Thursday, April 21, 2011

James Halliday and Toby Bekkers discuss organic and biodynamic grape-growing

Toby Bekkers’ press release re: Organic/Biodynamics

Viticulturist Toby Bekkers has launched a consultancy designed to help winemakers and wineries uncover hidden potential in their vineyards and wine businesses. The cornerstone of the process will be improving wine grape quality by introducing natural farming practices.

“Many producers are enthusiastic about organics and biodynamics but are risk averse,” says Toby.

“I assist wineries to improve their business by introducing natural and organic / biodynamic farming techniques. Some want an immediate, complete change whilst others prefer a slower, staged approach.” “I provide not just vineyard management advice, but also brand, communications and management consultancy to ensure that the principles are integrated throughout the enterprise. I understand the commercial considerations that drive wineries and I know how to incorporate business goals and sustainable practices for commercial success.”

After recently living for 6 months in France, Toby warns that the Australian wine industry is lagging behind its competitors in the adoption of organic and biodynamic viticulture systems, which could impact the industry’s future earnings potential.

“Organic and biodynamic practices offer the potential to improve wine quality and should be viewed as smart, low input farming systems. They are no longer solely the domain of the idealist. Many sophisticated and successful wine businesses around the world are benefitting from these techniques,” says Toby. “My goal is to encourage mainstream adoption of ‘natural farming’ systems whilst recognising that for organics to be truly sustainable it must also be profitable.”

Toby has more than fifteen years of experience as a viticulturist and wine business manager. He was General Manager of Paxton Wines in McLaren Vale South Australia where he was responsible for almost 700 acres of vineyard and the Paxton wine business. He has played a leading role in the introduction and implementation of organic and biodynamic viticulture in Australia.

He is in demand as an industry speaker, and in 2006 on the Annual Trophy for Excellence in Winegrowing by the McLaren Vale Grape, Wine and Tourism Association. In 2009 he participated in the prestigious Future Leaders – Succession for the Australian Wine Sector leadership and development program. He holds a Bachelor of Applied Science, Agriculture (Hons.) from the University of Adelaide and a Graduate Certificate in Management from the University of South Australia. For further information on Toby’s services visit

James’ blog in response to Toby’s press release…


Toby Bekkers has launched a viticulture and wine business consultancy service. Bekkers has an impressive academic background, with a Bachelor of Applied Science, Agriculture (Hons) from the University of Adelaide, and a Graduate Certificate in Management from the University of South Australia. On the practical side, he played a key role in the successful growth of Paxton Wines in McLaren Vale, David Paxton himself having an even longer career in viticulture.

I have to worry about the blithe assumption that it has been established organic and biodynamic grapegrowing results in greater wine quality. Organic maybe, but the packaging of the two practices as if they were one is not on in my book. The press release announcing the establishment of the consultancy says ‘After recently living for six months in France, Toby warns that the Australian wine industry is lagging behind its competitors in the adoption of organic and biodynamic viticultural systems, which could impact the industry’s future earnings potential.’

The press release then goes on to quote Bekkers ‘Organic and biodynamic practices offer the potential to improve wine quality and should be viewed as smart, low input farming systems. They are no longer solely the domain of the idealist. Many sophisticated and successful wine businesses around the word are benefitting from these techniques. My goal is to encourage mainstream adoption of “natural farming” systems whilst recognising that for organics to be truly sustainable it must also be profitable.’

This is not an attack on Toby Bekkers credibility or knowledge, but I think he is drawing a very long bow in suggesting that biodynamics will increase Australia’s earnings potential. The 2010 vintage in France, and the 2011 vintage in South East Australia, suggest the opposite.

And the interchange of emails following James’ response…

Dear James,

Thankyou for taking the time to read my press release. Where ‘sustainable farming’ in all its poorly defined forms fits into the Australian wine landscape is a topic of much discussion and I’m happy that you are interested enough to make comment. I thought I would pay you the courtesy of a private response in order to clarify my position on a couple of the points you raised in your blog entry last week. (Note: Toby Bekkers has agreed to the release of this email in conjunction with my original blog, my short response to this email, and his final – even shorter reply.) My intent is not to try and alter your views, rather I’d like to clarify mine.

I do not contend that organics and biodynamics (BD) are one and the same. From my point of view, some clients are interested in making small changes in farming practice, some want to move to organics and some wish to take a further step and look at the BD method of farming. All offer potential benefits, particularly in regards to soil health, biodiversity, quality and reduction of inputs. Many of the aims and techniques of these systems are recognisable in any list of soil management best practice. I’m not fundamentally aligned to one system or another and I would be best described as a ‘biodynamic moderate’ with regard to my robust interest in that system. However, I’d make the point that whilst organics isn’t BD, by definition BD is an organic farming system. This premise would be accepted by regulators, certifiers, organic practitioners and BD growers alike. By nature BD is a controversial subject and people tend to focus on the perceived ritualistic aspects. My interest centres more around the potential benefits in stimulating soil health and a holistic view of the farm rather than the deeply philosophical, although I enjoy a renewed power of observation that comes from investigating these techniques.

The view that organic systems offer benefits in wine quality is widely held by many practitioners and is the overriding motivator for adoption cited. I believe that this stems from a number of areas, three of which I offer below by way of example:

  1. Consistency: It is well accepted that improving soil structure, porosity, organic matter content and biological function has the potential to buffer the effect of extreme weather events. In my view, it is not unreasonable to observe that this can reduce seasonal variation and buffer the effects of extreme weather in particular seasons.

