By Lilana Goonesena
Former film director Julian Castagna and his son, Adam, have turned the spotlight onto making exceptional, natural wines.
“I make wine because I love wine,” says Julian simply. “At the beginning, I kidded myself that I made the wine; I think the land makes the wine.
“In the 1920’s, Rudolf Steiner [founder of biodynamic agriculture] advocated allowing the land to speak, and thereby get a taste of that land. We farm biodynamically, without chemicals, and that’s what makes us different.”
On the 4-hectare winery, everything is done by hand, from grape picking to bottling, with no external inputs. Castagna makes less than 2000 cases a year and often less than 600, and Julian only sells wine he likes. “In 2011 we didn’t sell anything; we made it but I didn’t like it,” he says.
Though Julian always intended Castagna to be sustainable and chemical-free, there were issues in the beginning.
“We came here in 1995, spent 18 months planting vines, and then after about two weeks, they were sick. People said I needed to spray them,” Julian tells us.
“I wasn’t about to lose the vines I had spent so long planting so I went out and bought this very expensive stuff. Then I read the label with its skull and crossbones and I thought, ‘I want to make a great wine, why destroy my plants with this?’ So, I got on a plane and went round the world and talked to anyone who would talk to me. The solution was quite simple. The moment I let the grass grow back, the pest [African black beetle] stopped eating the vines. I started learning, I tasted some great biodynamic wines and I was hooked.”
Though Castagna is certified biodynamic, Julian says it’s a frustrating process.
“No one really understands biodynamics,” he says. “There’s no single certification body; rather, there’s 8-10 different organisations, and each one wants to be in control. Inspectors tick boxes instead of questioning and making suggestions. We ought to have something for normal people to understand.”
He cites the use of sulphur in winemaking as an example. “I don’t see sulphur as the devil so many other people do. We also only use a fraction. Sulphur does change the taste but once a wine gets above 25 degrees, which in Australia is often, without sulphur it’s a huge problem. So I don’t think it should be a criteria for biodynamics.”
On the farm
“We do everything by hand,” says Adam. “Every single grape is picked by hand.”
“Once you get it right, you just do the same thing year in, year out,” continues Julian. “The normal farming principles apply. Biodynamics is not a magic wand; if the land is rubbish, what comes off it will be rubbish too.”
Biodynamics involves sprinkling cow horns preparations, known by numbers 500-508, during particular phases of the moon, to draw energy from the earth.
“We do very little to our soil besides compost, and 500 and 501,” says Julian. “500 is manure from a lactating cow put into a cow horn and buried for 6 months. We take a small amount and put it out on the vineyard. It’s not fertiliser; it’s energy. That’s what makes biodynamics different to organics, it’s drawing in that energy.”
“501 is quartz crystal, crushed and pressed between two pieces of glass so it becomes as fine as talcum powder, and put into horns. I fill 100-150 cow horns at each preparation. It’s done during summer and 500 is during winter. Again, it’s buried and it creates energy.”
As we gather around Julian to try the wines, he tells us about their three labels.
“We have Growers, from other wineries I’m helping to become biodynamic; Castagna, only made from our land and only when I like it; and Adam’s Rib, our fruit plus other Beechworth grapes.”
“I try to make wines which have the quality of Pinot Noir. Not that they should taste like Pinot Noir but they should have the quality of great Burgundy and that has to do with lightness and energy and spirit. And almost everything we make is a blend because I like blends,” he says.
Julian is also unconvinced by screw caps; Castagna wine is on cork.
“People like the theatre of corks,” he maintains. “Wine is not simply a technical thing but an emotional thing. I think that there will be no serious wines made in the world in the next 20-25 years that are not affected in some way by biodynamics.”
We leave Castagna biodynamic enthusiasts, laden with purchases. Nicki Friedli, the Highly Commended Young Waiter from Africola in Adelaide, agrees that it’s a growing trend. “Biodynamic wine is increasing around Adelaide,” she says. “It’s not pretentious; it’s just people going back to their roots.”