The days that lead up to and follow Australia Day have always been something of a climatic yardstick for grapegrowers and winemakers in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley: a cooler growing season and harvest would generally kick off a few days after Australia Day; an abnormally hot one and picking teams could be gearing up to get to work – at least for white grapes – up to a week before. In 2019, it was the latter.
“Some varieties, like shiraz, we were picking on 26 January in 2018 – previously we’d be harvesting that in early to mid-February,” says fifth-generation winemaker Alisdair Tulloch, of Keith Tulloch Wines. “The old norm used to be that picking would start on or around Australia Day. Now, to actually start picking after Australia Day is pretty much unheard of.”
In 2020, some Hunter producers started harvesting earlier ripening varieties, such as chardonnay and pinot noir, on 2 January. Thankfully earlier picking dates haven’t affected the quality of the Hunter’s wines – they are arguably better than ever, a result of masterful adaptation to the environment and a talented, knowledgeable wine industry working with what they have – but it’s not just a dramatic shift in harvest dates they’re experiencing, either.
“The dormancy of the vines is getting shorter on both sides,” explains Tulloch. “They’re falling into dormancy later in the year and coming out of it towards the end of winter; we used to see that happen in early spring.”
Budburst, the phenomenon that kick-starts vegetative growth and the growing season, typically dictates when the fruit is harvested (weather variations permitting). With this in mind, Tulloch raises a reasonable concern.
“When I’m looking at some of the vineyards that we work with, whether they were established in 1968 or 1923, I assume the life span of a vineyard we’re establishing now may be the same. Grape vines have incredible life spans – often longer than people, if they’re looked after – so where will the climate be for that plant when it’s at its full maturity? That’s a question a lot of Australian agriculturists – not just grape growers – are asking.”
The issue isn’t unique to the Hunter Valley but as one of our warmest wine regions, it is certainly experiencing the more obvious effects of climate change. The noise around our shifting climate is louder than ever, and while calls to action imply urgency, it’s easy to ignore the threat if it doesn't involve us directly.
We’re lucky to have our gifted wine industry – an industry often regarded as the canary in the coal mine, as far as climate change is concerned – being more innovative than ever to ensure a healthy future with plenty of sustainably produced, world-class wine.
For Keith Tulloch Wines, as well as Orange’s Ross Hill Wines and South Australia’s Temple Bruer, tackling their carbon footprint – perhaps the most immediate form of response to climate change – was a no-brainer.
Keith Tulloch achieved carbon neutrality in mid 2019 under the Australian Government’s NCOS certification, as did Ross Hill Wines in 2016, making them Australia’s first carbon neutral-certified winery. Temple Bruer aims to have achieved complete carbon neutrality – as in, ceasing offset purchases – this year.
“We did it purely because we didn't want to produce any carbon,” says James Robson of Ross Hill Wines. “We’ve got to stop this uncontrolled use of fossil fuels. Renewable energy and solar for a winery is absolutely perfect to do that – considering that, apart from during vintage, wineries are empty once the sun goes down.”
There’s also an element of cost saving, which has proven to be a bonus, and could only be seen as a blessing in the complicated and overhead-heavy world of winery financials. Ross Hill produces around 25,000 cases of wine annually and exports to four countries.
“Everything is audited by the Department of Environment. We’ve now become so energy efficient that the carbon credits we paid in 2018 came to $1,600,” says Robson. “Our energy bills used to total $70,000 per year, they’re now around $20,000 per year.”
Temple Bruer started looking at its carbon emissions in the mid-2000s.
“As a result we installed 40 kilowatts of solar panels and all vehicles purchased under the company must meet EU emission standards,” explains winemaker Kate Wall. “We also plant trees (to sequester carbon); all lights are LED and we only use 100%-recycled cardboard for packaging.”
But the biggest (and ‘dirtiest’) CO2 emissions in Temple Bruer’s production, Wall admits, come from glass.
“An average bottle weighs around 500 grams,” she explains. “Our lightweight glass weighs between 360 and 380 grams – a saving in both glass and energy.”
Up to 40% of each bottle comprises recycled glass, which in turn reduces the energy cost for new glass as well as reduced transport and packaging costs.
“The more we recycle glass, the better it is for glassmakers,” enthuses Wall. “And glass can indefinitely be recycled.”
Across the ditch, a carbon audit of Central Otago’s Felton Road winery reported that over 50% of the carbon cost of producing a bottle of wine and getting it to a dinner table in London was in the glass bottle itself.
“If you’re going to talk about sustainability, reducing glass bottle weight is just as critically important as organics and biodynamics,” says Felton Road winemaker Blair Walter.
The Felton Road bottles weigh in at 417 grams. “They’re the lightest punted Burgundy bottle you can get,” he continues. “They do the job adequately, it just reduces energy through both the production and recycling processes.”
For Walter and the team at Felton Road, a focus on environmental sustainability was not just a way of looking after the land, or keeping their carbon footprint in check; it also laid a path to an efficiency sweet spot.
