We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
TS Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’
ONE WARM LONDON afternoon last autumn, a large group of avant-garde Australian winemakers took over a nightclub in Shoreditch, the capital’s current hipster hotspot, for a raucous tasting of their latest wines. The idea was to expose the UK trade and media to some of the buzzy small-batch Australian wines crackling through our own hipster hotspots back home. It worked a treat too: the response to the event was overwhelmingly positive.
One of the winemakers pouring at the event was 28-year-old Con-Greg Grigoriou, who sells wines under his brash, bold, Delinquente label. Con-Greg specialises in on-trend styles – replete with hand-drawn, tattoo-design packaging – aimed at the sensibilities of a young, modern drinker. There’s a cloudy, sparkling pet-nat called Weeping Juan; a juicy red monte-pulciano called The Bullet Dodger; a rosato made from nero d’avola dubbed Pretty Boy.
He was in good company. Many of the leading lights of Australia’s new wave were in the club that day, pouring equally out-there styles of wine: Taras Ochota, with his jangly, elbows-and-knees grenache; Timo Mayer with his ‘bring back the funk’ pinot noir; Si Vintners with their skin-contact, flor-aged chardonnay.
But whereas all these other makers are from famous, cool-climate ‘fine wine’ regions – the Adelaide Hills, the Yarra Valley, Margaret River – Con-Greg and his wines are from South Australia’s hot, inland Riverland region, its vast swathes of vineyards hugging the Murray as it snakes past Renmark, Loxton, Morgan and down to the sea.
This may not seem like a big deal to you, but it’s nothing short of revolutionary.
‘It was surreal,’ says Con-Greg. ‘To be there, my first time in London, pouring Riverland wine as part of the cutting edge. I grew up in Berri, in the heart of the Riverland. My old man ran one of the local wineries for a long time. But I’ve always lived with this idea that the region’s wines weren’t all that good. That’s what my mates in posh places like the Clare Valley always told me. I wanted to prove them wrong.’
CON-GREG’S MATES aren’t the only ones prejudiced towards the Riverland. It’s one of the largest winegrowing areas in the country, and produces an enormous quantity of grapes: almost half a million tonnes each year, more than all the other South Australian regions put together, a quarter of the entire national harvest. But ask most wine drinkers where it is or what it’s famous for and you’ll struggle to get an answer. For the last hundred years or so, ever since people started pumping water from the Murray to irrigate vines, the Riverland has been seen by the industry primarily as a source of plentiful, cheap and largely anonymous wine.
The foundations of this reputation date back to the early twentieth century, when soldier-settlers returned from World War I and grew grenache and palomino grapes for the big wineries to make generic sherries and ports. The bulk-wine image was fleshed out through the 1960s and ’70s, when the emerging Australian thirst for table wine required huge quantities of sweet white gordo and sultana grapes to fill flagons and casks of fruity moselle. And it solidified through the 1990s and early 2000s, when the world fell in love with Australia’s sunshine-in-a-glass chardonnay and shiraz: suddenly, supermarket shelves from Birmingham to Boston couldn’t be stacked fast enough with lots of well-priced, reliable bottles.
The problem is that the vast majority of this wine made from Riverland-grown fruit wasn’t – and still isn’t – sold with the region’s name on the label. It’s often blended with wine from other regions, so it’s sold instead as coming from the bland, placeless geographical indication of ‘South-Eastern Australia’. And any tangible association with the real culture of a real region – lazy paddleboats on the slow-flowing Murray; yabbying from the tinny when the river floods; stealing oranges from your Italian neighbour’s orchard – is lost.
The small number of large wineries that dominate the industry – the ones making the cheap supermarket booze – use a grading system when negotiating with growers over price. According to the wineries, the highest-value A-grade and B-grade grapes can only really be grown in lower-yielding vineyards in those cooler-climate, ‘fine wine’ regions I mentioned before. And for many years, the large numbers of relatively small-scale growers in the Riverland have been told that what they grow – what the wineries want – is only D- and E-grade quality. The longer people are told that’s all they’re worth, the more they come to believe it themselves.
Despite this, when times are good, things go okay for the Riverland growers. In the mid-1990s, when the export boom took off and the Australian dollar was weak, demand outstripped supply: the wineries couldn’t get enough fruit, and grape prices were healthy.
But when times are tough – when there’s a glut – growers suffer. And times have been tough for at least a decade now.
