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Tuesday, 16 November 2021

Thinking ahead on climate in North East vineyards

The North East Catchment Management Authority is undertaking a number of case studies, demonstrating how leading farmers from North East Victoria are managing the risks associated with climate change. The Embedding Climate Adaptation in Agriculture project is working with the region’s farmers to determine how the use of climate projections supports their farm management. This project is supported by North East Catchment Management Authority, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.

North East viticulturalist Mark Walpole likes to think ahead – sometimes decades.

As a champion of “new” grape varieties that match long-term changes in climatic conditions at his Whorouly and, more recently, Beechworth vineyards, Mr Walpole says he can see no reason why production of grapes in the Murray Valley “food bowl” couldn’t be moved upstream in future to north east Victoria.

“We might see a fundamental shift of horticulture back towards the Hume Dam and to places like Rutherglen which have the soils,” he said.

“There is no reason why we couldn’t become a horticulture centre and use a greater percentage of the water available in our region.”.

Mr Walpole has spent many years attempting to reconcile those winegrape varieties that make the most of the region’s climatic advantage with the commercial demand for the wines they produce.

His long career at Brown Bros as a viticulturist saw him bitten by the non-mainstream grape variety bug and supported a move to plant touriga nacional, tempranillo and verdelho vines at the Walpole family vineyard at Whorouly in 1988.

“We were probably the first to grow tempranillo in Victoria and it’s really done very, very well so we have expanded those plantings as time has gone by. The grapes used to go to Browns and they made a cellar door only wine for many years that was very successful,” he said.

“As time went by they had to take a more national approach and they planted vines at Banksdale (King Valley) and Heathcote to ensure an increased supply.

“After a while at Whorouly, we thought we’d have to pull our head in a bit and plant something a bit more mainstream, so we planted cabernet, shiraz and chardonnay.

“Ironically the chardonnay is gone, the shiraz is gone and the cabernet is going.”

Why get rid of the more traditional varieties? Mr Walpole said large wine companies that were involved in the north east in the early days had now pulled out and there is realistically little or no demand for cabernet, shiraz and chardonnay from the region when the big companies can buy larger quantities elsewhere.

“As time has gone by, the Alpine Valleys, like King Valley has become far more focused on non-mainstream varieties.

“We went from large blocks of 5, 6 or 10 acres of the mainstream varieties to grafting them over to something like prosecco or pinot grigio on smaller blocks and selling much smaller parcels to many people as opposed to large parcels to one or two buyers.

Mr Walpole bought land at Beechworth in 1995 and planted vines in 1997 and 1998. Initially the grapes were contracted back to Browns and in time formed the beginning of his Fighting Gully brand.

“I have done the same thing at Beechworth as I did at Whorouly with new plantings of varieties to see how they would perform and the knowledge that I have probably got an extra month that I can get grapes ripe,” he said.

Even still, during the past 20 years, the changing climate has brought forward ripening of pinot grapes at Beechworth from March to February. That prompted Mr Walpole to graft his pinot vines over to grenache, aiming to push out the ripening to the middle of March or April.

“Ideally the best vines are made from grapes that ripen towards the end of the season. So having pinot ripen in the middle of February is really very challenging,” he said.

“The heat at the beginning of spring is one of the most critical things related to ripening. A hot October and November tends to bring ripening forward, while if you get a cool October and November it tends to push the ripening out. I expect that will be the case this season based on the accumulation of warmer days over the growing period.”

As well as grape variety selection, Mr Walpole said adapting cultural practices in the vineyard can offset the impact of warmer weather.

“In this area we use grass a lot. If it is a dry season, you knock down the grass early to preserve as much moisture as you can in the soil; during a cooler year you let the grass grow,” he said.

“We try and grow canopies big enough to give us a bit of shading on the western side of the vines.

Another fundamental change Mr Walpole has made has been to rotate his vine rows in new plantings 90 degrees to have them running east-west, rather than north-south.

“North-south rows had been based on vineyards in the northern hemisphere at higher latitudes where they were seeking the morning sun on one side and the afternoon sun on the other,” he said.

“You just don’t need that here. There is ample light and we want to avoid the afternoon sun on grapes.

“We manipulate the crop load to get the best result. We set up canopies fruiting wise so they are hanging out on the eastern side in dappled light rather than on the western side.

“And we do leaf plucking on the morning sun side on north-south rows in both the Whorouly and Beechworth vineyards to get the morning sun.”

Another weapon in his arsenal to keep the vineyards cool has been the use of a kaolitic clay spray on the western side of his vines prior to vintage, aiming to reduce the temperature of both the leaves and the fruit to avoid sunburn.

The natural clay product is mixed with water and sprayed onto the vines, keeping them functional during the hottest periods.

One of the greatest frustrations for north east growers has been the impact of smoke taint on grapes from bushfire years including 2019-20 and fires that have lingered in national parks for weeks on end before they are extinguished by rain or burn themselves out.

Unable to insure against the impact of smoke that can destroy a vintage and potentially a winegrowing business, Mr Walpole said growers continue to push governments to underwrite smoke insurance.

Looking ahead another 20 years, Mr Walpole said he expects winegrape growers in north east Victoria will continue to move towards varieties that will perform well under changed climate conditions.

He gives the example of a shift towards southern Italian varieties that match warmer conditions in regions such as McLaren Vale in South Australia.

“We are already seeing this in the north east with the adoption of varieties like fiano. There is no reason why Rutherglen can’t adopt the Portuguese varieties it has used to make fortified wines and move to dry table wines using touriga nacional or tinto cao. They will make great red wines,” he said.

Mr Walpole said the Alpine and King Valleys would continue to see the evolution of varieties that do well in its milder climate, building on the success of pinot grigio and prosecco.

He is working with two new varieties from Switzerland via Italy – petite arvine and cornalin – that are grown specifically in cooler areas.

“We’re not a cool area but the difference we have over other areas are the mountains behind us; cool air comes off those mountains at night and brings greater humidity,” he said.

“That gives the plant a chance to recuperate from a hot day and go into the next hot day. That humidity is something we will always have.”

Captions and photo credits

Pic 1 – Mark Walpole outside the barrel store at his Beechworth winery. Picture: Georgie James Photography

Pics 2 & 3 – Mark Walpole in his Beechworth vineyard. Pictures: Marcus Best

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