices, which prepared the way for a full organic program in 2003.
At Tamburlaine, all organic waste – plant material, grape skins, office paper, food scraps, manure and leaves – is composted and used to fertilise vines, dramatically reducing the amount of waste heading to landfill. In place of pesticides, sheep are used to keep weeds and grass under control underneath vines. Vehicles and equipment run on bio-fuel. The insides of the oak barrels used to store wine are routed out, extending their working life from five to nine years. Rainfall is collected for winery and general use. Winery drains are screened for larger solids with the filtered flow then pumped to an aerobic treatment dam where bacteria break down the finer solids. After further filtration, the water is then moved to storage dams and used for irrigation or on the winery’s floors.
After conducting an energy audit a few years ago, Davidson was able to cut his energy consumption in half by making some relatively minor changes to the way his business used electricity, particularly in its refrigeration systems. The result? A $110,000 saving on the annual electricity bill and 740 tonne reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere each year.
Like Davidson, David Bruer, owner of South Australian winery Temple Bruer, is bemused by the lingering association of organic winemaking with countercultural idealism. Bruer, a chemist by trade, says, “I’m sometimes seen as a latter-day hippie, but I don’t think that’s fair. Going organic and carbon neutral isn’t easy. While hippies might aspire to that, I don’t think there are too many who could do it.”
Bruer is now convenor of the advisory committee for the Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA), an organisation that’s been representing the interests of Australia’s organic producers since 1988. But it wasn’t until 1993, 20 years after he started his winery, that he considered getting rid of synthetic chemicals. “Our house was crop dusted while my kids, who were then very young, were inside. My wife was very unhappy and insisted that if we were going to continue in the business we’d have to do it without chemicals.”
Bruer’s vineyard, located near the edge of a desert, uses drip irrigation. All his old plantings are certified A Grade Organic while newer ones are certified as either A Grade or are in conversion. Older plantings utilise the Geneva Double Curtain trellis system, which is very effective at trapping sunlight, while newer plantings use the Smart Dyson trellis system, which is more efficient at maximising sunlight. Bruer encourages indigenous insect species on his vineyard because they help keep pest populations at bay. He’s also planted local tree species to provide habitats for native birds, thus discouraging the grape-eating exotic variety. In place of the traditional oak barrels, he uses Stakvats, stackable, stainless steel cubicles with two removable oak sides. Stakvats are expensive, but they last a lot longer and require a fraction of the water and none of the chemicals required to keep traditional oak barrels clean.
Bruer is one of a number of Australian winemakers who initially hid going organic for fear of losing sales. “We were certified in 1995 but kept quiet about it until 1999. Back then, a lot of the organic product was fairly poor quality. A lot of it was insect eaten – in fact, retailers used to point that out to customers as proof it hadn’t been sprayed! But consumers have zero tolerance for that and the industry needed to work out ways to address the quality issue – and it has.”
It certainly has. While the damage previously done by substandard organic wines hasn’t entirely faded, the award-winning, critic-delighting wine produced by highly regarded Australian organic wineries, such as Tamburlaine, Temple Bruer, Cullen Wines and Henschke, is now in demand around the world.
“We export a third of our stock. The largest market is Europe and we also send a lot to Asia,” says Bruer. “The Europeans were the pioneers when it comes to organic winemaking and charged accordingly. They’ve now dropped their prices but European wine was very expensive and often had quality issues, so all these foreign markets opened up for Australia, whose wine was seen as value for money.”
Davidson argues that Australian wine – be it organic or conventional – is respected throughout the world and that organic products possess a particular appeal to those living in crowded, polluted conditions. “In China the most well-known supplier is France, but Australian wines are probably the second most highly regarded. In South-East Asia organic is seen as a positive thing. In polluted environments, where food security is increasingly an issue in daily life, anything that comes with formal certification with regards to its source and cleanliness has a considerable advantage. People who buy wine are generally upwardly mobile, so they can and do choose to buy things they believe are better for them.”
While the scientific debate continues to rage as to whether or not organic produce is provably healthier, it appears that a significant proportion of consumers have now decided it is and shop accordingly. In 2010, Australian retail sales of organic products reached $1 billion and 60 per cent of households were buying organic, at least occasionally. A 2010 BFA report quoted research suggesting that, worldwide, 120 million consumers – representing a marketplace worth US$550 billion – were strongly committed to purchasing healthier, more environmentally sustainable products.
“If you have the sense that the rapidly increasing number of chemical compounds that you consume daily are accumulating in your organs and may cause you damage, then you would naturally be looking for products that didn’t use them,” observes Davidson. Gadd adds, “I can only give anecdotal evidence but many customers who’ve suffered health effects from conventional wine, such as headaches, hot flushes and rashes, find that their symptoms disappear or are greatly minimised by drinking organic or preservative-free wines.”
Australia has the largest amount of certified organic farmland in the world, most of which is currently used for cattle grazing. Its hot dry climate makes it easier to grow grapes without recourse to synthetic chemicals, particularly fungicides. The savings and costs involved in going organic broadly cancel each other out, at least for smaller vineyards producing a premium product, meaning the costs of production for organic wine are the same or cheaper than those for conventional wine. But while many Australian wineries are moving to reduce their dependence on synthetic chemicals and embracing certain elements of organic production, it’s estimated less than one per cent of wine presently produced in Australia is certifiably organic. So there’s huge potential for many more Australian winemakers to follow the lead of forward-thinking innovators such as Bruer and Davidson.
Davidson exports 20 per cent of the 80,000 cases of wine he produces each year. He notes that, especially with rapid advances in technology continuing to drive down the costs involved in dispensing with synthetic chemicals, exporting organic wine to Asia could become an attractive proposition to many conventional Australian winemakers.
“Given the competitiveness of the domestic market and some of the uncertainties it’s facing, I think being linked into China, the fastest-growing market in the world, gives our business a buffer against sudden changes in the domestic market,” he says.