Around 2006, it became painfully obvious the UK and US supermarkets that had driven much of the huge growth in the region were losing their ravenous thirst for cheap and cheerful Australian chardonnay and shiraz. An oversupply of grapes was forcing down prices to uneconomic levels. Many growers had their contracts cancelled. On top of that, the big long drought was really beginning to bite. Water allocations along the Murray were being wound back and back. The already hot summers were getting hotter, heading into unbearable territory. People were muttering about climate change, arguing about the insistent reality of it over cold beers in dark pubs.
The drought broke in 2010, but the oversupply is still with us. Despite the large companies continuing to churn out huge quantities of cheap wine for export, grape prices in the Riverland are less than half what they were at the height of the boom and have been flatlining since 2010, whereas they have been steadily increasing in South Australia’s other, cooler regions. To compensate for the poor returns per tonne, many Riverland growers are cropping at ever-higher levels, which reduces quality, meaning the fruit slips further down the grading scale. A depressing vicious cycle.
And despite a couple of wet winters, and healthy inflows into the Murray upstream last year, the underlying climate trend in the Riverland is towards hotter summers, more heat spikes and extreme weather events and earlier harvests.
This is why the Delinquente wines stand out. They’re handmade in small quantities using non-mainstream, climate-change-ready grape varieties new to the Riverland. They sell for a premium price of $20 and more a bottle – a huge achievement in a region where the vast majority of production is being shipped out in bulk at less than $1 a litre.
And they proudly bear the Riverland name on the label.
CON-GREG GRIGORIOU is one of a small but growing band of people offering an alternative future for the region.
In 2008, third-generation farmer Bruce Bassham lost a contract to sell chardonnay and shiraz to one of the larger wineries. The next year he managed to sell his fruit but was ground down on price by what he describes as ‘opportunistic bottom feeders’. Faced with little option but to get out of the industry or completely rethink his whole business, he opted for the latter. He took an enormous punt by converting one part of his vineyard to organic viticulture, and grafting much of the rest over to the new alternative white grapevine vermentino, originally from Sardinia and touted as a heat-and-drought-tolerant variety perfectly suited to the Riverland.
This was risky for two reasons. Organic viticulture was then – and still is – viewed with some scepticism by many in a region where growers habitually use synthetic chemicals to treat disease and spray herbicide to kill off weeds undervine; and there wasn’t at that time a huge demand for organic grapes. Also, while some commentators (like me) were loudly advocating the suitability of Italian grapes such as vermentino to the Riverland, they had yet to prove themselves in the marketplace.
But Bruce’s timing was spot-on. The next couple of years saw a mini-explosion of interest from smaller-scale winemakers like Con-Greg Grigoriou and large wineries such as Yalumba, keen to buy batches of organically grown and alternative grape varieties. The forward-thinking grower was well placed to supply; his business quickly grew and continues to expand. He’s making good returns, getting three or four times the regional average per tonne for his fruit – more like A-grade than D-grade prices – and even selling grapes to the same winery that cut him loose in the first place and forced him to make the change.
‘This time next year we’ll have fourteen different white grape varieties and twelve reds in the ground,’ says Bruce. ‘We sold one thousand tonnes of certified organic fruit last year, and three hundred tonnes of alternative grape varieties. The demand’s higher than the grapes we’ve got. There’s a damn sight better interest from the wineries and we get more of a kick out of it than growing conventional grapes. Looking back now, losing that contract was probably the best thing that ever happened to us.’
One of the keenest customers for Bruce Bassham’s grapes is Brendan Carter who, with winemaker wife Laura, runs the small Unico Zelo winery at Gumeracha in the Adelaide Hills, two hours’ drive to the west. Like Con-Greg Grigoriou, the twentysomething Carters are relative newbies in the wine scene. They came of age around the same time that organic and alternative wine styles were taking off, and weren’t burdened by too many preconceptions about the Riverland. To them, as potential purchasers of grapes, there was no concept of A-grade or B-grade or C-grade: all they saw was the grape variety they wanted (the white variety fiano, originally from the countryside around Naples), grown in an appropriately hot climate.
‘I pay the same price for Riverland fiano that I pay for Adelaide Hills grapes,’ says Brendan Carter. ‘Why not? I pay for it to be picked by hand because I want the best quality, and I’m making it into a wine that sells for $35 because I think it’s worth it.’
Again, this is revolutionary talk. Carter even dares to use the hallowed French term ‘terroir’ – how the country where the grapes are grown influences the quality of the wine – when he speaks about the River Sand fiano he sells under the Unico Zelo label.
‘Look at the landscape where these grapes are grown,’ he says. ‘The red sands, the Murray River, the gum trees: it’s the most unique Australian terroir we have. And if you grow the right grapes – like fiano, which doesn’t need so much irrigation, and which retains its acidity in the heat – you can express the characteristics of that terroir.’
