There are certain headlines that every Australian is used to. We’ll wake up to a new Prime Minister or perhaps someone has punched a kangaroo to save their dog. Headlines about water and drought are also distressingly common, but the moment that rain returns, we seem to forget that there was ever a water shortage. Not Brendan and Laura Carter. They’ve been championing appropriate vine selection since day one at their winery, Unico Zelo.
“The irrigation levels of grapes in this country are through the roof,” Brendan starts. “Talking about sustainability is great, but the conversation is focused on carbon. If a winery has net zero emissions, but is using 10 mega-litres of water per hectare to irrigate, can we really call them sustainable?”
It’s a good question. The Millennium Drought of the 2000s was hardly over before the next one began, culminating in the catastrophic 2019/2020 fire season. Water is a precious resource in Australia and we need to ask what role irrigation will have in ongoing sustainability.
The Carters’ response to this dilemma is a simple one – plant different grapes. Their Adelaide Hills winery isn’t home to a slew of shiraz and chardonnay. Instead, here, expect to find fiano and nero d’Avola.
The Carters believe the industry has greatly overestimated how many sites can naturally support wine grapes. They point to the irrigation laws in Europe. It wasn’t until 2007 that irrigation was permitted in AOC and DOCG level wines.
Even now it’s tightly regulated. The logic is simple: if you grow what the land can naturally give you, you’ll have the best reflection of that site.
“Looking at what some vineyards have to do in order to support their crop, it’s clear that they’ve planted the wrong stuff,” says Brendan.
The couple’s devotion to fiano and nero was prompted by a masterclass on Sicilian varieties and an illuminating visit to the Riverland. It was, they remember, in the middle of a heatwave when they visited Ashley Ratcliff’s Ricca Terra vineyards. While they wanted to inspect the fiano, what really impressed them was the nero d’Avola.
“We were blown away,” Brendan remembers. “Here was this unassuming vine which was perfectly at home. It gave all the right numbers despite the heat and was absolutely delicious.”
These grapes come from southern Italy and Sicily, where they have adapted to survive in the extreme heat and drought conditions so common in the Mediterranean. With their water efficiency, it makes sense to plant them in regions of Australia that face similar extremes. It isn’t a blanket solution. Brendan and Laura know that what works for them won’t necessarily work for others. But by using climate as a mitigating factor, they’ve discovered some viticultural bonuses. Several diseases, pests and fungi are climatically linked to degree days (a measure of heating or cooling), humidity and water availability. In general, vines suited to a region’s climate have a natural resistance to local disease pressures. This then positively impacts the wine that are produced.
“We get great metrics for minimal intervention winemaking – slightly lower alcohol levels, higher acid levels, good sugar and pH of 3.0-3.6 without having to adjust a thing.” All this just from planting the right grape in the right place.
They have certainly received the attention of local growers. In the face of rising temperatures and increasing water prices, the Carters are often approached for their expertise and advice on what vines they should graft. “In some cases,” Brendan says, “we just look at a plot and wonder why vines were ever planted.”
Either way, the grower is supported. Unico Zelo is popular with millennial drinkers and demand is increasing every year. The winery’s sister distillery, Applewood, purchases a large portion of native botanicals from local farmers to craft a range of gins and amaro. Laura, who has experience with agriculture and distillation, suggested that they go native. “We’re talking about site suitability,” she says. “What makes more sense than growing Australian plants in Australia?” The hope is that by proving there is a profitable market out there, producers will be encouraged to increase native plantings.
The spirits and wines of Unico Zelo and Applewood capture a certain texture, a certain smell, inviting us think about what it means to make drinks that belong to Australia. The Carters seem to be on the right track. I had a Unico Zelo nero d’Avola recently. Maybe I’m being idealistic, but I swear it tasted like riberry.