Hotels & Resorts

Moon Science: How This South Australian Winery Became Carbon Neutral

Biodynamic is the new organic. But what do burying cow horns and grounding quartz crystal have to do with winemaking? We head to McLaren Vale to drink our way to the bottom of the case.

Gemtree Wines, Australian Biodynamic Winery

Courtesy of Tourism Australia

By Jenny Hewett

Apr 15, 2022

I’M STANDING IN a small shed on a vineyard in South Australia’s McLaren Vale, spellbound. But to call it a shed would be somewhat remiss. This is somewhere between a science exhibit and a shrine to witchcraft. There’s a small lunar calendar to one side, a basket of cow horns to another and quartz crystal ground down to a fine dust. Right in front of me is a large circular calendar mapping out each of the four elements: earth, fire, air and water.

“Everything we do is tied to the lunar cycle,” says Tiffany Ferguson, tasting room assistant at Gemtree Wines, a family-owned certified organic and biodynamic winery in one of the oldest Australian wine regions. “We have a lunar calendar here which helps us identify which position the moon is in. What we’re looking for is if the moon is going to be ascending or descending and as it does, it goes past a particular constellation – not your astrological sign, but a constellation – and it’s constellation falls under a particular crop cycle. We use this to predict how we do our farming practices.”

CABNX, Australia
Courtesy of CABNX

Bought and first planted in 1969, Gemtree Wines is run by third-generation viticulturalist Melissa Brown and her husband Mike, the chief winemaker. In 1994, Melissa had just finished a diploma in business when she told her parents that she wanted to work on the vineyard. Her dad said “I’ll give you three weeks”… and the rest is history.

When arising health issues led her down a path to learning more about organic produce, Melissa started to develop a passion for environmental care and sustainability, and in 2011 Gemtree Wines became organic certified. Tiffany says the winery had set the goal to become carbon neutral and they achieved it last year: “We’re custodians of this land. Our goal is to create a really healthy infrastructure and have as little impact on the environment while we’re here.”

Occupying 124 hectares, the vineyard property now includes an Eco Trail, a biodiverse haven for native birds, plants and animals (including a koala shelter and two rescue emus), that can be explored on foot or on e-bike. Back at the winery, the tasting room is built using recycled materials and the winery and vineyard are powered by onsite solar panels and harvested rainwater. They use zero herbicides or pesticides in their farming.

As well as a number of tasting experiences and the ‘Being Biodynamic Tour’ I’m taking part in today, the South Australian winery also offers a ‘Wine and Wander’ experience, which includes a degustation picnic on the Eco Trail with a bottle of wine. And having teamed up with tiny cabin start-up CABNX, you don’t have to stumble too far to get home. Two luxury sustainable CABNX stays sit on the property, each with their own sauna, outdoor bath, plush king bed and indoor fireplace. In the fridge you’ll find sourdough from a local bakery, bacon and a bottle of Gemtree Wines April’s Dance sparkling, made in the champagne method. It’s so crisp, light and refreshing that I order more (alongside five other bottles including a Fiano and Shiraz), to be sent back to my home in Sydney. 

“Being biodynamic is a lot more about what you’re not doing rather than what you are,” Tiffany tells me as we walk past Fernando and Carlos the alpacas, neat latte-hued ‘fros atop their heads. “They act as security to keep the foxes away,” she notes with a smile. 

Courtesy of CABNX (3)

You could say this Australian winery was a century in the making, by way of Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner, who founded biodynamic farming in the 1920s as a holistic and organic approach to cultivation that combines old-world philosophies with modern science. “In the 1920s, Rudolf Steiner would have been dedicating his life to understanding the movements of the moon and how that would impact the growth cycles in the environment,” Tiffany says.

And working with the environment means you have to be in tune with it. So cow horns and quartz crystal translate to winemaking via the two preparations in which biodynamic farming is rooted – they’re known as 500 and 501. “There are probably 60 cow horns here, give or take,” Tiffany says, pointing towards the basket below our feet. The horns, enriched in calcium and porous, are packed with organic cow manure. “We then bury them underneath the earth and they turn into something that’s really quite lovely and earthy, which is our preparation 500.” This preparation leads to improvements in the soil structure.

Gemtree Wines, Australia
Courtesy of CityMag Summer Print

Meanwhile, 501 works on the plants from the outside in to bring in light and encourage photosynthesis. Made from quartz crystals, Horn Silica 501 is ground down to a fine powder and applied in a fine mist onto the vines, upwards at sunrise, when “the earth is breathing out,” as the exhibit reads.

It’s this proactive rather than reactive approach to farming that underpins everything done at the Gemtree Wines vineyard here in McLaren Vale. And the result is some truly exceptional wine, from the ‘bottoms up.’; Being Biodynamic Tour from A$70 per person.; doubles from A$595 per night. 


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