WWC22 – Marvena Manners

WWC22 Manners - sheep in the vineyard

Marvena Manners' WWC22 competition entry focuses on the regeneration of an entire region – McLaren Vale, in South Australia. For more great wine writing, see our WWC22 guide.

Marvena Manners writes that the last thing she expected when reporting on a climate change event was to leave with a spring in her step. But that’s what happened when she heard testimonials from vignerons, farmers, innovators and scientists on regenerative agriculture within the McLaren Vale GI. The message was: land custodians could not only slow climate change, but reverse it. For a journalist who’d reported on the wine region for two decades, this was a profound message and the catalyst for a soon-to-be-published-magazine by Fruitful Marketing.

Soil and Soul

The story behind McLaren Vale’s regenerative journey

The McLaren Vale wine region is bordered by the Mount Lofty Ranges and Gulf St Vincent, with South Australia’s second largest river meandering east to west. There are a series of wetlands and aquifers, and a diverse, ancient geology.

Add warm dry summers and cool wet winters, breezes from the ocean and hills, a green belt of protected parks, and you have bountiful natural assets to nurture premium viticulture.

Yet, in the early 2000s, agrichemicals and rising temperatures threatened the long-term future of the wine industry; the region’s largest economic driver. 

For a community that cares deeply for the health of its people, patch and planet, radical changes were needed, pivoting the region towards regenerative practices — from soil rehabilitation to water security; biodiversity to social prosperity.

And within two decades McLaren Vale became an epicentre of regenerative agriculture and a national leader in sustainable winegrowing.

This is part of their journey:

WWC22 Manners - Drew Noon tends his historic Grenache vines
Drew Noon tends his historic Grenache vines

Sustainable Australia Winegrowing

In 2009, the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Association (the Association) launched Generational Farming, the region’s first sustainability program and precursor to Sustainable Australia Winegrowing, which ran from 2011 to 2019.

Central to SAW’s success was its methodology and uptake. Winegrowers wanted change — to improve efficiencies and minimise impacts on the environment — and this program delivered in spades.

Members maintained a workbook, recording everyday viticultural practises, and each year were attributed a score. There was no pass or fail; it was more about identifying where a grower was sustainable and where they were not. Third party audits, education and measuring were key to helping McLaren Vale’s winegrowers improve their practises to prepare for the next season.

And the results were tangible. 

With over 70 per cent of McLaren Vale’s 7300 hectares of vines under SAW, the landscape became greener — no bare earth here — and the soil healthier, full of living organisms. Also, the vines became more resilient to disease and drought, and as a result fruit quality improved, attracting a higher premium for grapes and wine. 

Another aspect of SAW was its generosity, with the Association gifting the program to Australian wine regions. Lives, landscapes and communities were enriched, and continue through McLaren Vale’s contribution to the 2019 launch of a single national program, Sustainable Winegrowing Australia.

Biodiversity

McLaren Vale didn’t score well in the early days of SAW, but thanks to the program raising a red flag, monoculture has become a thing of the past.

Today, bare paddocks now teem with life where juvenile forests hum with insects and provide habitat for frogs, lizards and birds. Rusty car bodies and woody weeds have been evicted from creek lines, and corridors of indigenous plants beckon the return of native fauna, including the Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoo. 

This threatened species is the emblem of Biodiversity McLaren Vale, a project that is working with wineries, farmers and governments to rewild the landscape.

Biodiversity offers many benefits, says the project’s co-founder, Jock Harvey.

Cost effective pest control is one. “Beneficial arthropods find habitat in indigenous species and predate upon vineyard pests such as scale.” This, Jock says, reduces the need for insecticides, “which are rarely used in the region these days”.

Removing feral weeds is another. “Planting trees is one thing but rescuing a majestic Red River Gum that’s being dehydrated by feral olive trees is rewarding,” Jock says. “Why start again when something is already 600 years and you give it a chance for another 600?”

And uniting the wider community was a bonus, with monthly working bees bringing people from all walks of life together, not only from the local wine industry. 

Families love it; often three generations turn up to get a sweat on their brow. Interstate and international visitors see social media posts and come along, and migrants immerse themselves in their new home. All finding a common ground and purpose.

“Planting trees relieves stress,” Jock says. “We hear about habitat destruction, species extinction, and climate change but feel helpless. This is a partnership where people are doing something to reverse these threats by changing the landscape; for this and future generations.”

McLaren Vale community coming together on biodiversity projects
McLaren Vale Biodiversity project brings the community together

Water

In the mid-1990s, irrigators relied on stressed aquifers and expensive mains to irrigate their vineyards and wash down wineries.

