1. Why did Tamburlaine turn to organic wine?
When CEO and chief winemaker Mark Davidson and a small group of investors purchased Tamburlaine vineyard and winery in the Hunter Valley in 1985 they were not thinking about organics at all. Davidson’s training was in non-organic farming. Tamburlaine’s goal was then and remains the production of the best quality wine. With increasing vineyard experience and the obvious room for improvements, Davidson was drawn to organic farming.
There were many factors that convinced Tamburlaine to change; failure of the systemic vineyard chemicals, deteriorating soil health, increasing farm occupational and health issues and our own questions and concerns about chemical residuals from grapes into wine. Ultimately we wanted the best quality and consistency wine possible from season to season.
It took trials over a number of seasons to hone our organic management on each vineyard site, and then to the decision to certify all vineyards under the Australian Organic Standard. During this process Tamburlaine saw sustained benefits in the field and in the winery. By removing the large number of commercial chemicals commonly used in Australian vineyards and replacing them with biodegradable and biological solutions, we were happy with the results – the vineyard was healthier and the wine was better.
2. What is organic wine?
Organic wine comes from organically managed vineyards, without synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. The soils in these vineyards are not degraded through continuous cultivation, retaining natural health and providing longer term sustainability.
Winemaking inputs are also managed according to Australian Organic Standards. As part of this process sulphur dioxide (SO2) additions are made to juices and wines. Other than the fact that this compound is naturally produced in fermentation, it is used by winemakers because a relatively small addition makes such a significant difference to slow spoilage of wine in the winery and in the bottle. Excessive use is very undesirable however. Organic wine aims at keeping SO2 levels to a minimum.
Higher levels of SO2 are used in white wines, but a little known fact is that any wine and whites in particular can benefit by being decantered shortly before consumption.
3. What are the principles and methods of organic farming vs. “conventional”?
What is often referred to as “conventional” viticulture (grape-growing) is the result of the introduction and use of a large number of chemicals since WW2. These changes to farming practises on the whole are having a range of negative consequences on our soils and plants, and on food safety as well. Over time pesticides, herbicides and fungicides affect soil fertility and kill soil and vineyard biodiversity; the result is vineyards with lower natural fertility and poorer disease resistance. What is being found now is that more systemic chemical sprays and soluble fertilisers are required in agriculture each year to maintain farm outputs.
In contrast organic farms use naturally derived minerals and extracts as nutrients and biodegradable and biologically targeted sprays where necessary. Protective vegetable oils, and drying spays of sulphur and copper are used well in organic vineyards. The emphasis in organic systems is prevention over cure and maintaining the vineyard’s naturally-occurring beneficial organisms to aid in disease resistance.
Organic matter in soils is critical for all farming, but is the focus of organic farmers. This affects water retention, healthy biology and natural fertility. Tamburlaine recycles its own organic matter from the winery and also uses inputs from other accredited sources where necessary to keep its farms productive.
Premium wines come from lower yielding vineyards, not the heavily fertilised and sprayed vineyards which rely on a lot of irrigation. Organic vineyards do not have high yields. Organic farmers monitor vineyard conditions very carefully to minimise disease risk, and their chemical cost is generally much lower. While some aspects of annual organic vineyard management can be more labour intensive, overall organic vineyards are no more expensive and sometimes less expensive to operate on a hectare basis, compared to non-organic vineyards. Organic farming of grapes needs training, expertise and an understanding of the ecosystem as a whole.
4. What are the benefits? Health and environmental
Organic farms are the most sustainable, least polluting producers of quality wines in the world. The maintenance of the naturally healthy vineyard conditions for as long as possible is the basis of any wine’s consistency and reputation. Australian wine industry journals these days are dotted with more and more new research supporting a shift to more organic systems to improve wine quality. Some of the most iconic wines in the world are from organic vineyards.
One has to wonder whether national food standards are being written for the chemical producers rather than for consumer protection. The accumulation of agrichemicals in our bodies from what we consume is increasingly a concern for consumers even though they can’t necessarily taste the absence of agricultural chemicals.
5. What is biodynamic agriculture and where did it originate from?
Biodynamic principles include:
- Observing nature – how different climate conditions and different soils influence growth
- A moon calendar is used as a guide for the timing of key farm activities.
- A focus on optimising soil biology, organic matter and thereby, its vitality.
- Appreciation that healthy, living soil produces vital, clean and nutritious food.
The scientist/philosopher of the late 19th century, Rudolph Steiner expressed the ideal of the self-contained farm; where farm produce and organic wastes would be re-cycled to sustain the viability of the soil.
Steiner also advocated the use of “homoeopathic” preparations made from naturally occurring plant and animal materials and designed to enhance the farm’s life forces.
For more specific information on biodynamic visit wine critics website - Max Allen
6. What are common misconceptions about organic wine?
7. What do you think is the public perception of organic wine?
- That it won’t age well – this is only true of wines without added SO2. Organic wine does not mean sulphur-free. Sulphur is a natural by-product of the fermentation process of wine-making. You literally can’t make wine without them. It keeps the wine fresh and stable and is acceptable under the Australian Organic Standard.
- Organic wine is more expensive – not true.
- Organic farming is not scientific. Organic/biodynamic is very scientific and precise and is facilitating some cutting edge development of effective natural and biological inputs for crops. It doesn’t just let nature take its course.
