High hopes for organic vineyards in SA's Riverland as consumers demand more natural wine


South Australia's Riverland has all the ingredients to produce world-class organic vineyards, a peak body says. 

 South Australia is often synonymous with producing world-class wine, and the peak body representing the Riverland's wine industry believes the region has all the ingredients to become a world leader in growing organically.

 Winemakers and grape growers in the region were out in force last week to learn more about bringing organic practices and soil health to their vineyards.

Riverland Wine executive officer Chris Byrne believes the region's growing conditions are as good as anywhere in the world to produce organic grapes.

"There has been a growing interest in organics for some time," he said.

"We believe there is a real opportunity that because of our very low rate of pest and disease in this region, the Riverland could well and truly lay claim to becoming the organic vineyard of the world."

On an international scale, Europe is the world leader in farming organic grapes, with more than 80 per cent of the world's organic grapes area there.

Consumer demand increasing

Mr. Byrne said Australian growers were changing to meet an ever-growing demand of international wine drinkers looking for fewer chemicals.

"The emerging populations who are going to be drinking our wines in the future, and particularly in the Asian countries but increasingly also in the European and US markets, they are looking for wines that are grown with less chemical input," Mr. Byrne said.

"They are not necessarily demanding organic or organically certified, but certainly lower levels of chemicals and more natural inputs."

Converting a traditional vineyard to an organic one does not happen overnight — it can take up to a decade before the natural process fully kicks in.

But while it may take time and money to get started, Mr. Byrne said vineyards with fewer chemicals would pay for themselves in the long run. "Albeit there might be an upturn there in the first few years. Once you get into the five to 10-year time frame, there is a diminishing cost in terms of those inputs as the more natural growing methods take over," he said.

"There are longer term benefits that overall the soils and vines become more sustainable. "Sustainability is vital to industry's future. It is this sustainability that Mr. Byrne sees as crucial for the Riverland's wine industry going into the future.

"As the world population grows and as their water resource diminishes, we just have to become far more aware of how we optimise the work that we do in the vineyard," he said.

"Investing in these methods of growing has some fairly significant paybacks."

University of Adelaide research officer Chris Penfold said maintaining under-vine weed control remained an issue top of mind for growers taking the organic route.

"That leads us to what people have been doing for a long, long time, which is spraying out the weeds from underneath the vine," he said. "That is leading to some other soil management issues which we are trying to address."

Mr. Penfold said with spraying weeds not an option for organic vineyards, finding different control methods was important.

"Sheep are becoming very, very popular. They are a great converter of green weeds and biomass into something edible or productive," he said.

"If we can try and grow the right plants rather than the wrong plants underneath the vine, then we do not need any weed control."

 (ABC Rural: Tom Nancarrow)

Leon Hill