The only way to preserve these finite resources was to monitor groundwater extraction and hike up the price of mains water. The latter was the domain of the government, the former administered by the growers themselves.

Although implemented during the drought, cutting bore water allocations by half had unexpected consequences.

“It wasn’t beer and skittles, but it shifted the region to a different price bracket; our wine became more high-end in terms of quality,” remembers Richard Leask, Chair of the McLaren Vale Water Plan 2008-2015.

In tandem to protecting the aquifers, was a fervent drive by winegrowers to find a sustainable source that would take pressure off tradition water supplies. 

In short, they moved mountains, and today the Willunga Basin Water pipes reclaimed water across the region.

The Association says McLaren Vale is Australia’s first wine region “to manage its underground water resource so that it is self-replenishing,” and build “the largest reclaimed water network in Australia.”

McLaren Vale’s journey to water sustainability reflects the tenacity of the wine community, which Richard says, “is always looking ahead and trying to combat challenges early.”

Richard is the 2019 Nuffield scholarship winner and co-owner of Hither & Yon — South Australia’s first certified carbon neutral wine producer.

Soil

Soil regeneration is a big deal in this part of the world. McLaren Vale winegrowers believe a healthy, living soil is the foundation for a productive future and an important legacy to pass onto the next generation.

Cover crops are the eco champions; reducing runoff and soil erosion. Planted between vine rows, they attract pollinators while adding organic matter to the soil.

Composing for soil health and mulching for water conservation are also part of the regime.

And, in some vineyards, sheep range free during the dormant season, fertilising the soil, plucking leaves and controlling weeds ready for the next season. Upping the ante, some vignerons harvest with horses and opt for no-till farming.

A recent addition to the region’s resources is a portable kiln. This environmentally friendly machine turns woody weeds into biochar which is used in vineyards to improve soil structure and create a carbon sink.

“All life is rooted in the soil,” says James Hook, Lazy Ballerina winemaker and consultant.

“There is a beautiful symmetry in taking a woody weeds like wild olive trees which clog our natural bushland, or blackberries that choke our native waterways, by turning them in soil carbon.” 

Sheep play a part in sustainable vineyard management
Sheep play a part in sustainable vineyard management

Waste

McLaren Vale’s sustainable winegrowers implement a waste management plan that is communicated to everyone across the viti and vini stages of winemaking.

For instance, practises include composting grape marc and reusing it in the vineyard; stockpiling disused trellis posts and repurposing them for landscaping, or, when needed, delivering the posts to South Australia’s fire-affected regions for fencing and rebuilding. Plus, recycling glass, plastics and packaging are part of the daily routine.

Geology

Geology of McLaren Vale identifies 19 different wine districts based on geological boundaries, from a 10,000 year old channel of silt, clay and sand to 750 million year old Neoproterozoic formations.

Not only does the map differentiate McLaren Vale as a complex geological region, but it also inspires sensitive land management so this deeper element of terroir is expressed in the wine.

It has also spawned initiatives such as the Geology Pits, where cellar doors showcase different geological structures and offer tastings that explain the interconnection between geology, soil, vine, fruit and wine flavours.

Alternative varietals

Sustainability calls for diversity and planning, so with temperatures and palates changing, growers looked to alternative varietals to add a bit of spice to the mix.

Like the region’s celebrated wines — Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache — they found that cultivars from southern Mediterranean climes adapted well to their new home.

Tempranillo, Barbera, Montepulciano, and Sangiovese tasting experiences are offered by many cellar doors, appealing to lovers of edgy wines. Fiano, too, has found a niche, becoming a contender for McLaren Vale’s flagship white varietal, with Vermentino a close second.

Others rising through the ranks include Gruner Veltliner, Nebbiolo and Touriga Nacional. 

Corrina Wright, Oliver’s Taranga winemaker and sixth generation custodian, tells Wine Australia that, “McLaren Vale was looking for something different; something new and exciting”. 

“It’s like there’s been a rebirth… there’s experimentation happening all over the place,” Corrina says.

The ocean along the McLaren Vale coastline
McLaren Vale enjoys a Mediterranean climate

McLaren Vale enjoys a Mediterranean climate

Compassion

This is a community that sees a need and acts.

In January 2020, South Australia’s Kangaroo Island and Adelaide Hills were ablaze, prompting a call out from McLaren Vale Natives and McLaren Vale Biodiversity Project. A few days later 600 volunteers gathered to propagate 30,000 site-specific-species to help communities replant, restore the landscape and provide a food source for wildlife.

Another impromptu fundraiser is the Homeless Grape Project.

It started with a social media post offering four tonne of premium Shiraz in exchange for a donation to Hutt Street Centre; a charity that supports people affected by homelessness. Within hours the simple exchange had escalated into why not turn the fruit into wine? So they did, with every element of production donated: from the grapes, to harvesting, winemaking, maturing, bottling, labelling and selling.

