Viticulture – the science of growing grapes – has seemingly changed little since Biblical times. Vines are the most vigorous of plants so on the surface it might appear to the amateur that some rudimentary pruning and judicious watering, will simply yield dozens of succulent red and green bunches, ripe for the picking.
But Australia is the driest, inhabited continent on earth with the world’s oldest and most ancient geology. Understanding this finite resource that is increasingly influenced by climate change is the generational challenge of the Barossa grape-grower.
It has always been a game of resilience. When these Silesian settlers arrived in the 1840s from the northern hemisphere they were alarmed at the juxtaposition of seasons, at the harsh hot summers and the moderate winters without snow or ice, at the voracious bird life and un-named insect pests. They had to experiment with different crops – even tobacco and flax – before settling on wine grapes and then determine through trial and error the best varieties and clones.
Gradually a type of viticulture emerged in Barossa based on seasonal knowledge and climatic experience, on the understanding of altitude and soil types and wind, and this was handed down from father and mother to son and daughter.
The current generation of Barossa grape-growers are now shifting their focus from ‘what’ they are doing, to ‘how’ and ‘why’ they are doing things, sharing with consumers the most important lesson of all: ensuring generations to come have the same opportunity to benefit from the land that they did.
Resilience now is more about the sustainability of the natural environment and the perpetuation of the landscape than the broadness of one’s back or strength of one’s hands.
There is a focus from the ground up, with soil improvement a critical first step. Every grower knows if they farm a red clay or a brown earth or a yellow calcareous sand and most use mulches and composts under their vines to reduce moisture loss in summer and minimise the need for herbicide weed control.
Non-competitive native grasses once used by the indigenous tribes the Peramangk and Ngadjuri, are now sown down the mid-rows to improve water and nutrient infiltration.
Growers use the latest technology to monitor soil moisture and manage their finite irrigation water resource, with the goal of maximising quality and minimising yield. They are also adapting to global warming by choosing new drought tolerant grape varieties and applying organic sunscreens to prevent leaf damage.
Already growers are trialling artificial intelligence systems in water scheduling and disease control and Wi-Fi connected solar-powered “robots” that prune, spray and pick are expected to take the place of diesel tractors within several decades.
This all adds up to a cleaner and healthier viticultural environment and a sustainable landscape.
But despite all of this technology, an experienced multi-generational human touch is still needed: to smell the soil, inspect the vines, taste the sugary grapes and make that decisive collaborative call with the winemaker, when to harvest…and when to make wine.