Sustainable vineyards

Viticulture’s green culture

To survive, the Australian wine industry needs to lift its environmental game. Find out what’s being done to make grape-growing more sustainable.












Published Selector Spring 2011

As Australian wine consumers, how do we choose our wine? There are the obvious choices of variety and region, but when it comes to producer, how much do their environmental practices influence our decisions? According to Sustaining Success, the Australian Wine Industry’s Environment Strategy, released in 2002, the answer is, significantly.

As Barbara Hardy AO wrote in the Patron’s Forward: “Customers of today expect not only excellence in flavour and presentation, plus good value for money, but also excellence in the industry’s association with the natural environment.”

While satisfying the consumer is an obvious motivation for improving eco-responsibility, the industry also recognises that it’s crucial to longevity. So what are Australian winemakers doing in the vineyard to reduce their impact?

Viticulturists Australia-wide are making changes for the environmental better, but one of the areas of greenest concentration is McLaren Vale. In 2007, this tight-knit region launched the Soil and Pest and Disease Codes of Conduct and earlier this year they implemented the Generational Farming Program. This voluntary scheme aims to “produce high quality grapes to produce great wines, to reduce inputs (water use, herbicides, pesticides, etc.) to conserve water and energy, to foster biodiversity and to develop the relationship with growers, employees and community.”

Build it and they will come

One McLaren Vale participant reaping the rewards of biodiversity is Gemtree Vineyards where a rising crescendo of croaks has been welcomed with excitement.

With the help of Greening Australia, Gemtree has established 10 hectares of wetlands adjacent to and between their vineyards. As General Manager Andrew Buttery explains, “We built six interlinking dams, have now planted 45,000 trees and over time, frogs have turned up and are growing in numbers. It’s a bit like, if you build it they will come!”

Four species of frog have been identified on the site and their willingness to reproduce in the wetlands is a solid indicator that the waterways are healthy and chemical free.

This frog-friendly environment has been made possible thanks to Gemtree’s commitment to, in Andrew’s words, “improving the land and leaving it in better condition than we found it.”

In the vineyards, viticulturist Melissa Brown has reduced irrigation by applying organic and straw mulches. Spraying for pests has been minimised and disease is controlled through canopy management and encouraging airflow and sunlight exposure, while a flock of 140 Witipole sheep help keep the grass down.

While moral considerations were Gemtree’s primary motivation for taking a sustainable approach, Andrew says that the state of what ends up in the bottle was also important. “Once Mike (Brown, winemaker) tasted some biodynamic wines he very quickly formed the opinion that we could get some improvement in wine quality by going down this path.”

Initially concentrating on reds, they isolated vineyards for biodynamic trials. Then with the confidence of success, they made the switch with their whites and, Andrew says, they’ve had “excellent results thus far and minimal disease problems.”

“Growing wine with animal and human inputs allows us to produce a true expression of our uniqueness of site.”

While Gemtree is using biodynamics, they’ve chosen to go down the path of organic certification. As Andrew explains, “We chose organic certification as it is better understood by consumers in the majority of markets around the world. We have a long way to go to educate consumers about biodynamics.”

This concern is far from the mind of Rod Windrim whose Hunter Valley vineyard, Krinklewood, is fully certified biodynamic. Rod, whose passion is certainly contagious, says, “I love how the understanding of biodynamics opened my mind to all the things that holistically influence Krinklewood and its viticultural and personal outcomes. Growing wine with animal and human inputs allows us to produce a true expression of our uniqueness of site.”

Rod also embraces the challenge of education. Every year Krinklewood hosts a one-day biodynamic workshop where participants can learn all about this alternative approach. At this year’s workshop, which included vignerons, farmers and home gardeners, there was a healthy sprinkling of skepticism and, given some of the curious processes involved, it’s little wonder.

A dynamic approach

Introduced by Austrian Rudolf Steiner in 1924, biodynamics treats the farm as an individual, self-contained entity. Rather than focus on individual plants, Steiner’s ethos teaches that good health requires that the entire eco-system in which the plant exists be thriving. This includes the other plants, the soil, the animals and even the humans who are working the land.

Steiner claimed that for this environment to truly blossom, a series of field and compost preparations needs to be added. For example, to make ‘preparation 500’ cow horns are filled with cow manure, buried over winter, then dug up, mixed with water and sprayed on the vines. Decisions such as when to spray, weed and pick are made according to phases of the moon and stars.

At face value, this might seem tough to swallow, but the proof is in the tasting and Krinklewood wines are testament to the success of biodynamics. Last year alone, they won medals at prestigious events such as the International Wine Challenge and enjoy listings at high-end restaurants in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

But if there was ever a question about the effectiveness of biodynamics, Henschke, makers of the iconic Hill of Grace, are well-placed to put paid to the naysayers.

While fifth generation Henschke, Stephen, is winemaker, it’s his wife Prue who keeps the vineyards thriving. Winner of 2011’s InStyle and Audi Women of Style Award in the Environment category, Prue is lauded for her 20-year dedication to improving the sustainability of Henschke’s vineyards.

We all know that great wine starts in the vineyard, but great vines start in the soil. “Since white settlement, organic matter in the soil has been reduced by well over 50% because of cultivation and the reliance on synthetic fertilisers,” explains Prue. “The soil biota that are responsible for developing soil structure, organic matter and moisture-holding capacity are unable to survive.”

To help reverse this damage, Prue explains, she stopped annual cultivation, set up early maturing permanent native grass swards in the vineyards and used straw mulch undervine.

These changes led her to explore the principles of biodynamic and organic viticulture. Like Rod, what appeals to Prue about biodynamics is its holistic nature – “a cycle of transforming nutrients from one form to another using various sources of natural energy”. Prue also supports the biodynamic philosophy that its principles are there to help everyone care for the earth and therefore to certify would “set up an ‘us and them’ mentality.” So, like Gemtree, Henschke is undergoing organic certification.

Prue explains that organic management is more about disease management with naturally occurring substances. For instance, she has identified a list of local plant species to provide both nectar and pollen as food sources for beneficial insects to control vine pests, and is planting them in and around their vineyards.

 Sustainability for all

Of course, sustainability in the vineyard doesn’t necessarily mean cutting out all chemicals and not all wine producers are going to subscribe to organic viticulture or to the beliefs of biodynamics.

To help producers become more accountable for their environmental impact without forcing them down the road of either organic or biodynamic certification, the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia has set up Entwine.

This ‘voluntary national environment assurance scheme’ requires its members to report on their ‘carbon footprint’ and certain indicators such as the amount of electricity and water used. In return they receive a number of benefits including official recognition that they can use to their marketing advantage.

While Prue feels the industry deserves praise for the efforts to promote greater awareness amongst producers, she says, “There are always the stragglers who don’t see it as important to care for their environment to the extent that would make a difference.”

At the end of the day, the level of responsibility wine producers take for the environment will be driven, for many, by consumer pressure. While Barbara Hardy’s words ring true for some, significant change won’t occur until they’re demanded by all.

Reproduced with the kind permission of Wine Selectors.

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