Discovering biodynamic wine

The son of God is not the only person to turn water into wine. Winemakers do it every year. Admittedly, they need far more equipment — and grapes. But in a country like Australia with acute water shortages, it’s a resource that needs to be used sparingly. And so it is by our more responsible winemakers. I spoke to two of those winemakers to find out how they’re counting the drops in their vineyards.

First, we meet Trevor Knaggs of King River Estate in the King Valley in northeastern Victoria, who grows his grapes using biodynamic principles but has not yet been certified. His vines are “dry-grown”. “This means growing grapes as far as possible without water,” he explains. “I’ll use some water in February if it’s stinking hot. If I’m going to lose foliage off the vines, I’ll water to hold that foliage. They might get one or two drinks to keep them ticking over.”

To achieve this, Trevor tells us he slashes — cuts down the weeds and grasses growing beneath the vines — every two or three weeks and leaves the slashed green material under the vines as mulch. “The shiraz on my father’s block is fitted with drip irrigation but it hasn’t been used for years. My home block has overhead irrigation but using it sparingly keeps the yields (of fruit) down, so we’re only cropping around one or two tons of grapes to the acre. I think that makes for better wine with a more intense flavour in the grape.”

Trevor also uses the biodynamic preparations 500 and 501 in the vineyard. “We mix them in the flowform for an hour. The 500 has to be mixed after 3pm, and the 500 in the morning.” (See glossary for biodynamic terms.) Because, as Trevor says, biodynamic practices mean grapes need less water. “This gives them more chance of coming through without watering.”

Sam Statham grows wine grapes and olives on Rosnay, his family’s biodynamically certified property at Canowindra in western New South Wales, a much drier part of the country than the King Valley. Average annual rainfall in the King Valley is 630mm; in Canowindra 500mm. “It’s dry,” Sam says, “but it’s regular — not a lot but reliable.” That said, until this year they’d been in drought for five years.

For Sam, good water-holding capacity in the soil is the key, which means building up organic matter. “Not just to retain the water but to help it get in. The crumb structure of a well-developed soil has lots of worms and lots of holes for the water to get in. It holds the water better in the humus of the soil compared to a compacted, lifeless soil that has been subjected to herbicide and synthetic nitrogen, where you get a lot more run-off.”

Sam keeps his soil like this by “allowing the weeds to grow (under the vines). The breakdown of the rye grass especially creates a mat of dead roots that decompose and add to the organic matter in the soil. Even thistles are pretty good. They’ve got a tap root — nature’s crowbar — which pushes down through the layers and creates channels for water flow as they die.”

The drought was a game changer, though. “In the drought we used ground (bore) water in the drip irrigation system and bought in a bit of compost to replace the natural death-and-decay cycle of the weeds and grasses.”

For Sam, dry-growing is the dream but at Canowindra it’s grape variety dependent. “Mataro has the most potential so we propagated a lot of it this year to replace the Semillon, which needs a lot of water.” Then the drought broke and the rain killed the Mataro and the Semillon thrived. Such are the ironies of the farmer’s life.

Biodynamics is a method of farming developed in the 1920s by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist and philosopher, which sees a farm (or a garden) as a self-contained, living organism and emphasises the vitality of soil maintenance and composting.

Flowform: Water containing biodynamic preparations is pumped around and around a series of concrete bowls in a figure-eight motion to oxygenate it.

500: The manure from a lactating cow is placed in a cow-horn and buried over winter, where it ferments and composts. A small amount of 500 is stirred into lukewarm water and aerated for an hour by hand or in a flowform before being sprayed onto the soil of the farm.

501: A preparation of ground quartz, composted in a cow-horn over summer. Applied like 500.

For more information go to


King River Estate Merlot 2008: Rich in colour and flavour. Berries and earthiness on the nose grow as you leave it in the glass. This is what I’d call a wine-driven wine: everything in balance, great length on the palate with a nice dose of acid at the end. Drink it with anything with the weight to take it — it’s a big wine — from grilled salmon to roast beef.

Rosnay Triple Blend 2008: Another gorgeous grown-up red, 50 per cent Shiraz and 25 per cent each Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Rich blackberry nose and flavour, beautifully balanced with firm tannins. Drink it with a slow-roasted shoulder of lamb or a good vegetable soup with lentils.

John Newton is an award-winning food writer who believes food and drink are better in every way when we work with nature.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

You May Also Like

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 04 10t145452.217

Marlee Silva: Creating Change Through Story Telling

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 02 28t140616.138

Chelsea Pottenger on caring for mental health

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 (95)

Seven years sober

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 (82)

The unmaking and making of Jacinta Parsons