Wild Bushfires vs Biodynamics
Green Vineyards Burn Brighter
Reason To Revert To Roundup?
by PHILIP WHITE
When bushfire whipped through several big vineyards at Currency Creek a few weeks ago, it sent the biggest shiver of fear through the wrong mob.
Not long ago, most industrial vineyards were usually absolutely blitzed with the highly poisonous herbicide, Roundup. Nothing was permitted to grow between the vines. Every blade of vegetation which was not a vine was the enemy, robbing the vine of its goodness.
Which was ridiculous really, when you considered the chill industrial refinery regime which then thrashed that fruit to render up its ethanol: the only sensitivity and care in the entire procedure seemed solely to be that sort of sanctimonious piety exuded by those who could sit in church safe in the knowledge that there was not one blade of grass left alive in their vineyards.
I often recall my first interview with Leo Pech, the spokesman of the grapegrowers there, a year or two after Ash Wednesday. As if to teach the young wine writer some healthy Lutheran patience, he left me waiting in the rain while he finished hand-pruning a long row. Once he’d finished he unlocked his truck and we took shelter. He spoke with pride of the beauty of his vineyard, which was mainly bare swept dirt. I suggested the best measure of its beauty was to imagine all its vines disappearing suddenly: I’d prefer to judge the health of its ground by the vigor and balance of what was left. This blasphemy was greeted by a derisive comment on the darn thing then being a firetrap.
In recent years, wherever they farm, the better growers have become much wiser and less paranoid. They have learned to regard their ground with a lot more understanding and sensitivity. Fear of the residuals left by Roundup, fear of their soil blowing or washing away, fear of soil which is microbiologically dead, fear of ridicule from rival growers whose vineyards boast a healthy sward of grassy growth – many things have led to the vineyards changing appearance.
In the old blitzed earth regime, when such nutrients had to be purchased from petrochem dealers, dissolved in the irrigation water, and pumped through the drippers, vineyards generally did not burn in bushfires. A few incinerated in the extreme conflagration of Ash Wednesday, in 1983, but generally, vineyards were regarded as reliable firebreaks. The di Cesare and Amadio families’ new vineyards at Gumeracha, for example, were treated with sceptical derision until they stopped a big fire from eating the hospital, and then the town.
The vineyards which burned the other day at Currency Creek were not what I’d call biodynamic, organic, or even particularly green in their industrial philosophy or design, but they had some grasses growing between their rows, and these rapidly burnt to dust. That fire burnt with a speed and ferocity which shocked the firefighters. While only a few vines actually blazed to ash, leaves dried and burnt, the ripening berries quickly dried out, and some trellis posts burnt.
In some instances, it seemed that rather than stem the blaze, even the dripper lines acted like cordite fuses: once the fire got hold, the power went off, the pumps ceased, the water in the black, heat-retentive plastic piping evaporated, and once a critical temperature was reached, the plastic burnt.
Uh-huh. If we’re gonna start measuring the quality of our viticulture by its capacity to ignite in a conflagration, we’d better get straight back to concretin’ and choppin’ down trees.
I yearn for the day when back labels can boast “No Roundup was used in this vineyard”. Such cleanliness can already be taken for granted in certified biodynamic vineyards.
If you’re interested in supporting responsible viticulture, buy your wine accordingly. Learn to read the vineyards as you drive around our bonnie vignobles. The best-managed, likely producing the best-flavoured wine, will be those without extreme leaf and cane growth, but with a healthy balance of leaf: just enough to offer the fruit dappled shade when sunburn threatens, but not so much as to stop cleansing breezes when moulds get a grip after rain.
Where I live, at Yangarra, they’re planting large areas to new bush vines, which will become the old dry grown bush vines of the future. While all the gnarly old pre-phylloxera bush vines we emotionally adore must eventually die unless they’re replaced, nobody else does this on such a grand scale. But viticulturer Michael Lane finds that training baby bush vines to compete with weeds and native grasses and get their start in this life is tricky: stock will eat their juicy little shoots; they like a bit of a drink, and weeds easily outgrow them, stunting their growth; even eliminating them.So those bare stripes below the brave baby bushvines? That’s where a big crew of folks sharpened their hoes, and dug all the weeds out by hand.