Taking the water out of wine

InDaily - Phillip White

The irrigated inland wine business: financial ruin, organics or nuts? Philip White examines two huge developments in Murray-Darling grapegrowing.

Big Riverland vineyards.

Last week, GoFarm Australia, a Melbourne-based investment group, bought the Belvino Investments’ 900ha Del Rios vineyard near Swan Hill for somewhere around $22-$25 million.

The vendor, bankrolled largely by Hong Kong’s CK Life Sciences International, retains 463ha of vineyard at Balranald. Many expect this to be offered for sale soon.

Planted by Bruce Chalmers in the mad vineyard expansion of the late ’90s, and leased for years to the troubled McGuigan Wines, the Del Rios vineyard is one of Australia’s biggest. It joins GoFarm’s 4200ha of purchases in the same Sunraysia region last year.

Before you begin exhaling some relieved hope for the future of the beleaguered Murray-Darling wine business, have another coffee. While CK ironically withdraws to concentrate on its Cheetham Salt business, also one of the country’s largest, it seems GoFarm is more interested in the Del Rios’ water allocation: 5476 megalitres.

GoFarm’s chairman, Robert Costa, is a fruit’n’nuts man. They’re talking about using that precious water, and that land, to grow almonds.

In last year’s report on the state of the viticulture business, Production Profitablity Analysis, the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia (WFA) found that grape-growers in the Swan Hill Sunraysia region are enduring as tough a time as the rest of the vast Basin: 88 per cent of the grapes grown there for sale to wineries are sold at a loss, at an average of 19.4 tonnes per hectare (about 8 tonnes per acre).

Grapes and almonds tend to shadow-box each other. Respected viticulturer and biodynamics pioneer David Paxton, for example, began life growing almonds in the Murray-Darling and McLaren Vale. The latter region managed to replace most of its almonds with inappropriate grape varieties – like Chardonnay – in the same boom that saw Del Rios planted. Within a decade, international almond prices were soaring as wine prices plummeted.

Follow the Murray across the border to South Australia’s Riverland, where the same WFA report found grape-growers enduring a 92 per cent loss at and average 20 t/ha: here we see somebody have a brilliant and brave, if belated, idea.

They’re mentioning the O word.

Chris Byrne, executive officer of Riverland Wine, last week told a big gathering of locals “because of our very low rate of pest and disease the Riverland could well and truly lay claim to becoming the organic vineyard of the world …

“The emerging populations who are going to be drinking our wines in the future, and particularly in the Asian countries but increasingly also in the European and US markets, are looking for wines grown with less chemical input.”

Organic? Riverland? I never believed I’d ever hear such utterance. For years big Riverland farmers have enjoyed ridiculing organic farmers as dukkah producers and fish-slapping hippies. The notion of big-scale organic farming has always seemed an impossibility to most of them, and their troubled upstream neighbours.

At which point I expect great irritation that I overlook Accolade Wines’ Banrock Station, the old BRL-Hardy enterprise utterly dependent upon big irrigation, but long marketed as an environmental triumph, regardless of the forgettable nature of most of the wine produced there. Which is why I’ve mentioned tonnages in the figure above. It’s not at all scientific, but internationally, within reason, the rule of thumb is that lower yields per hectare produce better flavours than big tonnages: put water on your vines; get water in your wines.

Speaking very generally, premium, profitable wines begin to appear below 5 tonnes per acre (about 12-13 t/ha).

I hear from bemused and enlightened locals that even Banrock’s playing with reducing its irrigation in selected parts of that huge grapeyard, as much as to make better wine as to use less water.

Mr Byrne has an unenviable job; all strength to him. He went on to explain it can take up to a decade for the conversion to properly kick in: it may take that long for the vines to learn to live without the prophylactic mechanism offered by the old high-irrigation industrial regime of petrochem fungicide, herbicide, fertiliser and whatnot. But eventually the advantages of organic management begin to properly kick in and the vines find their own natural balance in their environment. They grow tougher.

Eventually, it’s cheaper, and surprise, surprise, the wine is better, healthier, more wholesome and environmentally-responsible. Workers no longer have to wear masks and gloves to handle the poisons the old regime mindlessly demands.

“Once you get into the five to 10-year time frame,” Byrne explained, “there is a diminishing cost in terms of those inputs as the more natural growing methods take over. There are longer-term benefits … overall the soils and vines become more sustainable.

“As the world population grows and as their water resource diminishes, we just have to become far more aware of how we optimise the work that we do in the vineyard,” he said. “Investing in these methods of growing has some fairly significant paybacks.”

Somewhere between these extremes – replacing vines with nuts vs growing grapes at a profit with a new enlightenment and pride – lies a glimmer of hope for winemaking in that vast, troubled, terribly mismanaged Basin.

It will be interesting to see what happens to the next big Murray-Darling vineyard to go: the 902ha Dunvar vineyard near Griffith has been on the market for months. Will it sell for its water, the quality and worth of its industrial-grade fruit, its potential as a huge organic or biodynamic wine producer or its capacity to grow nuts?

Perhaps the time for the ridicule of dukkah-makers is past. You can make helluva lot of dukkah from 900ha of nuts.