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McLaren Vale’s green credentials drive wine industry sustainability

Primary Industries

Lessons learned in one of Australia’s most sustainable grape growing regions are being incorporated into a new national program aimed at making the Aussie wine industry world’s best practice.

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Sustainable Winegrowing Australia launched in Adelaide, South Australia, last week to become Australia’s national sustainability program for the grape and wine sector.

Developed by the Adelaide-based Australian Wine Research Institute and McLaren Vale Grape and Wine Tourism Association (MVGWTA), the program consolidates several smaller regional initiatives under one national umbrella.

It builds on the previous Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (SAW) and Entwine Australia programs.

SAW began in McLaren Vale in 2014 and was the result of a series of initiatives developed by MVGWTA since the early 2000s.

When it closed to make way for the national program on June 30 it was being used to benchmark more than 70 per cent of McLaren Vale’s grapes and had also been adopted in other South Australian regions including the Barossa Valley, Adelaide Hills and Clare Valley.

The SAW program assessed sustainability through the triple bottom line approach (environment, economics and social) and focused on continuous improvement of the grower and the region’s results over time.

Seven assessment areas were developed:

  1. Soil Health, Nutrition and Fertiliser Management
  2. Pest and Disease Management
  3. Biodiversity Management
  4. Water Management
  5. Waste Management
  6. Social Relations (workers, community and wineries)
  7. Economic Sustainability

Many of these SAW elements will be maintained in the national program and will be boosted by components of Entwine, the previous national program.

AWRI Senior Viticulturist Dr Mardi Longbottom is managing the new Sustainable Winegrowing Australia program.

She said an independent review last year looked at international sustainability programs and found that a unified national program would take the previous system from “world class” to “best in class”.

“There are very few united national programs in the wine industry – in California alone there are five programs, in France there are several different programs so a lot of them are fragmented like we were previously,” Dr Longbottom said.

“In the past 10 years we’ve had around 25-30 per cent of crush and vine area our industry covered by a national program (Entwine) but we’re looking to get much closer to 80 per cent.

“This is all about managing resources in the most efficient ways possible, it’s all about sustainability in its broadest sense, it’s not just environmental sustainability, it’s economic sustainability and the two are intrinsically linked.”

Husband and wife team Melissa and Mike Brown are committed to sustainable winemaking at Gemtree Wines.

The McLaren Vale region 40km south of Adelaide is home to 7324ha of vines and more than 80 wineries. Its dry climate, lack of humidity and proximity to suburban Adelaide has given it a sustainability edge, which it began developing in the 1990s when it became Australia’s first wine region to self-impose water restrictions on its underground resources.

The subsequent introduction of the Willunga Basin Water Scheme in 1999, where recycled wastewater is pumped from the Christies Beach treatment plant in Adelaide’s outer southern suburbs, has given growers access to more water and reduced the pressure on stressed groundwater resources and the River Murray. The scheme now has a 120km network of pipes delivering treated wastewater to more than 140 users to irrigate more than 2000ha of vines.

Gemtree Wines was one of the early users of the Willunga Basin Water Scheme and now has it connected to almost all of its 123ha of its certified organic biodynamic vineyards.

The winery takes its sustainability seriously. It has three separate solar energy systems to power its winery, cellar door and vineyards and has built its cellar door using recycled materials.

Co-founder and viticulturist Melissa Brown said Gemtree opened its sustainable cellar door in 2013 as “a showpiece of how you can run a business without having a huge impact on the environment”.

“There’s no concrete footings and it’s made out of timber and recycled materials – the floor is recycled cork, the outdoor deck is recycled plastic and even the chairs are made from recycled barrel staves,” she said.

“I view myself as a custodian of the land I’ve got at the moment and it’s my responsibility to nurture that land and pass it on in better condition.

“If you don’t have that attitude I think there will be serious consequences because the environment is so important to everything we do right down to tourism.”

Gemtree has also spent two decades revegetating a 10ha section of its land near the cellar door with more than 50,000 native trees and shrubs and creating an eco-trail, picnic shelters and a public barbecue area. The winery has also begun using the trail to offer “Wine and Wander” tours targeted mainly at Chinese visitors.

“We’ve now got some emus in there and we’re looking at setting up a koala enclosure to pre-release koalas back into the wild,” Brown said.

“The eco trail is something that no one else has in McLaren Vale attached to wine and we know that wine and nature go really well together so we’re starting to promote the tours because it’s a unique offering and it’s such a competitive market.”

Gemtree produces about 100,000 cases of wine a year, dominated by Shiraz.

About 40 per cent of its wine is exported, much of it to China.

The winery is among 14 sustainable South Australian wine businesses to be part of the recent Earthsip sustainable showcase along with several other McLaren Vale wineries including Kay Brothers, the oldest winery in the region still in founding family hands.

Alice Kay at the Pedler Creek revegetation site during the early days of the project in 2012.

Established in 1890, Kay Brothers has had a long-term sustainability mindset and has not used pesticides in its 22ha vineyard for 40 years. It has also adopted many biodynamic principals and is part of a lean manufacturing pilot project to increase efficiency and reduce costs in its winery, which produces about 10,000 cases a year.

The winery has a 30kW solar system and has spent eight years removing feral olives and replanting 3500 trees and shrubs along Pedler Creek, which runs along the eastern boundary of its Amery vineyard.

Kay Brothers General Manager Steven Todd said the McLaren Vale region was well suited to sustainable grape growing and winemaking because of low humidity, which reduced disease pressure and the need for intensive spraying programs.

He said the SAW program was effective, simple to use and hoped it would become an asset to producers around Australia.

“It’s beautifully simple to understand and it gives you that step change whereby you can see what you did and you can see where you can improve,” Todd said.

“You don’t get extra points for making good wine anymore because everyone is doing it.

“Now you need to make exceptional wine and have something else that the market finds attractive and it’s the same with sustainability.

“We’re looking after the land because it needs looking after not because there’s any financial gain but because that’s what we should be doing.”

Known for its premium Shiraz and Grenache, McLaren Vale is Australia’s fifth largest wine region by value, producing grapes with an estimated value of $58 million in 2019. It is home to several world-renowned brands including Hardys, Wirra Wirra and d’Arenberg.


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