Penfolds Clare vineyard goes organic

In polluted Europe, Australia has a clean, fresh image. It’s an image the Australian Wine Research Institute believes is based on fact and one that can be enhanced and sustained to the advantage of our wine industry.

Visit new vineyard developments, like Richmond Grove’s broad-acre Cowra plantings, and viticulturists talk of synthetic chemicals as a last resort against pests and disease. And there’s a strong trend to using just the right amount of water necessary to keep vines healthy. Scarcity has seen the end of wasteful old flood or overhead spray irrigation techniques.

The emphasis is to produce clean wines, free of chemical residues and to ensure sustainable viticulture through prudent soil and water management.

In wineries, too, we’ve seen a steady diminution of sulphur dioxide addition to wines as vignerons learned to measure exactly the right amount required to prevent spoilage.

At least two makers, BRL Hardy and Gil Wahlquist’s Botobolar, produced passable wines with no use of sulphur. For most of us, intake of a little sulphur seems completely harmless. But the release of these sulphur-free wines was welcomed by those allergic to it. And in Wahlquist’s case, the wine was produced in a totally organic vineyard and winemaking regime.

The tiny ‘organic’ market niche Botobolar carved for itself may have pointed the way to a future in which an increasingly affluent consumer is prepared to pay a premium for products guaranteed to have been produced organically.

Richard Everett of Southcorp Wines says fifteen to twenty per cent of vineyards in California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys claim to be managed organically. Even so, the market for organically grown products seems small and, according to Everett, consumer support appears stronger in the U.K. than the U.S.A.

He says that U.K. grocery giant, Safeway, recently introduced with reasonable success organically-grown fruit and vegetables selling at up to double the price of conventional fare.

Encouraged by Safeway’s success, and with an eye to the future, Penfolds Wines (one of the Southcorp companies) last year released its first organically grown wine on the U.K market. The wine came only after several year’s planning backed by major long-term vineyard investment in the Clare Valley, making Penfolds a major organic player on a global scale.

Southcorp’s head viticulturist, Andrew Pike, tells me the Clare Valley site, an existing Penfold vineyard planted in the early 1980s, was selected for its “isolation from other vineyards, and low risk of vine fungal diseases, combined with a dry sunny ripening season and clean air and water.”

In 1991 the 25 hectare ‘E’ Block, in the Clare’s Polish Hill Valley, was certified ‘A’ level organic. The exhaustive certification process, conducted by the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASA), carries global validity as it conforms with international standards set by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.

So, it’s not just a matter of going organic, but of conforming with strict standards enforced by continuous monitoring of soil, water, and fruit samples by NASAA. Leader of the organic project, Wendy Allan, says initial certification takes some time and can be influenced by residues in soil from past land usage.

NASAA sticks its nose into the winery, too, issuing final certification only after chief wine maker, John Duval and his team, meet the standards. The first certified wine, a Penfold Clare Valley Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc 1993, is a vibrant, rich, fresh drop, very much in the mainstream of ripe Aussie white styles.

Andrew Pike says another 28 hectare plot near the original organic vineyard is under conversion and should be given an ‘A’ certification in time for the 1995 vintage. And new plantings of a further 50 hectares during 1994/1995 should see the group with 103 bearing hectares by 1998 – sufficient for an annual organic wine output of about 65 thousand dozen bottles.

However, for all the potential environmental and health advantages of organic wine, there is a cost because of the greater risk of crop failure.. Long-term yields are expected to be around 8-9 tonnes to the hectare compared with 11-12 tonnes for conventionally managed vineyards.

The wines are thus more costly to produce and their long-term future depends on the consumers willingness to pay. U.K. results are encouraging with the first wine selling well in the premium range at £6.99 a bottle. It’s to be released in the U.S.A. in April. At this stage, though, it looks like Australia won’t get a look in for some time.