He believes the European concept of terroir resonates with the Aboriginal concept of connection to country. He’s not alone: a few other winemakers across Australia are beginning to look beyond the industry’s historically superficial appropriation of Indigenous names and imagery – wine labels featuring dot paintings of cuddly marsupials, and so on – and are engaging at a more meaningful level with the culture of the people on whose traditional land their vineyards sit.
In Carter’s case, this engagement comes in the form of an acknowledgement on every bottle of wine he makes from Riverland grapes: he lists the vineyard name, the district name and ‘Ngawait country’ – a reference to the Aboriginal people who have lived along this stretch of the Murray for thousands of years.
IF YOU TRAVEL though the Riverland, especially in the height of summer, when temperatures can nudge 50 degrees and the flat scrubby red soil of the outback shimmers just beyond the watered green vine rows, it’s easy to see the logic of growing grapes like the white fiano and the red nero d’avola.
Nero thrives in remarkably similar heat and similar country in its -Sicilian homeland – without irrigation! – and it thrives here. It certainly makes more sense than chardonnay and shiraz, which have been shoehorned into this environment and need all the help they can get, both in the vineyard in the form of lots of drip-fed water, and in the winery in the form of acid additions. And Mediterranean grape varieties are a better reflection of the cultural background of many of the people from Italy, Greece, Serbia, Croatia and elsewhere who settled here after World War II.
But not everyone believes that you need to adopt alternative grapes to provide a viable future for the Riverland, or to make wines that best express the region’s terroir. Some also think a back-to-the-future approach is warranted.
Nottingham-born Master of Wine Phil Reedman is now an Adelaide-based consultant, but in the late 1990s, at the height of the boom, he was the Australian wine buyer for the giant UK supermarket chain Tesco.
‘The thirst was unquenchable back then,’ he says. ‘I would have regularly bought probably four or five million litres of wine for Tesco at that time. People were making good money.’
He still spends a lot of time in the Riverland, much of it helping wineries blend multi-million-litre batches of wine. But his latest project is on a different scale altogether.
‘I’ve been working with Byrne Vineyards, who have substantial plantings on the Murray at Morgan. They have large tracts of white grapes that none of the big wineries want any more: colombard, chenin blanc, semillon, muscadelle. They have no commercial value to speak of – they were being sold as “non-preferred dry white” for below the cost of production. But they’re old vines, on bony limestone soil. If they were in a region like the Barossa, they’d be very desirable.’
So, to make a point, Reedman and Byrne’s winemaker Peter Gajewski treated a small batch of these ‘unwanted’ grapes as if they were making a ‘fine wine’. They were fermented using wild, ambient yeasts in just six old barrels, with no acid adjustment (a near-universal practice with most conventional Riverland white wines) thanks to the grapes’ natural freshness and balance. The result is less than a couple of hundred cases of a rich, complex and extremely impressive white wine called Antiquarian, with a bold $50 price tag.
Among some older members of the wine trade – the retailers and the sommeliers – charging such a high price for a Riverland wine has raised eyebrows. But Phil has found that the newer generations don’t have the same preconceptions about the region, assess the wine on its merits and are happy to pay the price once they’ve tasted the quality.
‘This is my point,’ he says. ‘Why bulldoze a forty-year-old vineyard that’s producing really good grapes if there is the potential to convert that fruit into something that smart restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne and the Gold Coast will start selling and value? If we can persuade those at the top of the food chain that we can do things better and sustainably in the Riverland, then that might have a trickle-down effect. The problem is, a lot of the growers in the region unfortunately don’t understand this change of perception that’s taking place out there. They’ve been told, year in, year out, that their fruit is D-grade at best, that it will never end up in wines like this, so they believe it. It’s an indurated habit. And I think that’s a tragedy.’
SIX BARRELS OF wine isn’t going to change the world, of course. But the symbolism is powerful. And there are glimpses of broader structural change.
Some of Australia’s best-known large wine companies are increasing their commitment to organics. Barossa-based Yalumba have recently revamped their range of well-priced organic wines, mostly sourced from the Riverland. Drinks multinational Pernod Ricard (owners of the huge Jacob’s Creek brand) have a successful organic wine brand made from Riverland fruit that is sold in Scandinavia. And Angove Family Winemakers are in the process of converting all their vineyards – including the 350-hectare Nanya property at Renmark – to certified organic farming.
The region now boasts a dozen certified organic growers, who between them produce seven thousand tonnes of organic grapes. That’s a drop in the ocean when you consider that there are close to a thousand growers in the Riverland, producing almost half a million tonnes – but those seven thousand tonnes are the largest certified organic production of any wine region in Australia.
