Abandoning chemicals can rehabilitate the soil and restore the wildlife of the vineyard, but can a fully organic wine-making practice also be profitable? By Konrad Muller.

Notes from a small vineyard

A vineyard under a cloudy sky.
The author’s vineyard on Tasmania’s West Tamar.
Credit: Konrad Muller

Budburst came early this year, as spring broke warm and dry, not the usual shivering through cold, sleeting rain. The vineyard exploded like a green bomb, and the vines, laid down on their winter canes, sent up shoots, too many shoots, wheeling and tangling on trellises, in sun and passing cloud.

As I did my tasks between the rows – thinning shoots by hand, clipping them up between the wires, removing excess leaves, cutting back the weeds – I found myself contemplating two contradictory questions. The first was whether we would use water this year. By November, sections of this small vineyard on Tasmania’s West Tamar were already looking parched, the grasses turning to dun and straw, the clover dying early under chalky skies. We’d not irrigated for nearly 10 years, the thinking being to drive our pinot noir vines to develop healthier, stronger roots. I now began to reconsider that dogma, and in mid-November, heading into flowering, watered the vines. The second question was, how much further should we go in rolling back our use of synthetic chemicals?

If all agriculture involves some measure of violence or control, then we had chosen to put our farming on a simpler, more natural footing, cooperating with the environment, minimising the risk of harm. Three years ago we stopped using chemical herbicides to control under-vine weeds. The results had been eye-opening.

Where previously lichen and moss had lain in a tidy, compacted, semi-dead zone, there was now a profusion of life – many more earthworms working the soil, beetles and small spiders, ladybirds and lacewings and dragonflies – in the sprouting grasses and leaves. Bandicoots, too, had since recolonised the vineyard in striking number, aerating the ground with their plunging snouts. One night, we had even glimpsed their silent predator, the magnificent rare Tasmanian masked owl. The living stuff of the soil was itself healthier – richer, sweeter, more friable.

This shift in farming practice had entailed some hot, hard labour. Sheep were let in to clear the ground in winter, manuring the soil and turning it over lightly with their hooves, but in the summer the weeds had to be hoed or cut back several times with a whipper-snipper and left to return to the soil. The new competition had reduced the yield of our 2500 vines, producing smaller bunches but arguably better berries. The vines themselves seemed healthier. Should we now push these natural farming principles further and remove synthetic chemicals from the canopy sprays we use to control insects and the periodic blight of mildew or fungal disease? Last year, for example, in the wet difficult vintage of 2023, these pests stalked vineyards across south-eastern Australia, sowing some havoc. Removing synthetics from our sprays was in fact the last major hurdle to us following a strictly organic regime.

There are two mildews that are the bane of vignerons: downy and powdery. Both are relatively modern ills, having first arrived in Europe from America in the mid-19th century in an extension of the so-called Columbian Exchange. Traditionally, they have been treated with copper and sulphur. In his great postwar novel of feckless youth in Piedmont, The Devil in the Hills, the Italian author Cesare Pavese memorably records the moment of the cultural sea change:

“Workers were spraying sulphate along the rows of vines …

I remarked to the father that it was strange to have to spray the grapes with that poisonous mist: the peasants’ hats were all eaten away by it.

‘Once,’ I said, ‘they grew grapes without all this spraying.’

‘They may have,’ he said … ‘Perhaps they did once. Now the vines are full of diseases.’ He looked doubtfully at the sky. ‘Let’s hope no thunderstorm,’ he muttered. ‘It’ll wash off the vines, and we’ll have to spray again.’ ”

Organic farming still controls mildew with topical sprays of copper and sulphur – Pavese’s “poisonous mist” – on the basis they are materials of strictly natural origin. They are termed “soft fungicides”.

I was familiar with arguments that these soft fungicides, when compared with the suite of more modern, synthetic agricultural chemicals – which often penetrate the plant tissue – are less durable and provide less protection. As such, they are said to risk more disease, a reduced yield and, ultimately, impaired profit. Partly for this reason, one distinguished winemaker with whom I spoke, the producer of some of Tasmania’s finest wines, characterised the organic regime to me as “a systematic strategy for wealth reduction and possibly inferior wines”. He also reminded me the soft fungicides carried their own environmental impacts. Copper, in particular, is a heavy metal and can build up in the soil, with potentially sterilising effects in the longer term.

I put this critique to the winemaker with whom we collaborate in the West Tamar. Originally from Zurich, Matthias Utzinger is himself implementing organic methods in his vineyard. He responds with a healthy, mirthful laugh: “Fungal disease in my canopy is the least of my problems. Last year I had an almost completely clean vineyard.” He then adds he does not trust synthetic chemicals, on a personal level. “Better the devil you know,” Utzinger says. But he recommends I speak with another Tasmanian winemaker, Steve Lubiana. “He has the street cred.”

Some 200 kilometres to the south of the Tamar Valley, Stefano Lubiana Wines is situated in the drier zone of the upper Derwent estuary north of Hobart. Here, on 28 hectares of clay, gravel and limestone (which bear out the old French adage that the vine thrives well in poor soils), Lubiana has farmed, very successfully, since the early 1990s, making wines of unarguable merit. In 2013, his vineyard became the first in Tasmania to be certified biodynamic. I meet him at his cellar door; he’s a small energetic man, tanned brick from his time in the fields, quietly spoken and highly articulate on his chosen ground.

He listens to me patiently, and then, without denying copper was a problem that demanded an alternative, he defends organic farming methods on grounds of ethics and quality. “At the core, biodynamics is about respect,” he says. “Respect for the environment, respect for the people who work in the vineyard, respect for the consumer.” He adds that whenever he opens a copy of the annual “Dog book” – the booklet from the Australian Wine Research Institute that lists agrochemicals registered for use in this country – he can only say, “Oh my god.”

He prefers just to use copper and sulphur – natural materials. He insists his vines remain very healthy, the leaves thick and leathery, with more disease-resistant skins – the result of an organic regime that has created far healthier plants, from the soil up. And yet he warns, “Going organic is no guarantee of quality. If you are a poor farmer, your organic farm will be terrible, while your conventional farm might be slightly better.”

Lubiana invites me to walk among the vines. There is no doubting this is a beautiful, impressive vineyard, overlooking the Derwent – the leaves of the canopy are indeed thick and green, the soil below the vines is lightly tilled back, and a cover crop of flowering purple phacelia has been planted between the rows, attracting a small army of bees. Nor does the operation appear anything but prosperous.

“Are you going fully organic?” Matthias Utzinger asks me when I return to the Tamar.

“I am wielding my hoe,” I answer, “and thinking about it.”

But honestly, being so small, it seems we have few excuses not to.

“A life of small-scale farming may appear to be primitive, but in living such a life, it becomes possible to contemplate the Great Way … The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” – Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2023 as "Notes from a small vineyard".

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