- Organic farms cannot co-exist with adjacent chemical-farms. They can; although there are prescribed buffer zones that must exist between the two.
- Organic means “preservative free” (no added sulphur dioxide). They are not related but are mutually exclusive in winemaking. Organic methods comply with the Organic Standard and sulphur use is allowed in the Australian Organic Standard. A few winemakers are marketing wines (organic or otherwise) that have no added sulphur (labelled “preservative free” or “no added sulphur”). All good winemakers aim to keep total SO2 levels in wines low. Large amounts do not assist the bouquet or the palate of wines. Excessive sulphur in reds actually bleaches colour. Whites generally have significantly higher SO2 levels. Wine has a number of preservative aspects before sulphur is used – alcohol, pH/acidity, phenols/natural antioxidants, sterile filtration, sterile bottling, stelvin closures (screw-caps). A very small number of consumers react to the presence of sulphur, however it continues to be used because it is very effective as an anti-oxidant and for biological stability in very small amounts (mg/L or parts per million).
Unfortunately the Australian market is not well informed and often misinformed about organics. There are some very large interests behind non-organic food production and there is a real danger where chemical companies and agricultural research are too closely aligned. This skews the information available to the public and politicians and leads to some poor decisions affecting our food security and sustainability of our farming country.
The demand for organic wine options and other organic products is increasing as people become concerned about their health and environmental issues associated with non-organic products. Here and overseas, organic wine is still not well understood but in the European Union and in some parts of South-East Asia there is a greater appreciation of products with organic certification.
8. Who drinks organic wine and what is driving the market growth?
Consumers who seek out organic wine want what all wine consumers want; that is, quality and value. The quality and reputation of organic wine now available in Australia is better than at any time in the past. The increasing affluence of any market increases the likelihood that consumers will be more discriminatory in their purchasing considering health and product environmental standards more than price alone.
Food security generally is an international issue driving market growth. There are numerous pesticides, herbicides, fungicides that are commonly found as residues in non-organic wine. More people now see organic wine as an essential choice in the better restaurants and retailers.
9. How do consumers know if a wine is truly organic?
The Australian Certified Organic bud logo as Tamburlaine displays on its labels is the principle guide for Australian consumers. The Australian certification is very stringent, but overseas certifications vary in their governance considerably. The logo means that the vineyards and wine production fully comply with the Australian Organic Standard – part of the Australian Food Standard. There are many unsubstantiated claims and more “green-washing” by corporations all of the time.
10. Is going ‘green’ also good for business and brand?
Since Tamburlaine has “gone green” opportunities continue to open up, in export and here at home. Against the trend, the business has continued to grow. Leading wine authority James Halliday has given Tamburlaine a ‘red’ five-star rating in his 2012 Australian Wine Companion.
11. Why aren’t more Australian wineries going organic if there are obvious benefits?
It’s to do with conformism and the fear of change. The certification raises issues of administration and ongoing compliance which some farmers are uncomfortable with. The industry also has other pressing concerns including the fallout from the global financial crisis, the strength of the Australian dollar and the international oversupply of wine. Also organic farming isn’t the answer for all Australian wine production. It is only practical for producing premium wine and not necessarily viable for wines priced below AUD$10.
12. Which is Tamburlaine’s best-selling wine?
Tamburlaine sells proportionately more red wine, but with the current strength of the sauvignon blanc market, Tamburlaine’s 2011 cool climate Orange Vineyard release is going gangbusters, with its rich aromas of passionfruit, orange blossom, pineapple and green apple freshness on the palate. Its recommended retail price is only AUD$20.00 and can be ordered at www.mywinery.com
13. How do you think the carbon tax will impact Australian wineries?
The carbon tax will create poorer profitability in an industry which is not highly profitable in the first place. This is not going to assist in the area of business finance, where banks are more skittish than for many years.
We expect that large supply chain businesses (with emissions of over 25,000T of CO2), the first group to pay the tax, will simply pass the majority of the cost on. The idea that the "larger polluters" will race to find ways to reduce their carbon emissions seems very unlikely.
Wine companies will bear significant increases in essential inputs and in the current market conditions wine is relatively price-inelastic. The high AUD is seeing more cheap wine imports. Over coming years we already know business will have to carry the cost of increasing super contributions as well, without any payroll tax relief. If interest rates do not stay low and current wine tax is increased as some are suggesting, then life in the industry will be even more difficult.
A new fund from the tax to help businesses develop and apply better technologies involving sustainability, as proposed, could help the industry in the medium, longer term, but there is no clarity at all about how/if manufacturers will be compensated for the potential cost impacts we see in the shorter term. Generally, the government programs which have come with carbon tax aimed at helping businesses to improve and become more efficient only provide money where businesses have money to invest in themselves.
14. Is the organic wine industry growing?
In a very competitive world market, the organically produced wines are in general punching above their weight, but accurate stats are hard to extract.
Organic farming is at the core of the latest drive to further improve grape quality. It is being led by smaller more dynamic companies, like Tamburlaine who have the expertise and confidence and who can take decisions to change things. Many producers around the world will change their farming methods in the next decade, but not all will evidence this on labels. So the consumer will be none the wiser in many cases. Very large producers will keep “one leg on each side of the fence” until the last moment.