One of the most important people in the transformation of the Riverland is a humble, quietly spoken man called Ashley Ratcliff, former production manager for the large Yalumba winery and a fierce advocate for alternative grape varieties and thinking differently.
Ashley was instrumental in the formation of the Riverland Alternative Wine Group in 2008. As well as encouraging existing growers like the Basshams to take the plunge and convert to Italian grape varieties, he and his wife Holly have also led by example by establishing their own forty-hectare vineyard called Ricca Terra Farms to grow fiano and vermentino, nero d’avola and montepulciano, which they now sell to more than two dozen winemakers, both locally and as far afield as Margaret River in Western Australia.
The success of the Ricca Terra venture has led to the recent establishment of a new group called 100th Monkey Vignerons, a collaborative cluster of growers specialising in the growth areas of the industry that the wineries are willing to pay good money for: organics, alternative varieties and new, more suitable, higher quality clones of mainstream varieties such as merlot
‘The question we’re addressing is how can you disrupt the current, fractured process of buying and selling grapes, where growers are price takers at the bottom of an oversupplied chain?’ says Ashley. ‘What 100th Monkey has done is put together a group of growers with a reasonable amount of critical mass between them – 3 or 4 per cent of the Riverland’s output – who all agree on the best ways to improve the region, and have the combined ability to actually do something about it: to promote quality, to do our own research, to achieve higher prices.’
Ashley is a Barossa boy, born and bred. He bought a vineyard in the Riverland, he says, partly because it was cheaper than his home region, but also because he felt he could make a change to the culture.
‘There’s so much bad news and negativity in the Riverland. All you’ve got to do is say something good and people say “Oh, that’s refreshing!” – and that’s exactly the response you want if you want to inspire change.’
But where does this impulse come from, this desire to remould such an entrenched and seemingly intractable culture?
‘I grew up on a farm,’ says Ashley. ‘I like the people in the Riverland. They’re farmers. They’re down to earth. They frustrate the hell out of me because I think they could do so much more, so much better. But now I’ve got three other families involved in 100th Monkey who can actually also see the vision for what the region can do – that’s exciting.
‘And you’ve gotta do something, don’t you? Because if nothing changes, in ten years time we’ll all still be peasant growers in a region that’s still oversupplied. And we don’t want that.’
THINKING DIFFERENTLY, TAKING risks and changing culture have all paid off for Tony and Pam Barich.
I first visited Tony and Pam at their Whistling Kite vineyard on the banks of the Murray near Loxton in 2008. At the time, they were into their second year of farming using biodynamics, the controversial system of organic agriculture first developed by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s.
As the sun rose over the river, I watched as Tony Barich sprayed his sixteen hectares with a fine mist of preparation 501: powdered quartz dynamised in water. The vines were in rude good health: bright green foliage and slender tendrils reaching for the sky. The vines on the neighbour’s property, in stark contrast, were almost leafless, scrawny, close to death, just sticks in the lifeless, herbicide-scorched ground. The owner had lost a contract with the local winery so he hadn’t watered the vineyard all season – walked away, abandoned it.
‘I feel like I have to do something different,’ Barich told me back in 2008. He was acutely aware of how radical and unusual biodynamics was – and still is – in the Riverland. ‘But the old way of doing things up here just isn’t working; it’s not going to attract the younger generation into the industry. I’m trying to make it attractive.’
Almost a decade on, things are going so well for the Bariches they are planning to lease that abandoned property next door to plant more vines. The certified biodynamic grapes they grow are in demand and they get a good price for their crop. The Whistling Kite reds and whites are made for them by their friends Eric and Jenny Semmler at 919 Wines. They hold open days on the property, and are overwhelmed with positive feedback from visitors and customers.
As a result, succession looks secure: Adam, their younger son, is back on the vineyard and his brother Callan is planning on coming home next year.
‘Our eldest has been away for almost twenty years,’ says Tony. ‘He’s an accountant, he’s travelled the world. But the last time he visited he saw what we were doing and said “This place is just too good to sell to anyone else.”’
Tony has been growing grapes in the Riverland for forty years. He’s seen the industry boom and bust, seen most of the other growers in the region cling on to the D-grade bulk mentality – grow as much as they can, take what they can get from the wineries, never talk about quality, never mention the word flavour.
Last year, Tony’s biodynamically grown Whistling Kite montepulciano picked up two trophies at the Riverland Wine Show.
‘The judges described it as beautiful,’ he says. ‘For me that was the best reward of all.’