How is climate change affecting Australian vineyards and what are growers doing to respond?
What have been the indicators of climate change in your vineyard?
It’s a really difficult question to answer because [we’ve had] our own vineyard for 16 years, and I’ve been in the industry 30-odd years now and, honestly, am I seeing any significant changes due to climate change? I’d say nothing that stands out because we’ve always had heat spikes and heatwaves coming through. We are seeing back-to-back droughts, so I guess you could say that’s a potential sign [of climate change]. I couldn’t say we’re seeing really clear indicators of climate change, but we have only been on the land for a short time compared with others. It’s like reading one page in a novel and then knowing how the story ends. Now, in saying that, I believe in climate change as there is some strong evidence we are seeing change over a long period, hence why we have employed climate-adaptive strategies in our vineyards. I would rather do what we are doing and end up having no climate change (I think everyone would want this) rather than doing nothing and find out we have a major crisis to deal with and we then need to catch-up. I feel catching up would not be possible!
You grow 15% alternative varieties. Are they more heat-resistant?
Yes and no. We plant them for two reasons: one reason is for the market; we believe that the style of wines these grapes will make will be more suited to the market and, hence, they will be in greater demand and have a greater price. We also planted some of these varieties during the last major drought (we learned a lot during the last drought….there are always positives to find during difficult times), and the aim there was to find varieties that we didn’t have to irrigate as much, so we looked at varieties that are very vigorous, varieties such as Nero d’Avola. [When I worked] at Yalumba I held the role of technical manager of viticulture, and we did trial work on different rootstocks to understand their ability to manage and grow with less water, like Ruggeri and Ramsay. Our aim was to see how much water we could apply below our control of 5Ml/ha and continue to grow a commercial crop. As expected, the less water we applied the less crop we produced, but we were able to halve the water applied and achieve a viable crop. More importantly, the quality of wine produced was significantly better than what was made compared to the control. The big learning for me was, if less water was applied the wine quality increased, less water means less cost, and less water is better for the environment!
Are you facing challenges because of the weather – the heat and the drought conditions?
Water prices have gone up. Realistically, that could be linked to climate change. But at the same time, what’s pushed the price of water up has been more crops being put in up river, like almonds, more table grapes, and citrus – which are big users of water. So, the impact is more demand for water in the rivers that’s put the price of water up.
The upside of the warmer weather is diseases we’re trying to manage through the inland areas can be controlled, can definitely be mitigated by the drier climate, so that’s a bonus of temperatures getting higher. Unfortunately the bonuses of higher temperatures are greatly outweighed by the negatives.
Our simple strategy of managing higher water prices has been to put in varieties that need less water – not just the variety but the rootstock as well. That’s one of the reasons we did put in these alternative varieties and rootstocks. We’re still learning
Do you have any conventional/ traditional varieties that are suffering, or are all of your varieties tracking about the same?
A lot of Muscat varieties really suffer in extreme heat. Gordo and Muscat APG are two varieties that really suffer; they burn very easily.
What else are you doing to combat the challenge of weather/climate change?
We combat through learning. We’re planting a lot of Portuguese varieties and just seeing how they perform. We’re using mulches. For us the key thing is, for every drop of water we put on, how do we get the most out of it?
Also, [we’re] trying to make wines that we can pick earlier. [With] lower alcohol wines, you can pick your fruit earlier. Picking grapes earlier means we don’t have to put as much water on, and we can pick before more hot weather comes through. The bottom line is, I am a believer that we are seeing changes in the climate based on long-term data. I’d rather be making changes [now] that are good for our farm and our business, than not [making changes] and finding out in another 10 years or 20 years we start seeing major impacts and we haven’t done anything. Then we’re chasing our tail. With grapegrowing, you can’t make a change overnight.
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