“We were farming as intensively as we could when the Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand program (SWNZ) launched in the mid ’90s,” says Walter.
“The score card showed a bell-shaped curve; poor performers were at the bottom and the absolute best – the ones using sustainable practices, cover crops and compost, eliminating pesticides – were on top. We found we were in the top one or two per cent, we just needed to eliminate the herbicide we used to control weeds, so we started ploughing under the vine, did a bit of hand weeding, managing everything organically.”
Organic conversion began in 2002; biodynamics the following year, and since 2006, Felton Road has operated at the same production level – around 12,000 cases per year, a figure Walter and the team calculated struck the balance between workload, profit and environmental sustainability.
“We’re not growing,” he explains, “and while we’ve been able to open some newer markets with small allocations, we’ve never actively searched for them. We take it as a real privilege, and even though it’s a bit more work and less profitable, we really believe in the long-term positioning of our wine and sustainability for the business.”
Indeed, aside from some of the higher volume producers, New Zealand has long been known for its green approach to viticulture and wine production; around 10% of the country’s wineries are certified organic, and organic and biodynamic practices form part of the day-to-day operations for many of the country’s top producers.
Marlborough’s Fromm Winery, established in 1992 by Georg Fromm and winemaker Hätsch Kalberer, was one of the region’s organic pioneers. At its most basic level, organics refers to a lack of pesticide and herbicide applications but producers like Fromm embrace a wide range of practices designed to maximise soil and vine health and cancel out the need for chemicals.
The team plants buckwheat and phacelia in every 10th row – their bright colours attract parasitoid wasps, which prey on destructive apple moth larvae and mealy bugs. All grape marc is composted along with wood chipped olive tree cuttings, straw, grass and nettle, and spread underneath the vines at the end of winter.
And minimal irrigation has multiple benefits, according to viticulturist Mark Krasnow: carefully managed water use inhibits weed and canopy growth, results in dense flavours, high quality fruit, and leaves more water in rivers and aquifers for the aquatic ecosystem. “Wins all around,” says Krasnow.
The absence of synthetic chemicals isn’t just beneficial to the vineyard, either.
“They can have long-term persistence in the environment, and as a consequence, largely alter the ecology of our water, soils and the health of our workers,” says Kate Wall on the main reasoning behind Temple Bruer’s decision to convert to organics.
Conversion also requires a strong mindset and lots of patience. Letting vines and land go cold turkey can initially promote disease and new weed pressures, resulting in reduced yields.
“This can make you question if you’ve made the right decision,” says Wall. “But rest assured, persistence pays off as nature and vineyard find their balance.”
Speaking of nature, in 2019, Alisdair Tulloch started planting native trees in the riparian areas of the Keith Tulloch vineyard with the aim of reintroducing natural flora and fauna, stabilising the health of the creek system, and assisting with carbon sequestration.
He planted over 300 trees on the property in order to promote certain species of beneficial insects, including predatory assassin bugs and parasitoid wasps – in turn reducing and eliminating the need for pesticides.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that none of this is an end point.
“The current picture does not necessarily speak long term,” says Cloudburst’s Will Berliner, whose Margaret River vineyard has never seen a synthetic chemical. “Anyone who is making an effort to use less chemicals and intervene less is making a move towards sustainability, but that’s a starting point only.”
As long as awareness is being raised and people are being educated, it seems the job is being done.
“Years ago [celebrated US environmentalist] Paul Hawken had this garden lifestyle company, Smith and Hawken,” continues Berliner.
“I was with him once and he said, ‘I’ve won all these awards for being the greenest company in America, but if you took one of our T-shirts and stuck it in your compost pile, it’ll stay like that for hundreds of years. It’s not going to break down – even though it’s organic. And the organic dyes aren’t going to fade away. Even though we’re the greenest we’re still causing waste that’s not going to be taking care of itself.’
“The point was, even the greenest can’t do enough; at least he had the attitude and the recognition that there’s more to do. There is more to do,” Berliner says, resolutely. “So let’s do more.”
Organic & Biodynamic
Organic viticulture adheres to a set of rules allowing only approved sprays to discourage weeds and pests. Biodynamic practices follow similar principles with a focus on maximising soil and vine health, and in some cases, following the phases of the moon. Organic winemaking permits limited additions and minimal sulphur. While a producer may claim to manage its vines organically or biodynamically, true organics and biodynamics must be certified by an internationally accredited certifying agency.
There’s a strong movement across Australian and New Zealand vineyards towards promoting and stabilising biodiversity. Whether it be planting native trees to encourage native wildlife or practicing soil regeneration methods such as cover cropping in mid rows and composting underneath, the beneficial flow-on effects in turn assist with the overall health and sustainability of the vineyard.
Wineries looking to go carbon neutral have their carbon footprint assessed by a certifier before reducing it with methods like solar power, electric vehicles , LED lighting and recycled packaging.