Report Synopsis

Is Being Sustainable Enough for Australian Wine? Regenerative agriculture can redefine what is best practice viticulture

Richard Leask

Sustainability has become a common catchcry for the global wine industry. This is no different in Australia with numerous programs developed to improve the industry's environmental credentials.

Wine grape production faces many challenges. Climatic extremes like heat and declining water resources are already putting pressure on the industry. Rising input costs and consumer concern around how grapes are grown and potential damage to the environment are also putting pressure on growers to improve environmental practices.

The author believes that increasing the capacity of soils through understanding, building and managing soil carbon levels and the soil microbial network with the use of plants and their diversity, is the key to arresting the decline of soils around the world.

Regenerative Agriculture (RA) is a paradigm shift in the way vineyards are viewed and their connection to the broader environment. Its principles are based on mimicking nature by having a diverse range of plant life storing and cycling carbon and increasing soil microbial diversity and activity through interaction with these plants.

The six practices of RA are:

  1. Balancing soil nutrition limitations
  2. Keeping the soil covered
  3. Minimizing soil disturbance (cultivation)
  4. Increasing plant and microbial diversity
  5. Incorporating living roots into the farming system all year round
  6. Integrating and managing Livestock

They give a blueprint to create a healthy, diverse, living soil microbial ecosystem. This over time produces a high functioning soil capable of high productivity and increased quality. Although seemingly straightforward, implementing these practices into a cohesive manageable system will differ from vineyard to vineyard. There is no one size fits all approach and execution will take discipline and patience as meaningful change will take time.

RA is a difficult system to replicate scientifically, with many moving parts and local environmental factors hampering meaningful broad-based evaluation. It has relied on “citizen science” with farmer-driven trial and observation at its core. This does not diminish its potential impact but highlights that no-one understands their farm and landscape better than an observant farmer. With advancements in technology enabling the identification of soil microbes and their role within the soil, this understanding will improve rapidly into the future. Agronomy in the future will increasingly look at biology over chemistry and the role it plays in crop nutrition.

RA could provide the Australian wine industry with a system that increases soil capacity and microbial diversity. This could improve water capture and retention and challenge the reliance on synthetic chemicals and fertilisers and the increasing role of cultivation in organic vineyard systems. This could also be the key to unlocking the individual “terroir” of vineyards and provide a unique environmentally friendly story to consumers.

To give the generations to follow the best opportunity to produce world-class wines the industry must not be content with “sustaining” vineyard ecosystems as they are now. RA shows enormous potential as a farming system to repair damage done to soils and set them on a productive path for generations to come.

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