John and Christian Nagorcka – father and son – farm the family’s property, Hochkirch, in the cool zone of Henty in Victoria’s sparsely populated south-west. The 8-hectare vineyard – along with farmland for the traditional grazing of sheep and cattle and growing mixed crops of vegetables and grains, many for their own use – is certified biodynamic (Demeter). Pinot noir is the leading variety, with shiraz increasingly important as the seasons become warmer, while riesling leads the whites, with semillon, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay made in smaller quantities. Increasingly, the wines are bottled with little and often no sulphur, and skin contact is now common for the whites.
When John Nagorcka started farming his family land in south-western Victoria, near to Tarrington, he was the fourth generation to do so. The property consists of just over 280 hectares of land, running sheep and cattle, as well as producing various crops, both commercially and to sustain the family. In 1990, he and his wife, Jennifer, decided to diversify that operation, with the vineyard taking shape over several years to now make up 8 hectares.
The vineyard is mostly densely planted – with up to 6,000 vines per hectare – on a northerly slope at about 250 metres above sea level. From the seven varieties initially planted, pinot noir, shiraz, riesling, chardonnay, semillon and sauvignon blanc have proven to be the most successful and have endured. All vines are on own roots and are not irrigated.
Today, Christian Nagorcka tends to the vines (while also working alongside his father, who makes the wines, on the broader farm property, which is run as a closed, self-sustaining system), with the vineyard constantly tweaked to maximise its potential. “We have 1.2 hectares of old vines, planted in 1990,” he says. “These vines were planted with a high fruiting wire and low density. We are currently in the process of removing these vines and replacing them with high density and a low fruiting wire, which in our climate is a far superior method of vine growing.”
The property is managed according to the Demeter method of biodynamic farming, with everything from wine to wool to cereal crops fully certified. That farming journey began in 1997, turning away from using glyphosate, the only synthetic that had even been used on the land.
That switch to organics was due to an observation of the damage being done to the earth, with lifeless topsoil and rain running off the hardening earth, rather than soaking in, as it used to. However, the approach soon shifted from organics to biodynamics, when Nagorcka’s parents came across the principles in 1999, which showed a proactive path to restoring and enlivening the soil, rather than just excluding synthetics.
“To us, terroir is the expression of life particular to a site. We see it as an orchestra with many instruments – soil, aspect, slope, plants, vines, climate, season, microbial flora, insects, humans, etc. – each of which in the best expression exert subtle influence, but which is easily subverted by thoughtless intervention. We see the biodynamic method as the conductor, allowing all of these influences to come together… to produce a balanced harmony, sometimes sublime, sometimes not, but always balanced.”
“We are always endeavouring to manage our land in the best possible way to ensure that our products are of high quality,” says Nagorcka. “This is achieved through using the biodynamic method of agriculture, which produces healthy, structured, air-containing soil in which massive amounts of atmospheric carbon are fixed as humus and the activity of aerobic microorganisms in soil renders nutrients available for healthy plant growth according to nature’s organisation.”
Aside from the challenges of “trying to manage both the vineyard and the farm as a whole and achieving the best possible outcome in both”, Nagorcka echoes a familiar problem nationwide, listing a trend to drier and warmer seasons as being one of the major challenges they face. “In the last 10 years or so it has been drier than average… Early under-vine cultivation to conserve moisture in the soil is critical to ensure the best possible yield and quality. Our main crop is pinot noir, which suits our cool climate, but we also grow a sizeable portion of syrah that does very well in the warmer, drier years.”
While Nagorcka has only ever farmed according to the biodynamic methods initiated by his parents, he has witnessed an ever-improving balance in the land, vines, fruit and wine. “Our experience is that without a healthy soil, the quality of any product grown on it with be inferior. The conversion from conventional grape growing to certified biodynamics has greatly increased the health of our soil and farm ecosystem and therefore increased the quality of wine produced.”
While many winegrowers employ some biodynamic methods, Nagorcka sees official certification as essential, and it’s not just a matter of transparency. “Certification provides some confidence to the consumer that the methods claimed are the methods used. For the ongoing governance of biodynamics, certification ensures that the methodology and attention to detail required to produce, store and apply the preparations, and the related farming practices to be most successful, are carried out. Certification also supports promotion of the method, which offers an important alternative agricultural paradigm vital to the ongoing viability of life on earth.”
Rather than the familiar reflection on soil type and geology to pin down the terroir of their site, Nagorcka stresses that they feel the farming method is of indivisible importance. “To us, terroir is the expression of life particular to a site. We see it as an orchestra with many instruments – soil, aspect, slope, plants, vines, climate, season, microbial flora, insects, humans, etc. – each of which in the best expression exert subtle influence, but which is easily subverted by thoughtless intervention. We see the biodynamic method as the conductor, allowing all of these influences to come together… to produce a balanced harmony, sometimes sublime, sometimes not, but always balanced.”
Nagorcka cites this balance most clearly reflected in the changes they have seen in the acidity of the wines. “We have consistently seen a more lively ripe acidity, experienced as a wide mouth-filling sensation notably different to conventional wine,” he says. “This imparts a liveliness to wine and is essential to its balance. We also see this balance at lower sugar levels than previously obtained and are now happy to harvest pinot noir at 10.5 Baume, riesling at 11 and chardonnay at 11.5.”