The Pioneers Fighting for the Future of Australia’s Wine Industry

From alternative grapes to experimental serving formats, the local wine scene is among the world’s most progressive — and most exposed to climate catastrophe.

Article by Victoria Pearson

Troy KalleskeThe winemaker Troy Kalleske at his family’s organic winery. Photography courtesy Kelleske Wines.

For many Australians, the notion of home conjures scenes of suburban sprawl, inner-city terraces or beach-adjacent bungalows.

For Jessica Hill-Smith, home is synonymous with one of the country’s most famous wine regions: South Australia’s Barossa. Specifically, her family’s winery, Yalumba. “It was the backyard,” she says of the vineyard-lined terrain. “We’d spend after-school, then on weekends, roaming around the winery and riding our bikes around the place, or rollerblading.”

As well as being Hill-Smith’s childhood playground, Yalumba is the country’s oldest family-run winery. Hill-Smith is a sixth-generation custodian of the Yalumba legacy and the current brand manager for its Rare & Fine collection, but despite her pedigree it took a few years to find her place in the family business. “[Dad] definitely encouraged me to go out and spread my wings,” she says. International tenures at prestige champagne brands such as Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon, Krug and Ruinart instilled within her a sense of discipline when it came to global product management. They also gave her confidence: “That experience away from the winery was really important to give me a little bit of independence and be my own person,” she says.

Now, with her feet firmly planted back on the soil she biked upon in her youth, Hill-Smith has her gaze fixed on the future of the Yalumba brand. One she says will enrich the broader community, navigate the tightrope walk between tradition and innovation and, crucially, continue the winery’s mission to achieve total sustainability.

Yalumba vines
Tending to vines in the nursery at Yalumba in the Barossa. Photography courtesy Yalumba Wines.

Our sunburnt country is one of ever-intensifying extremes. As the effects of the climate crisis continue to reverberate across the world, Australia’s susceptibility to fires, droughts and flooding rains has increased, and our agricultural sector has been forced to urgently adapt. Despite the characteristic resilience of grapevines and the resourcefulness of their 6,000 or so national stewards, the $40 billion Australian wine industry — the world’s fifth largest exporter of the product — has never been more vulnerable.

Many growers and makers have been quick to acclimatise, engaging in environmentally responsible viticulture practices or eschewing popular European varietals (pinot noir, sauvignon blanc) in favour of warm-climate alternatives (tempranillo, fiano). Some have adopted an attitude of radical transparency, such as the Adelaide Hills-based Unico Zelo, which is B Corp certified and shares its sustainability initiatives — both successes and setbacks — in a public Google Sheets document. Others, such as the Yarra Valley-based Mac Forbes, are drawing upon the extensive knowledge and farming philosophies of local Indigenous communities in order to better understand the connection between the vine and the land.

Vessels are a present focus; wine bottles — though conceptually ideal — account for the largest slice of the industry’s carbon footprint. A bid to avoid glass has paved the way for a cask wine renaissance, bolstered by millennial-friendly marketing and value for money. Taking a different approach, the brand A Glass Of specialises in 200-millilitre foil pouches filled with restaurant-sommelier-curated wines from local independent makers; the lightweight, recyclable pouches are “precycled”, which means waste is reduced at the production stage.

Troy Kalleske Pumpover
Performing a 'pump over' at Kalleske Wines. Photography courtesy Kalleske Wines.

Michael Pratt, the brand manager for Kalleske Wines in the Barossa, points out that the definition of “sustainable” varies between businesses. “Sustainability is not just from an environmental perspective, but in all aspects including social and economic.” For Kalleske, the moniker demands organic certification. “Farming the vineyard and making wine organically and biodynamically is the truly natural way to ensure ultimate sustainability, authenticity and quality,” says Pratt. “You cannot be entirely sustainable unless you are also organic.”

Growing consumer interest in organic, fair-trade and sustainably made wines has resulted in a surge of environmentally skewed retailers such as the Sydney-based Notwasted. Founded in 2019 by Elliot Scali, the carbon-offset delivery service advocates for natural wine and sustainable makers, and focuses on educating customers. “I was motivated to create a company that would be an accessible place for information,” says Scali, who wants drinkers to know what makes “natural” natural, and at the same time “be transparent and pursue sustainability goals ourselves”.

Drinkers who previously thought “natural” was just a buzzword, he says, are “realising there’s actually an influence on the end product that you see from a natural winemaker, in terms of the quality and also the amount of flavour and interesting elements”.

Positive consumer sentiment aside, there is still a long way to go. In 2019, the industry groups Australian Grape & Wine, Australian Wine Research Institute and Wine Australia launched Sustainable Winegrowing Australia (SWA), a voluntary program that helps grape growers and winemakers monitor and improve their sustainable practices. Working towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, SWA has more than 900 members and supports the global industry’s target of 100 per cent carbon neutrality by 2050. Of the 2050 milestone, the SWA chair and Australian Grape & Wine CEO, Tony Battaglene, says the sector has set a necessarily high standard. “Supporting sustainable industries should be looked upon as being of benefit to everyone,” he says.

Having a joint purpose is also vital, according to Wine Australia’s Rachel Triggs, who has been charged with leading the development of the sector-wide sustainability plan. “Being able to measure and track our sustainability credentials is paramount,” she says. “If we are setting targets and making claims, they need to be evidence-based.”

In its inaugural Impact Report, released earlier this year, SWA included the program’s first national data set, spanning July 2020 through June 2021. Findings indicated 82 per cent of participating wineries prioritised energy efficient practices, 87 per cent of vineyards have taken action to monitor and reduce water use, and 93 per cent of wineries engage in at least one community or environmental initiative.

