9th February 2019
Charles Darwin’s famous quote, “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change,” rings true in today’s world of grape growing.
Strength and intelligence are two traits that while important, do not rate as highly as vision, foresight and willingness to change when Ricca Terra thinks about the management of its vineyards.
The facts suggest that the many grape growing regions of Australia face a future with less water for irrigation and more extreme weather events. It is hard to dismiss the eventuation of such a horizon after the last few months of record-breaking temperatures and a drying Murray-Darling Basin.
My dream nearly fifteen years ago, or should I say nightmare, was that the French grape varieties we inherited in our vineyards would struggle to be viable in the conditions we have recently experienced. That nightmare prompted us to consider grape varieties that would be better suited to warmer and dryer climatic conditions rather than rely on good fortune for the success of our business.
To discover and understand what the best grape varieties to plant, we travelled around Australia and the world looking at vineyards and talking to grape growers and winemakers. We then came home and started the ‘change process’, which was replanting many of our French grape varieties with varieties we believed would adapt to a changing climate.
The intense heatwave we have experienced since Christmas 2018 has carved a clear line in the sand as to what the potential future of the Australia wine industry may look like, especially for regions reliant on irrigation water from the Murray-Darling Basin. There is no question that vineyards in the Riverland and other inland wine growing regions of Australia have shown little impact from the recent searing heat (signs being leaf and fruit burn). How can this be when there have been other regions that have suffered? The secret is more water application leading up to and during the extreme heat. If a grape grower fails to apply more water during a heatwave, the results are scorched leaves, shriveled fruit, crop loss and the potential production of inferior wine.
During the recent heatwave we have asked many questions of ourselves as to what we should be doing. The leading question has been, “is applying more water than normal to a grape variety that has a low value a smart thing to do?” We know many grape growers that have applied massive amounts of water to get through what has been hell on earth. Our decision has been not to waste water on grape varieties that we feel are economically unviable. As a result, we have seen signs of heat stress in some of our French varieties. While this has been personally distressing, the outcomes have somewhat justified our strategy to start changing the grape varieties we grow at Ricca Terra.
So how viable is it to grow a grape variety like Chardonnay in the warm in-land irrigated region? It is not uncommon for grape growers to be applying up to 33 per cent more irrigation water than normal a season to mitigate the impacts of a heatwave. With temporary irrigation water values at $525/Ml (as of 11 February 2019), the use of extra water comes at an expensive cost. Add the other costs linked to growing grapes (pruning, spraying, fertilizer, harvesting and so on), the breakeven point for a grape grower producing Chardonnay in the Riverland is 27t/Ha. Meaning a grower needs to grow 27 tonnes per hectare to recover all his/her costs. According to the Wine Grape Council of South Australia vintage survey, 26.7 tonne per hectare is the average tonnes per hectare for Chardonnay grown in the Riverland. This means most grape growers in the Riverland are growing Chardonnay at a loss!
Has Ricca Terra’s ‘change’ strategy been a success? The answer is yes! Take for example Nero d’Avola. Nero is a very vigorous grape variety. We have grafted it onto Ruggeri rootstock, (also very vigorous). The combination of a vigorous rootstock and grape varieties means one thing – less water is needed to maintain a healthy vine. On average, we have found that the Nero d’Avola/Ruggeri rootstock combination uses 50-60 per cent less water than the French grape varieties planted at our farm.
So, is Nero d’Avola viable to grow in the Riverland? Using the same financial considerations as applied to Chardonnay, the breakeven point for Nero d’Avola in the Riverland is five tonne per hectare. With an average production of Nero d’Avola at Ricca Terra being many times above this breakeven point, growing Nero d’Avola is profitable. Add to this, it’s a variety that is being made into wine that retails for more than $20 per bottle, it has less impact on the environment and it is a variety in high demand.
The above scenario is similar for all the new and interesting grape varieties Ricca Terra dreamed of planting fifteen years ago. Today the grape varieties we grow include; Aglianico, Albariño, Ansonica, Arinto, Barbera, Durif, Fiano, Greco, Grenache Blanc, Lagrein, Lambrusco Maestri, Montepulciano, Negroamaro, Nero d’Avola, Nero di Troya, Parraleta, Slankamenka Bela, Tempranillo, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Câo, Touriga Nacional and Vermentino.
If grape varieties such as Nero d’Avola appears to be so beneficial for profit, wine quality and the environment, it would be assumed there would be a ground swell of these grape varieties being planted, especially in the inland irrigated regions of Australia. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, this is not happening. Instead grape growers continue to farm and plant their traditional French grape varieties.
There is an element of frustration towards the lack of willingness of many players in the wine community to acknowledge that many of the grape varieties I have listed above are the essential missing pieces of the puzzle that will help contribute more interesting a profitable wine sector. More importantly, these grape varieties (plus the use of drought tolerant rootstocks) is one of many ways to help preserve the Murray-Darling Basin.
Another reason for me writing this article, is to say thank you. You have, over time, supported Ricca Terra. You are one of many. Our dreams mean nothing if no one knows about them, and hence we thank all those wine writers who have helped tell our story. Our grapes are just a commodity if our winemaking customers did not appreciate our efforts and reward us accordingly. The wine we make would not exist if our customers did not believe that they tasted great and were good value for money.
What I ask of you is this, keep supporting Ricca Terra and all the other wine businesses that are growing and making wine from grape varieties that are so important to the future of Australia. We all need to be willing to change, otherwise survival will become increasingly difficult.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me on 041 1370 057.