Coonawarra vignerons works towards holistic approach in the vineyard

RESILIENT: Healthy vineyard practices being carried out in the South East which mirror a SA viticulture report. Photo: File
RESILIENT: Healthy vineyard practices being carried out in the South East which mirror a SA viticulture report. Photo: File

Resilience in Australia's wine industry should come from more natural practices in the vineyard to maintain soil health and ecosystem diversity, a South Australian report reveals.

It's author, SA viticulturist Richard Leask has explored how 'regenerative agriculture systems' may be incorporated into wine grape production to improve soil health and capacity as well as reduce chemicals.

On a recent research scholarship, supported by Wine Australia, Mr Leask travelled abroad and included a visit to one South Africa vineyard implementing regenerative methods with significant results achieved.

"In 2012 they ceased all cultivation in the vineyard and started to balance their soil nutrition with blended organic compost and multi-species cover-crops," he said.

The scholarship, he said, helped him to identify practices that would be applicable in Australian wine grape production systems.

Similarly, healthy vineyard practices are already being carried out in the South East.

Coonawarra Vignerons Viticulture and Oenology Committee chairperson Hans Loder says resilience for their vines comes from an improved understanding of a number of key factors.

This includes the regional interaction of climate, soil and variety.

"I've been in Coonawarra since 2004 and have seen a constant evolution in the vineyards over that time," he explained.

The changes support Coonawarra Vignerons Association president Pete Balnaves' sentiments that "grapegrowing is a long-term industry and we're always on the journey, never at the destination".

In order to achieve holistic results, Mr Loder says there have been "significant redevelopments" with planting material sourced from a nursery industry which practices world-class nursery standards.

He said new plantings and redevelopments in the region have often used rootstocks.

"Coonawarra has supported ongoing research into the use of rootstocks in terms of a trial site developed with the support of Vine Health Australia, Treasury Wine Estates and Coonawarra Vignerons."

Mr Loder explained how trunk diseases, including the fungus Eutypa lata, have also been researched and are now actively managed to ensure healthy vines for the long-term.

"Variable rate applications of compost and mulch are clearly noticeable as one drives down the Coonawarra strip and is an indication of the accountability and targeted nature in which inputs more broadly are being applied.

"Ecosystem Services are being leveraged by the region with involvement in the EcoVineyards initiative the most current example of this," he added.

Interestingly, details of what to plant and why are the result of at least two phD projects, with one conducted specifically in Coonawarra.

Variable rate applications of compost and mulch are clearly noticeable as one drives down the Coonawarra strip and is an indication of the accountability and targeted nature in which inputs more broadly are being applied.

Coonawarra Vignerons Viticulture and Oenology Committee chairperson Hans Loder

Mr Loder says vignerons' use of cover crops has also evolved and now complement species with regards to vineyard vigour and soil variability.

"Not only are native grasses being increasingly used in vineyards, but benefits are being realised in terms of increases in soil organic matter, and biology etc. which go on to provide improvements in soil structure and chemistry," he said.

Furthermore, canopy management improvements have also meant a reduction in disease prevalence and improved effectiveness of sprays that are applied.

Ongoing research by the industry includes Phd studies making direct links between current and changing management practices and aspects of wine quality.

"Strong results are also due to increasing vineyard biodiversity, including soil biology which is creating a diverse vineyard environment," Mr Loder said.

A view on chemical and synthetic use in the vineyards has also been explored.

"There's been a consistent shift to management which is not as reliant on intensive use of chemistry," he explained.

Vignerons' understanding of methodologies, such as integrated pest management, are also being broadened with an increased understanding of the importance of a natural balance in the vineyard.

In addition, animal introduction to vineyards has been established with "greater use" of sheep roaming during winter to reduce reliance on herbicides.

This, he said, had additional benefits of reducing tractor passes and freeing up labour to focus on alternative tasks (such as EcoVineyards plantings).

Importantly, Coonawarra vignerons are supported by a wide range of industry organisations which include Wine Australia, Vine Health Australia, AWRI, PIRSA and several universities.

Meanwhile, Richard Leask said the implementation of natural agriculture principles into Australian vineyards provides a blueprint for all producers.

Following his extensive overseas visit he recommends the Australian wine industry change to a more "holistic approach" for vineyard management.

This, he says, would allow for greater water capture and retention, challenge the reliance on synthetic chemicals and fertilisers, as well as the increasing role of cultivation in organic vineyard systems, and offer a more environmentally conscious narrative to consumers.

For more details about Coonawarra Vignerons visit www.coonawarra.org.