Organic wines from Barossa to the world. Whistler Wines.
If you take a drive down Seppeltsfield Road, through the heart of Barossa Valley, you’d be forgiven for thinking Whistler Wines was just another winery.
From the roadside most vineyards and wineries look the same, but the practices that go into a Whistler Wine show the commitment young Aussie winemakers have to ensuring that their part of the land continues to not only survive but thrive for years to come. Organics and Biodynamics have become an integral part of the Whistler operation, and under the Pfeiffer family it has shown that in a changing climate this understanding and respect for the land gives healthier grapes without taking too much from the surrounding environment. Through the development of their ‘Shock Value’ SMG the use of Organic and Biodynamic practices demonstrates a new take on winemaking in an area built on tradition.
There was a time when people were highly suspicious of wine produced in any style other than a traditional ‘conventional’ method, ie. a farm not centred around practices like organic and biodynamic agriculture. Vines can be sprayed with chemicals when needed to protect from disease or insects, soils re-invigorated by synthetic mulches, and additions to the wine itself to ensure style and flavour match the desires of the winemaker. After so many years of producing great tasting wines by conventional methods, winemakers like Whistler’s Pfeiffer family began to wonder if there was a better way - can we leave the land in a better condition than how we found it? When will the land say it can no longer ‘give’ after we’ve ‘taken’ for so long?
In the warm climate of Barossa grape ripening is rarely an issue, leading to famous full body reds, sometimes with awe-inspiring alcohol levels. But such a ripe grape needs a lot from the land, as was noted by growers in Barossa who began to see soils in some areas becoming less generous after years of production. So when Sam and Josh Pfeiffer began a concerted move towards Organic Viticulture in 2013, and then Biodynamic Practices in 2017, the goal was not one of increased production but of keeping their slice of the Barossa healthy and happy, which in turn gifts them with healthy responsibly grown grapes.
Is it easy for a farm to ‘go green’?
Well, it depends how green. Perhaps the better way to look at it is to ask ‘is it easy to not be green?’. Absolutely. Spray whatever pesticide you want, work the land as far as you need to, even in years of bad frost you can use helicopters to break up air layers and warm the vineyard. Is there something intrinsically wrong about these methods? Of course not if they are genuinely required, but as the world becomes more aware of the environment the choices in the vineyard are increasingly becoming more eco-friendly.
A move towards organics typically comes first, then biodynamics, as it’s all a long process (depending how much needs to change!). In organic farming the grapes are grown with no synthetic or artificial chemicals, herbicides or fertilisers. Farmers may look to solar power, biofuels (which can be made from distilling leftover grape must), and aim to reduce water usage. Biodynamics is one step further - it’s a belief in the entire vineyard ecosystem, all the way to the cycles of the moon (with harvest, pruning, irrigation and growth days all being set by the Lunar cycle), and Preparations within the vineyard. For some the biodynamic preparations can raise eyebrows (the process of burying cow horns containing manure during a descending moon, for example), but by following the practices winemakers become much more aware of the smallest aspects of their vineyard.
But, if wine is something we don’t really need to live (arguably), why put in such an effort?
Isn’t wine just...wine? As Sam Pfeiffer said of his family, they always go in 100%, so with multiple generations in the industry it becomes more than wine. For the Pfeiffers making the best wine they can make needs to be a process they can hang their hat on and say “that was done the right way”. The vineyard does tend to move slowly as an organism, so their move away from conventional methods was quick, but a thoughtfulness is required. An example is their use of knifing and dodging over synthetic weed sprays. Where they could simply do a pre-emptive spray of chemicals routinely over their crops to stop weeds and have an afternoon beer, days of passing through rows on the tractor with a practice called ‘knifing and dodging’, where under vine weeds are ploughed. This leads to the soil being free of chemicals, although the process does take longer. Water usage is strictly monitored, diseased vines are tended to as opposed to pulled out, animals are encouraged to roam. The vineyard goes from ‘set and forget’ to a lot more work, but a healthier vineyard is the result.
The Whistler ‘Shock Value’ SMG
The Whistler SMG is a modern take on a classic grape combination. Shiraz (43%), Mataro (42%) and Grenache (15%), all grown within sight of their cellar door. The family’s history with shiraz is really impressive, with Martin Pfeiffer initially planting cuttings from the Penfold’s Grange vineyard (Kalimna clone 3C, and clones 1654 and BVRC30), and his sons Sam and Josh, having grown up in the winemaking world of Barossa bringing a new set eyes to the family trade. There are no secrets in their creation - whilst they don’t scream their methods from the hilltops it’s all there for the world to see, not dissimilar to the craft brewing world of funky labels to catch your eye, and then in depth descriptions of the contents therein.
The key to their winemaking style is thoughtfulness - grapes are picked at night when it’s cooler, meaning oxidation is slowed down and less sulfur dioxide is needed to protect the crop, water is carefully managed in a vineyard where natural grasses grow between the vines to promote water retention, and native plants have been planted around the property to encourage wildlife and minimise evaporation between the rows of vines (plus you won’t find a plastic bag anywhere near their cellar door). And therein lies the balance with natural, organic and biodynamic winemaking - as Sam says the wine must be “clean, sound and safe”. Irrigation is required as it’s Barossa, but they try to minimise water losses. Sulfur dioxide is required because the grapes must not spoil, so why not pick at night and minimise its use. The wine is not filtered or fined, so they can’t just set and forget - instead they monitor their creations closely because at the end of the day the wine needs to be safe, and they can ensure it is without high intervention wine making.
Shiraz gives this wine spice and fruit-cake character, and being from the central grounds this classic Barossa grape has a silkier tannin with generous perfume from the fruit. Mataro (Mourvedre) is a powerful and late ripening grape - known for tannin, high alcohol and earthy flavours. With 13% alcohol, but with 42% of the wine coming from such a heavy grape it is clear that restraint has been shown in production - an eye watering wine was never the intention with this one. Completing the mosaic that is the three grape blend is the grenache - if a GSM has majority grenache the fact this is an SMG with only 15% grenache just shows that in more ways than one Whistler is turning classic winemaking on it’s head - red fruit complexity against the spice and pepper of the majority shareholders in the bottle.
The grapes are kept separate during fermentation in concrete vats, which is through wild fermentation. The misconception with wild fermentation and natural wines is that the wine is going to be somehow less-developed, just left alone to make a wine by chance rather than skill. The opposite is actually correct - constant monitoring of the wine during production takes place as the winemakers aren’t using a cultured yeast (a yeast developed for a particular style and flavour), but instead ambient yeast from the vineyard is allowed to ferment the wine. This means the wine becomes very individualistic, and highly vintage-dependant. 15 months French oak, and blended just prior to bottling, it’s an easy drinking wine that over-delivers with an added feel-good factor that makes you want to visit the cellar door in Barossa and soak it all in.
From start to finish the Whistler ‘Shock Value’ SMG is a clear indication of the new age of winemaking. The land is respected, nurtured and celebrated, and we get a better wine for it. Leave your suspicions about natural wines at the door and enjoy.
Oh. And did I mention they have really cool labels?