If Australia's wine industry is to remain resilient in the face of growing climatic variabilities and environmental pressures, producers need to be more regenerative in their management practices to maintain soil health and ecosystem diversity.
That's according to a report released today by 2019 Nuffield Scholar and South Australian viticulturist, Richard Leask, which explores how Regenerative Agriculture Systems may be incorporated into wine grape production to improve soil health and capacity as well as reduce input requirements.
With support from Wine Australia, Mr Leask travelled across Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, France, Canada, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, New Zealand and the United States, meeting with regenerative agriculture farmers and leading soil researchers to identify practices that would be applicable in Australian wine grape production systems.
In Stellenbosch, South Africa, Mr Leask met with manager of Longridge Wines, Jasper Raats who, after recognising the impact chemical inputs and cultivation was having on soil health, implemented several regenerative methods which resulted in significant benefits.
"In 2012 they ceased all cultivation in the vineyard and started to balance their soil nutrition with blended organic compost and multi-species cover-crops. They also introduced cows for planned rotational grazing and later initiated beneficial fungi into the soil through the drip irrigation system," Mr Leask said.
"Although this change yielded reduced crops initially, the benefits of this system change were evident during the 2015 to 2018 drought with soil moisture increasing 30% compared to neighbouring vineyards and a 50% reduction in water use compared to pre-2012 data."
Mr Leask said sustainability is becoming an increasing priority for the global wine industry, with producers facing continued climatic challenges, rising input costs and growing consumer concern around environmental practices.
"Understanding the impact of conventional farming practices has led to greater generational thinking and understanding around changing soil health and management, with a focus on increasing capacity and diversity in our soils," Mr Leask said.
"Implementing regenerative agriculture principles into vineyards provides a blueprint for producers to create a healthy, diverse, living soil ecosystem that over time, will produce a high functioning soil capable of high productivity and increased quality.
"Travelling to Central Otago, New Zealand, I visited Terra Sancta vineyard which has supported sustainability and healthy wine grape production by implementing a regenerative approach to vineyard cover-crop management through a rotational system.
"This system has allowed cover-crops at the vineyard to reach full maturity and go to seed without any mechanical intervention, seeing a reduction of input costs and improvements in soil structural conditions."
Mr Leask recommends the Australian wine industry change to a more holistic approach for vineyard management, which would allow for greater water capture and retention, challenge the reliance on synthetic chemicals and fertilisers as well as the increasing role of cultivation in organic vineyard systems, and offer a more environmentally conscious narrative to consumers.
"Regenerative agriculture practices such as diverse cover-crops, actively managed livestock integration and limited under-vine cultivation can be modified to existing wine grape production systems in an Australian context," Mr Leask said.
"To meet future challenges and give the Australian wine industry the best opportunity to sustainably produce world-class wines, it's vital that the complex production systems are made more resilient by implementing these change management practices that place greater emphasis on improving soil health and maintain ecosystem diversity.
"The Australian wine industry has a great history of innovation, collaboration and adaptation. To maintain productivity and ensure financial sustainability at the farmgate, we need to focus on implementing regenerative practices that will drive the future of the industry."
Applications for the 2021 Nuffield Scholarship program are now open.