If you think you’ve been hearing the term “regenerative viticulture” a lot more over the past few years, you’re not wrong. In January 2022 I toured wineries on the Mornington Peninsula to learn more about these techniques.
Regenerative viticulture is essentially about “giving back more to the land than what you take out”, says Polperro winemaker Sam Coverdale. This idea has shifted overwhelmingly from the long-held stance where, according to 100 Hunts Road Vineyard viticulturist Joe Vaughan, a farm was a “war zone”, with the objective of “going out to kill stuff”. “Now, instead of trying to kill life, we’ll try to promote it.”
Crittenden Estate started on the regenerative viticulture path around 15 years ago. With vines on the estate reaching an age where they should have been producing high-quality fruit, there was a lack of balance at harvest, acid levels were dropping off and the grapes needed high sugar levels just to ensure adequate flavour ripeness. Winemakers Garry Crittenden and son Rollo came to understand that traditional, chemical-dependent viticulture was not beneficial to the soil. Something had to change, but where to start?
While there are no set rules in Australia, regenerative viticulture aims to improve the health of the farm’s entire ecosystem and rely far less on chemicals.
The most common technique I saw was the use of cover crops in the rows between the vine trellises. Imogen Dillon, winemaker at Ten Minutes by Tractor, explained how their cover crops contain a variety of species, such as vetch, clover, peas, barley, and rye, with a plan to increase that to as many as 12 nitrogen-fixing crops. The benefits, according to Wine Australia, are to protect the soil, prevent erosion, suppress weeds, provide nutrition, and retain moisture in the soil.
Lucas Blanck, viticulturist at Kerri Greens and Quealy, also uses cover crops at these vineyards. The plan now is to employ a greater mix of plants and extend the crops to under the vines, using species that don’t compete with the vines. He is also aiming to reduce the use of tractors and other diesel-reliant machinery, while at the Quealy winery, the team uses a worm farm to treat waste water, organic waste, and sewage.
Cover crops are typically alternated each year, with sowing in one row and leaving the other, and then switching over the next year. Rather than tilling the soil (as is the case with organics) or mowing the crop, some producers opt to use a roller to flatten it and allow the plants to go to seed, resulting in a greater diversity of grasses, and beneficial plants and insects.
Another widespread approach is composting, with many wineries producing tonnes of one of the three main constituents of compost – grape marc – after each vintage. Combined with horse manure and lignified wood such as straw, the compost has multiple benefits: it recycles valuable organic material that would normally go to waste; it adds nutrients to the soil; and it allows beneficial bacteria and fungi to thrive.
What many producers have found is that after several years of employing regenerative viticulture, the vines have become much healthier and more robust, so their use of chemicals has dropped significantly. All acknowledge that moving towards regenerative viticulture can result in higher labour costs and more reliance on expensive equipment, particularly if you decide to enact other changes such as water and waste treatment, with equipment costs often running into five or six figures.
However, as Rollo Crittenden notes, “When you use all these synthetic chemicals, it’s a race to the bottom.” Focusing instead on the health of the soil and its flow-on effects to the vines and grapes has other benefits. One of them, he says, is the dramatic increase in grape quality, so much so that Crittenden Estate decided to release a super-premium range, Cri de Coeur.
Wineries have been supported in their efforts by such places as Sustainable Winegrowing Australia, with grants to help transition to regenerative viticulture.
Science is also progressing, with tools available to accurately measure factors such as carbon capture in the soil. “The real test is how we can do these things on a much larger scale and make it pay,” says Ten Minutes by Tractor’s Martin Spedding. With more vineyards moving towards regenerative viticulture, that goal will become increasingly easier to achieve.