Handpicked Wines
Handpicked Wines’ soon-to-be-organic Highbow Hill vineyard in Victoria’s Yarra Valley. Photography courtesy Handpicked Wines.

“We’re on the journey, but nowhere near the end,” says Yalumba’s head of winemaking, Louisa Rose. A member of SWA since 2019, Yalumba has received 43 global accolades for its eco practices including the International Award of Excellence in Sustainable Winegrowing, an honour bestowed by the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. At present, 23 per cent of the winery’s electricity is generated by solar panels and it recently became an applicant member of International Wineries for Climate Action, a collaborative group that is working to “decarbonise” the industry. Alongside the 2050 deadline, members commit to considerable reductions by 2030. To gain certified membership, Yalumba will undergo its first third-party audit in the coming months.

“It’s about getting together to share ideas,” says Rose, who has worked at Yalumba for more than 20 years. “When one winery works out, ‘Hey, we’ve got a really good model for working out the carbon footprint of our tourists, it’ll be shared.” As she puts it: “Nobody’s going to save climate change on their own. It needs everybody.”

More than 1,200 kilometres from the Barossa in New South Wales’ Southern Highlands, Tony Zafirakos, the co-founder and winemaker at Aristotelis ke Anthoula, is putting down roots for a sustainable future by paying homage to the past. The family-run hobby-turned-business-venture has been a labour of love for Zafirakos and his Greek-born parents, Aristotelis and Anthoula, since 2017, and was originally called Ari’s Natural Wine Co. “Somehow in naming the winery,” says Zafirakos, “we missed most of my father’s Greek name and my mother’s name entirely. This year we finally decided to take the plunge and bring it all into line.”

Aristotelis ke Anthoula bottles an average of 12 styles a year and sources its fruit from like-minded growers in Murrumbateman and Young in New South Wales, as well as South Australia’s Riverland. Wild fermented, unfiltered, unfined and with no added sulphur, the wines bear colourful descriptions (“Rosé pét nat that evokes Campari and Aperol spritzes in the sunshine”) that belie a reverence for the land and the people who support the business. For the winemaker and cellar manager Maddison Park-Neilson, sustainability “is about not taking short cuts in favour of profit and always striving to have a positive influence on everything around us, from the people we work with to the environment we work in.”

Zafirakos, Park-Neilson and the team are big on waste management. The pallet wrap and strapping they use is compostable and landfill-biodegradable, grape scraps are used for pig feed and the winery recently installed a large rainwater catchment system. “It’s looking like next year we’ll be reaching our goal of being zero-zero: zero additives to our wines and zero systemic chemicals on all of our grapes, which is a goal we’ve been working towards since the start,” says Park-Neilson.

Also on the cards for later this year is a seachange to Pambula on the Far South Coast of New South Wales, as well as solar panel installation and a renewed focus on engaging local packaging and equipment suppliers to curb overseas freight mileage. Of the 2050 race to zero, Zafirakos is confident in the industry’s success. “It’s completely achievable,” he says. “The bigger it gets, the easier it will be for others to make a switch. It’s been great to see a lot of the bigger players taking steps towards this goal as well, which is no easy task.”

Yalumba Wines
A private tasting at Yalumba in the Barossa. Photography courtesy Yalumba Wines.

Of the country’s major players, few are as big as Penfolds. Established in the Barossa in 1844, the luxury label is a division of Treasury Wine Estates and boasts Australia’s most collected wine, Penfolds Grange. “At Penfolds, winemaking and sustainability are inextricably linked,” says the chief marketing officer Kristy Keyte. Collaboration is integral to the brand’s sustainability strategy, and Penfolds is currently working with The University of Adelaide to fund a student to complete a PhD in the area of sustainable viticulture (advertising for applicants will begin soon). Additional targets include reaching 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2024, net zero emissions by 2030, 50 per cent recycled content in all product packaging by 2025 and a closed-loop packaging solution by 2025.

There’s also the multiregional player Handpicked Wines, which is a decade into its sustainability journey. The flagship vineyard and winery on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and the company’s other vineyards, scattered across Australia, New Zealand and the United States, are currently undergoing organic conversion. “Our move to be accredited as an organic producer feels more sustainable to us in the long-term in making vineyards healthier environments to grow quality grapes, for staff to work in and in delivering a quality product to the customer,” says the chief winemaker and viticulture director, Peter Dillon.

To achieve this, Handpicked’s global vineyards, with their varied physical attributes and microclimates, require a nuanced approach, including the introduction of beehives, water harvesting and increased irrigation efficiency and the elimination of synthetic chemicals, as well as inter-row cropping for biodiversity, soil improvement, weed control and mulching.
If accreditation goes to plan, Handpicked will see its Mornington and Tasmanian sites on line for organic harvest in 2023. Next up: biodynamics. “In order to be happy to proceed, we want to see positive responses in terms of vine and overall site health, in conjunction with improved wine quality,” says Dillon. “This is a very exciting proposition in terms of seeing an evolution in how we do business.”

Back at Yalumba, the conversation has turned to environmental obligation. “We’ve been forging this path as fast as we could because it’s the right thing to do,” says Rose. “But what’s changed in the last few years is all of a sudden people want to hear about it.” On the subject of the International Wineries for Climate Action certification, Rose is philosophical. “All these audits, projects, sustainability balance sheets, it will mean extra work.

People say to us: ‘Oh, can you afford to do that?’ My answer is: ‘We can’t afford not to.’ ”

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eighth edition, Page 78 of T Australia with the headline: “Glass Half Full”