The wine community is also the driver behind Willunga Wanderers. The 50 kilometre marathon started with two, and is now a regional event. 

The collective message is, “you don’t walk alone”, and the combined events have raised nearly A$500,000 — and priceless awareness.

Hutt Street Centre’s Partnership Manager, Michael Francis says:

“McLaren Vale has given our clients much more than services. A lot of our clients refer to themselves as being invisible, but when a community comes out in support like this, it touches their heart enormously.”

Preservation

The momentum to preserve McLaren Vale’s agrarian landscape and natural wonders has accelerated in the past decade with hundreds of hectares added to its network of globally and culturally important bushland, coastal ecosystems and wetlands.

Also noteworthy is the 2012 McLaren Vale Character Preservation Act, which put a lock and key on the agrarian landscape.

The legislation also forms part of the dossier submitted for National Heritage Listing of the Mount Lofty Ranges. If deemed to have ‘outstanding value to humanity’, the BID could nominate for UNESCO World Heritage Listing.

During the Bid’s 2013 regional engagement stage, McLaren Vale hosted an event at Chapel Hill winery.

James Rebanks, UK farmer and expert on the economics of world heritage sites, was guest speaker. His message was a decisive “world heritage matters”.

“None of us want to eat bog-standard, anonymous, food and wine; we all want to eat and drink things with stories. We want to live in a world that’s richer. We all want that.”

James also said that world heritage “binds people together”. 

“I’m an economist and I love to make money, but the truth is, world heritage is about protecting what is special. You already care about what’s special here. It’s now about identifying and protecting it.”

Biosecurity

Phylloxera is a pest that has wiped out whole vineyards, even regions, around the world. 

The tiny insect — smaller than a pinhead — enters the vineyard on shoes, clothing and machinery to feed on vine roots.

It is a catastrophic disease and to date thwarting phylloxera from entering South Australia has been through biosecurity laws, established in the 1800s during the worldwide infestation.

But the laws are not enough, says Drew Noon MW, founding member of the Association’s Phylloxera Committee, and sustainability doyen. 

“The best form of defence is to arm the region’s wine industry with tactics and knowledge,” he says.

Restricting access to vineyards is key, with vignerons erecting signs and fences. Others opt for hedges of roses or trees, preferring a softer way of saying “keep out” to would-be photographers or fruit samplers.

Another tactic is cleaning and disinfecting; that’s why you’ll see sanitising shoe stations at cellar doors and wash bays at wineries. With a culture of sharing, especially during vintage, not even a shovel leaves the farm without a hose-down. 

It was thought that phylloxera could survive away from a vine for eight days, but Drew says new research shows it can survive up to 29 days without food (a vine root).

“You can visit a lot of cellar doors in that time, which makes mitigation measures to ensure people don’t enter vineyards even more important,” Drew says, adding that a 30 day buffer is now considered safe.

Old Vine Register

As South Australia is phylloxera free, vines have been able to reach a ripe old age. Some are over 100 years old and still productive.

The Association has developed an historic record of these ancient gems through an Old Vine Register, which lists plantings of vines over 35 years old.

Shiraz dominates, then Grenache, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon; and interesting Chenin Blanc plantings exceed Chardonnay, reflecting changes in the wine industry and consumer preferences.

Collaboration

Collaboration comes from the big picture visionaries. Some of the key players include the City of Onkaparinga, Willunga Basin Water Company, the Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resource Management Board, Landscapes SA, Friends of Willunga Basin, McLaren Vale Biodiversity, and the symbiotic relationship with the region’s green-and clean food sector. 

An emerging collaboration is with Traditional Custodians, the Kaurna People, who have farmed and traded in this beautiful part of the world for 60,000 years. Their deep connection to Country is teaching us how to ‘feel’ the land, to listen and to honour it.

Wine producers communicate this message through formal Acknowledgements and Welcome to Country ceremonies, with some wineries hosting cultural experiences. Gemtree, for instance, partners with Tirkandi to present ‘Old Wisdom-New Ways’.

Melissa Brown, Gemtree’s viticulturist and Finalist in the 2022 Banksia Foundation Eco Tourism Awards, says:

“When visitors come to Gemtree they probably think they are just coming to taste wine and to enjoy our beautiful views and region; but they get much more.”

By sharing their stories about renewable energy and regenerative farming, Melissa says, “we aim to inspire others to come along with us on our journey to help the planet.”

The future

For the McLaren Vale wine community, there’s only one way forward. Together.

United, they are stewarding their patch with integrity, protecting the planet with courage, and enjoying the journey.

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