  2. Opportunity of expression: I contend that greater complexity in a natural system offers more opportunity for the vine to interact uniquely with its environment. For example, it is widely accepted that soils rich in biological diversity differently liberate native nutrients and minerals from the soil in a form readily available to the plant. In my view this more stable, modulated access to nutrient can enhance the expression of subtle differences between vineyard sites. It won’t override basic viticulture faux pas like poor site selection, but does offer another layer of complexity in good vineyards. If one accepts that terroir is a unique signature of place, then additional layers of complexity within the viticultural system must go some way to enhancing or further defining that expression.

  3. Attention to detail: In the absence of a quick fix, attention to detail in well farmed organic vineyards is second to none and undoubtedly accounts for some of the benefits cited by good producers. Good farmers of any persuasion are generally good observers.

Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world in the adoption of organic viticulture. Best estimates of certified organic vineyard area in Australia are around 1%, whilst in Europe figures of 3 to 5% are not uncommon (exceeding 7% in Alsace Lorraine). I don’t think that Australia can (or will) ride a rocket-like BD-led rise in earnings potential, rather I predict that evidence of sustainable practice may well be required to maintain market presence in the future. What I see as a real risk is the potential for large retailers to make very rapid decisions in response to what they think their customers want to hear. With organic food and beverage sales rising (for example, double digit growth over 10 years in the U.S.) there is the potential for retailers to tighten their expectations of suppliers. If large retailers demand a rapid move to organic production our industry needs to at least have considered the options to allow a rapid transition. Availability and quality of organic wine from other countries has never been better, volumes are growing and retailers expect their suppliers to adapt quickly to consumer demand. In Australia, the recent unilateral move by Coles to ban growth hormone in beef is a good example of a rapid shift in buyer requirements effecting producers.

Finally, tough seasons create problems for all growers. Typically, those that are farming the right varieties, on the right sites, in the right way have the best chance of success. That said, no matter the farming system, sometimes nature has the final say. It has to be agreed that both conventionally and organically farmed fruit has been lost to disease this year, but the assumption that organic production will fail where conventional will not is a commonly heard but flawed premise.

Natural systems are so complex we may never understand exactly why things happen the way they do. This should not stop us trying new things when we observe potential benefits. Likewise we should not cease digging deeper and asking the questions, so thankyou for stimulating these few words.

Kind regards



Dear Toby

Thank you for your very interesting email. The only problem is that I agree whole-heartedly with everything you have to say. Clearly, my blog did not make my position clear. Namely, that the advantages of organic viticulture are beyond doubt. The only problem is, of course, the conversion period, and viticulturists weaning themselves from the numerous sprays used in a conventionally-farmed vineyard.

It is when one comes to BD that I hold my hand up and say that I cannot be convinced on anything I have seen or read that BD results in consistently better grapes. Indeed, I would argue the evidence is that, in wet vintages, it leads to irreparable damage. That said, I respect the views of those who believe the system is of net benefit, in the same way as I would not challenge anyone’s religious beliefs.

Best regards
James Halliday


Thanks James for the response.

I think amongst all systems, there are those that farm sensibly and those that chose to place their vineyards in the hands of faith alone. The growers with a sensible plan get good results and those with unrealistic expectations often come to grief.



Christie’s finest and rarest wines auction

Christie’s held a finest and rarest wines auction in Hong Kong spanning April 9 to April 10. In most instances the lots exceeded the lower end of the estimate, and in a number of spectacular occasions realised up to twice the estimate. Sixty vintages of Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1945-2005 had a Hong Kong dollar range of HK$400,000 to HK$600,000. The lot realised HK$960,000. Now you might immediately jump to the conclusion the wines headed off to China. In fact, the buyer was a Latin American private collector. Six bottles of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Richebourg brought an astonishing HK$540,000 (though below the top estimate) which went to an Asian private buyer (not Chinese). However, apart from two lots of 2000 Chateau Lafite Rothschild (the buyer was anonymous) all of the remaining lots bar two went to Chinese private buyers.

FYI: AU$1 = HK$8.32 (at time of publishing)

Friday, April 8, 2011

The best of Hunter Valley Shiraz may be on the way...

I have commented more than once on my renewed love affair with Hunter Valley Shiraz. It was the first wine of any variety and any region that I got my head around, and back in the ‘70s and ‘80s old vintages (even O’Sheas) could be found if you knew where to look, and they were not as exorbitantly expensive as the few remaining bottles are today.

In the third edition of my Classic Wines of Australia and New Zealand I included composite tasting notes (from tastings held between 1984 and 1996) of 19 different Maurice O’Shea wines, the oldest the fabulous 1937 Mountain A Dry Red. Overall, there were also wines from ‘42, ‘43, ‘44, ‘45, ‘46, ‘47, ‘49, ‘52, ‘53 and ’54, in some instances with two or even three wines from the same vintage.

In those days there was no statement of alcohol on the labels, but I am as sure as I can be that the alcohol levels would have been between 13% and 13.5%. The time of harvesting shiraz in the Hunter Valley is not always in the hands of the winemaker, vintage rainfall, hail, searing heat and sunburn, defoliation and a host of other challenges can mean there is no choice. But in the ‘07 and ‘09 vintages, weather conditions were as good as they are ever likely to be for shiraz, and quite beautiful wines were made in these years.

The uniting feature is alcohol levels with a weighted average around 13.5%. The wines have a purity and balance that will see them develop over 20 years (or much longer given screwcaps) gradually picking up that polished leather, sweet earth and forest litter backdrop of great Hunter Shiraz.

Many will be drunk long before they reach this stage, because they are so easy to enjoy in their youth.