Resilient Wineries

In an era of climate change, wine making and viticulture is giving us examples of tolerance, adaptation, and resilience. This article looks at how some contemporary wineries are adapting to climate change, how they are tackling the challenges to their business and the regional livelihoods that they support.

Viticulture and wine making has weathered the ages; the oldest winery discovered to date is 6,000 years old in Armenia, and the history of humans and wine stretches back further to 7,000 BC China; but never in the last 10,000 years has there been such a dramatic change in carbon concentrations in the atmosphere and average temperature deviations.

Figure 1: US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration

There is a clear link between carbon emissions and climate change. If you are aged between 30 – 35 years old, you have never experienced a below average temperature year; a changing climate is your normal. However, ask your grandmother about her normal, when there were predictable seasons, when they knew how much rain there would be in what month, and they could almost tell the day of the year by the bud burst. How times have changed.   We are currently experiencing the “Big Dry” in NSW; farmers are watching the forecasts and seeing rain forecasted a few days out literally disappear. Crop yield forecasts are already down 40% and it is difficult to predict what the next few months weather will hold. There is no doubt in farmers minds that the climate is changing. The new normal, is that there is no normal. This is presenting particular challenges for our farmers, and our countries winemakers as they strive to produce our favourite tipples.

So there is unpredictable weather and it is likely linked to climate change, so how can we adapt our food systems to be able to continue to deliver quality produce? There is emerging practice from Australia’s winemakers that may offer us an insight into broader farming practices for the future.

Wine making is big business in Australia. Australia’s wine regions contribute more than $40bn to the Australian economy and support approximately 170,000 jobs. We send our wine around the world with the largest markets being the US, China and the UK and also noting that the economic forecast for the wine industry is good. So how we will continue to meet the expectations of the market in the face of climate change?

Figure 2: Some Australian Science showing forecast temperature changes in NSW, NarCLIM data spanning 14 NSW wine regions (courtesy of NSW Government, Office of Environment & Heritage).

The wine industry is giving us examples of how to manage the increasing impacts of climate change. The wine industry is adapting, from the largest producers to the smallest; they have to maintain business – the alternative is to just stop producing. This is an interesting choice that agriculturists face. Wine is a luxury product, and yes grapevines are sensitive to climate, but so are the other plants that we rely on for food.

The larger wine producers are using climate change projections to identify land in other regions and even countries that will be viable for their production in a climate changed future. In this way land in New Zealand, Tasmania and even the Kent Downs in the UK, is being purchased by global producers to ensure vineyards for the future. The smaller producers however do not have that choice and are changing practices to work with what they have.

James Sweetapple from Cargo Wines in Orange is onto it, “In the last 12 months, sitting here in Orange we had the wettest winter in history. We then went through the hottest summer in history and we have now gone through the hottest, driest winter. Three incredibly significant climate results in 12 months and that should be ringing alarm bells. I’m doing everything in my little square, but if the rest of the world doesn’t start making change, their inaction is going to affect me. All farmers need to take responsibility. We need other long-term family farmers to start thinking and stop doing what they’ve always been doing. It’s going to be a paradigm shift in the way we think.” James has been applying holistic management techniques at Cargo Road including focused grazing on small portions of land for limited periods of time, which manages and improves soil health. James is also reducing fuel use to reduce carbon and reduced spraying of weeds to minimise chemical use.

There is also another movement developing in the small wineries of Australia. Ross Hill Wines is Australia’s first and only carbon neutral winery. James Robson and his family built the winery at Ross Hill in 2008, and by 2016, the business and the product is certified as carbon neutral. Their driving philosophy has been that as a family they will not produce any carbon through their business activity; they don’t want to be responsible for climate change. The family have worked carefully through their processes to cut carbon emissions out and have even chosen to offset their residual carbon emissions. They have managed to deliver a product to market that allows wine drinkers to share their philosophy, and there is a demand. Ross Hill Wines have been selected by companies with a carbon reduction policy, including QANTAS, law firms and others with similar carbon reduction goals.

Justin Jarrett’s (See Saw Wines) journey started in the early 80’s when he was influenced by Richard Morton, an Environmentalist teaching systems agriculture and holistic thinking at St Joseph’s college. Justin’s thinking is that wine is a luxury item, grown on productive land in limited supply, and therefore wine production needs to earn its place in a world straining to supply essential food items. In this way Justin runs See Saw Wines as a business improving the land, developing sustainable practices and providing an example of how productive land can be by applying holistic thinking.

With regards to climate change, James Sweetapple recognises the benefit that Orange offers in terms of elevation. As the climate changes James intends to use the temperature differential between his vineyards at 600 metres above sea level and 1,000 metres above sea level to find the best place for his vines, “In 20 years time I will plant my Sauvignon Blanc further up the hill to try and produce the same style.”

At Mountain Ridge Wines in the Shoalhaven, they have learnt the hard way. Netting the vines to protect a ripening crop from birds is usually a consistently set date in late February. Due to a hotter and longer ripening season, the grapes ripened early and Mountain ridge lost part of its crop to flocks of lorikeets, that devoured an acre of grapes in less than 8 hours. The team mobilised to save the rest, and worked frantically to chase the birds away with the vineyard kelpie. The cost of this was more than $20,000 in lost product and a tough lesson learned. Generally the harvest of grapes in Australia has come forward by one day each year in the last 30 years but now we are harvesting a month earlier which is very real evidence of a changing climate.

Climate change and the state of the environment is at a critical point with broad ranging impacts on our societies and the natural systems that support them, but there is a growing movement of ecologically sustainable practices across industries. Wine makers in particular are adapting to climate change and demonstrating a new way by continually evolving their thinking and practice, and hopefully the industry will weather the immediate term and enjoy another 7,000+ years of great wine making to come.

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