By Sarah Reichel
When my cousin and I showed up on the front steps of Cape Jaffa Winery in South Australia we had absolutely no idea what to expect. We would live and work there for more than two months. We had taken the owners up on their offer a year before, on their visit to Saskatchewan, to come and work at Cape Jaffa for a while. It hit us suddenly as we stood at the cellar door, with our bags piled high and our clothes wrinkled from the trip, that the invitation, although truly meant, was made out of friendship, not because we had anything to offer in the area of winemaking! The whole prospect had looked exciting and foreign and slightly fairytale while we were still at home but now it was just daunting!
We couldn’t help but fall in love with the setting at Cape Jaffa though. We had enjoyed staying in some of the large Australian cities, but it wasn’t until we drove through South Australia’s Limestone Coast on our way to the winery that we really felt comfortable. Maybe it was the rural nature and country friendliness of Cape Jaffa that made us feel this way, situated as it was between two small towns, Robe (population 2000) and Kingston (population 500). We were blown away by the acceptance and welcome that the locals showed us from the moment we arrived to the moment we left. Or maybe it was the setting, so different from that of anything I had seen before – stunning coastlines, brilliant blue waves, grass fields stretching for miles dotted with kangaroos and massive crawling gum trees, and, of coarse, vineyard after vineyard- the vines standing like troops in rows, uniformed in thick, heavy green.
We spent our time at Cape Jaffa doing all sorts of jobs around the winery- testing the wines’ acid, sulphur and alcohol levels, transferring the wine from barrel to tank and back again, “training” the vines- tying the baby vines to a wire so that they grew straight and strong- and going on promotional trips. We also had the “pleasure” of labelling bottle after bottle of the wines being shipped to Saskatchewan-over 1500 bottles in all! Over time a number of things became apparent about the way this South Australian winery was run. There was a contagiously relaxed feel at Cape Jaffa. The day was always long enough to fit in the daily tasks plus a good surf, and maybe even an early morning crayfish run.
Kym and Sue Hooper have just passed the winery on to their son and daughter-in-law, Derek and Anna Hooper. Cape Jaffa is in its fourth year toward becoming certified in biodynamics. I had no idea what this meant- previously having heard it described as a new-age way to farm and a superstitious waste of time – and so I was curious as to why the Hoopers had chosen this approach. I soon learnt that, to them, “biodynamic” had simply come to mean a cleaner, healthier way to farm. As Nigel Westblade (winemaker) said to me one day, “Biodynamic is really just one step further than organic”.
I saw how in every way that the Hoopers farmed they tried to create a complete, sustainable living system in and around the vineyard to produce high quality wines. This called for incredible intention on the part of the winemakers, Nigel, Derek and Anna, a focus on detail, and a strong conviction to work with the land, not simply off of it. This turned out to be a meticulous and time-consuming task. But the Hoopers were left with the huge reward of a clear conscience, knowing that their wines were clean wines.
I wasn’t aware that the majority of Australian wineries, large and small alike, manipulate their wines. This means that chemicals, preservatives and sugars are all added to make one vintage taste the same as the next. In the process of winemaking without manipulation, as we saw first-hand, this is practically impossible. Each vintage should taste distinct. That was the beauty of Cape Jaffa Winery. The care and concern that the Hoopers put into the making of their wines was all that was added.
Biodynamics is based on the cycles of the moon. Therefore, if the moon affects the tides, what would it do to the draw of water in other places- like the draw of water in the soil? The more the effects of the moon were observed and understood, the more the benefits become apparent. For example, the Hoopers can know from the position of the moon when the grape flavours are at their fullest and therefore the best time to harvest.
But the moon cycle wasn’t the only aspect to play a role in biodynamic winemaking. There were many. Instead of herbicides, sheep are used. In the summer months sheep are left to graze up and down the rows of vines. In the winter, a slashing machine is used to keep down the weeds.
Instead of pesticides, ducks are used. Luckily, pests (like snails and leafhoppers) are not a large problem at Cape Jaffa but to keep it that way, a flock of hungry ducks are “released” into the vines, a couple of times a year, to do what they do best: waddle and eat. Entering the rows skinny and exiting plump, the ducks do well at keeping pests scarce.
Instead of fertilizer spray, natural products are used. One of the methods is to take a mixture of manure, seaweed, hay and grape skins piled and left for a year, turned every few months, and spread it at the base of the vines. Incredibly rich in minerals, it does an excellent job at rejuvenating and strengthening the vines.
Instead of using high-energy, high-cost heaters and sprinklers to keep frost from damaging the vines, bales of hay are used. The bales are placed at the ends of the rows and are lit when the temperature drops to zero degrees Celsius. The smoke forms a protective blanket over the vines to keep out the frost.
But how does bio-dynamics actually better the crop? The Hoopers have noticed improvement in soil fertility and crop nutrition; better pest, weed and disease management; a great increase in the longevity of the vines (thus less work towards planting and growing new vines); their wines staying drinkable longer; and the undeniably clearer, sharper, more vibrant taste that people consistently comment on in their wines.
In the end, my experience at Cape Jaffa did turn out to be exciting and foreign and yes, I suppose, slightly fairytale. But I don’t think that it is only the memories of the winemaking itself that will stay with me. I am left with an overall feeling of good that comes from the unique honesty, integrity and quality in the wines that were birthed at Cape Jaffa. I can taste the difference in all of their wines, and I’m sure you will be able to as well.