Lark Hill triumphs in difficult vintage

In a vintage plagued by mildew and botrytis outbreaks, biodynamic Lark Hill, like several traditionally managed Canberra vineyards, overcame the vine diseases and ultimately harvested good quantities of healthy grapes.

During our post-vintage visit to Lark Hill, David and Sue Carpenter and son Chris seem relaxed, perhaps relieved to have all the good stuff bubbling away in the winery. There’s a fair bit of it, too, says David Carpenter, estimating a yield of about six tonnes a hectare – double 2009’s crop and significantly up on 2010. It’s a wonderful outcome for a vineyard at 860 metres in a cool, wet season.

The fight against disease began early, says David. In winter 2010 Australian grape growers had been warned to expect a cool, wet spring and summer – ideal conditions for mildew – “so we could see it coming”, says David, “and commenced a protective regime”.

That meant spraying before outbreaks of mildew, beginning very early in the season with cupric oxide (permitted in biodynamic farming). “By doing it early we used only a little bit of spray on a small target”, says David. Later in the season sprays included a canola base with tee tree and, after fruiting, copper based spray followed by a biodynamic preparation aimed at building up natural predators.

While spraying can kill mildew spoors, a long-term regime aims at building healthy soils and strong, resistant plants – based on “spraying the vineyard with various preparations and endless involvement with deep composting”.

Even in traditional viticulture “spraying makes up only about 20 per cent of the arsenal against mildew – the rest’s vineyard management”, says David. He’s referring to practices like shoot and leaf thinning and hedging vines to maximise air circulation and allow penetration of sunlight.

The Carpenters say their commitment to biodynamics began at a conference in 2003 at Beechworth. Sue recalls “lots of arms folded tightly across chests”, theirs included, at the beginning, but a rush to sign up towards the end – sparked largely by a visit to Julian Castagna’s magnificent vineyard.

In their current newsletter, the Carpenters write, “from inception, we avoided insecticides and steered a careful path utilising biological controls wherever possible, but it is in the last eight years that we have fully entered the totally biodynamic regime”.

Biodynamics is sort of like organics with the added principles espoused by Rudolph Steiner. This includes the use of seemingly mysterious biodynamic preparations, numbered from 500 to 508, and adherence to the lunar calendar – practices, write the Carpenters, that some “regard with the deepest suspicion”. They add, “we assure you our attire has not progressed to sandals and loin cloths”.

However, a big part of biodynamics, certainly as practised by the Carpenters, appears to be giving tremendous attention to care of the land and vines. Who can argue against composting, deep mulching and keeping potentially hazardous chemicals out of the environment.

The more astrological components of biodynamics, such as planting, harvesting and racking wine by phases of the moon draws derision and satire from some quarters. And there’s much scepticism regarding the 500-series preparations – particularly regarding the legendary the cow horn full of dung – sometimes scoffed at as a belief in channelling cosmic forces.

But even scientists like the Carpenters have to stick with the Steiner precepts to be accredited as biodynamic producers – which they have been from vintage 2008.

They explain, for example, that the cow horn of dung isn’t about channelling cosmic or any other forces. It’s the beginning of breeding program for useful bacteria and fungal spores. It’s the base for the “500” preparation. Each autumn they fill the horns with cow dung, seal them with clay and bury them in shallow pits on beds of compost.

In spring they dig up the horns and use the dung as a starter culture in warm rainwater – adding 50 grams to every 200 litres and aerating it. The theory is that at around body temperature the bacteria and spores breed rapidly. The Carpenters then spray the mix around the vineyard where the microbes fix nitrogen in the soil and spores stimulate growth of fungi that enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the vines.

Whatever we make of the more arcane elements of biodynamics, the Lark Hill vineyard looks a treat and is delivering probably the best wines since the Carpenters began planting it in 1978.

Across the years they’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. As a result, they’ve pared the vineyard back to the proven varieties, riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir. And following a suggestion from Jancis Robinson, a visit to Austria tasting gruner veltliner – and the fortuitous discovery of two vines of the variety in Tasmania – propagated a thousand vines and planted them in 2006.

Gruner veltliner, say the Carpenters gives them a high-quality white that sits in style somewhere between the delicacy of riesling and opulence of chardonnay.

Like all of their table wines, bar riesling, it’s fermented by indigenous yeasts. Unfortunately the sensational 2010 sold out recently. But, says Chris Carpenter, the 2011 (still a lovely, sweet, acidic juice when I visited) will be released around October.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011