The New Sights, Sounds, Smells and Inhabitants of the Changing Australian Vineyard

Heavenly creatures: the winemakers embracing new ways of thinking.

Article by Jeni Port

Vineyards_1Animal life is intentionally abundant at The Vintner’s Daughter vineyard in Murrumbatemen, NSW. Photograph by Stephanie Helm.

Sheep munching, bees humming, spiders, dragonflies and ladybirds working side by side to wipe out voracious predators — Australian vineyards no longer just grow grapes. They vibrate with animal life, they fill the air with the aromas of native bush and plants, they teem with insect life.

“All the work we’re doing means we get better soil,” says Stephanie Toole, owner and winemaker at Mount Horrocks in the Clare Valley. “You get sweet-smelling soil, not sour-smelling soil.” Toole has transformed the vineyard she bought back in 1993, outside the township of Auburn, from a cleared landscape dotted with vines to hills and gullies filled with 15,000 trees — all planted by Toole and her team — which are home to introduced species of insects and other wildlife, and native plants. “I really get emotional going into the vineyard,” she says. “I find it really satisfying.”

Toole is a biodynamic winegrower and maker, employing a set of principles that nurture the soil and treat the vineyard as one big living organism. She’s not alone. Many vignerons are turning to methods to counter decades of soil and environmental neglect or abuse, the kind of mistreatment that arises with a monoculture where wine grapes can be the only star. In the past, that has meant trees being uprooted,  insects being obliterated, diseases countered by toxic sprays and weeds stamped out by weedicides.

The Vintner's Daughter_1
The Vintner’s Daughter is a family affair, run by husband and wife team Stephanie Helm and Ben Osborne.

Today, vignerons don’t necessarily have to adopt well-known methods such as organics, biodynamics and the new darling of sustainable viticulture, regenerative agriculture, with its welcoming of livestock among the vines, to counter the effects of previous bad management and become more sustainable. They just have to care.

Taltarni vineyard in Victoria’s Pyrenees is neither organic nor biodynamic but is nevertheless considered to be among the pioneers in developing wildlife corridors and insectariums among their vines, helping to address the bigger natural vineyard picture.

“We’re just trying to move away from the old way of thinking,” says Robert Heywood, chief operating officer and chief winemaker at Taltarni. “We’re realists here, where we try to do the right thing by reducing pesticide and chemicals through the use of the insectarium, and also improving biomass and soil quality to allow for ongoing production.”

Insectariums have been described as an “insect holiday resort”, providing an all-you-can-eat source of pollen and nectar for “beneficial” — aka wanted — insects through a rich, natural habitat. Wasps, beetles and spiders have a place in the habitat, and even the smallest of insects play a role. For example, brown lacewings are just eight millimetres in length but pack deadly spines on their backs to impale the remains of prey, which then act as camouflage while they consume mealy bugs, thrips, mites, caterpillars and moth eggs.

The habitats comprise native bushes, ground covers or native grasses and offer vegetation corridors through and around vines. The equation is relatively simple: the habitat’s insects target and kill grapevine pests, which eliminates the use of harmful pesticides and weedicides.

How successful can insectariums be? At The Vintner’s Daughter vineyard in Murrumbateman, New South Wales, co-owner Stephanie Helm reports that she and her husband, Ben Osborne, have not used insecticides in their vineyard since 2016.

Regenerative agriculture has been around for a long time, but has largely gone unnoticed in mainstream wine circles until quite recently. Dan Falkenberg, a viticulturist at Eden Hall Wines in Eden Valley, South Australia, has been practising regenerative agriculture for two decades and, in that time, says he has seen significant improvements in soil health, biodiversity and his vineyard’s overall resilience to climatic variation. “Regen ag should be viewed as a toolkit rather than a prescriptive set of rules,” he argues, “that have their connection to the broader environment promoting ecosystem diversity.” Simply put, vignerons need to consider the entire ecosystem under their stewardship.

Dan Falkenberg of Eden Hall Wines, which has embraced regenerative agriculture for decades.

In the battle to be sustainable and environmentally friendly, the appearance of animals among vines is becoming commonplace. Usually it’s sheep. But not just any sheep. These little cuties are called, appropriately, babydolls. A Covid pandemic research project into the elimination of herbicides in the vineyard soon led Helm to her babydolls. The vigneron began with three in late 2020; the flock has now grown to 30 and she’s hoping for perhaps 20 more come spring. “Babydolls are perfect for vineyards,” she says, “due to their short necks, thick legs, solid body and gentle nature. They provide eco-friendly mowing without using fuel or electricity and can even appreciate in value as they graze.” There’s also the added benefit that comes with owning your own natural fertiliser machine of reducing the need for heavy machinery, which tends to compact soil, turning it as hard as concrete. And, points out Helm, babydolls are a great tourist attraction.

A new international certification in regenerative agriculture now takes the eco message further still. The Regenerative Viticulture Alliance (RVA) international certification will endorse methods employed in vineyards that help to actively mitigate the effects of climate change. Vineyard soil health and biodiversity will be examined, but so too the efforts of vignerons in sequestering carbon in the soil and using water responsibly. Vineyards’ status as carbon sinks has often been misunderstood, but, generally, perennial crops such as vines are now viewed as handy tools of biosequestration — capturing and storing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Wines that apply for the RVA seal must be certified organic or demonstrate that they come from vineyards that have been grown organically for three years.

Vignerons will be able to log all their information through a mobile app.

Animal life is intentionally abundant at The Vintner’s Daughter vineyard in Murrumbatemen, NSW. Photograph by Stephanie Helm.

Wine growing and making generates a lot of emotional language. None more so than when producers attempt to promote their green and sustainable credentials. A producer who adopts regenerative agriculture techniques, including sheep among the vines, might claim that their procedures mean using “less preservatives” during winemaking, leading to higher-quality wines. This is a questionable statement at best and, on the face of it, appears to negate the work of those who don’t embrace regenerative viticulture. “‘Regenerative’ is a very appealing, very attractive-sounding word. It makes you feel good when you talk about it, and there are some people out there actually doing an excellent job of it,” suggests one of Australia’s leading wine consultants, Mark O’Callaghan, managing director at Wine Network Consulting. “But there are some switched-on folks who have done some really great work using conventional viticultural techniques, too.”

It’s worth remembering that many Australian wine producers aren’t tied to any specific philosophy or label but borrow principles from across a number of disciplines. You can prioritise sustainability, responsible farming practices and the creation of a healthy ecosystem without necessarily going down the organic, biodynamic or regenerative road. “I am sometimes concerned that while philosophies such as regenerative viticulture, organic and biodynamic can provide useful guidelines for sustainable and responsible farming practices, they can also create a perception that conventional or traditional methods are inherently bad or harmful,” says Helm. “We try to take a holistic approach to the entire property and rely on experience, research, shared knowledge from other viticulturists and common sense to make decisions about what practices to implement, taking into account our unique climate.”