My first degree was in environmental management, and despite the skills I picked up proving useful use in wine writing, I still feel that they’re somewhat wasted years. So, what a pleasure to write this piece, first published in Gourmet Traveller WINE back in 2020, about how carbon farming and carbon-neutral wine production have evolved. It was a fun piece to write!
So, why am I publishing my original version here? After actual years spent trying to get paid for my work on Gourmet Traveller WINE Magazine, it’s time I acknowledged that my invoices are never going to get sorted, and I’d rather have a version of my (still unpaid) story here on Australian Wine Review instead.
The situation is particularly urgent as GT WINE have now lost the right to use the Gourmet Traveller name, and I’m not sure how much longer the business will be around. That burns, as I was first published in the GT WINe magazine almost fourteen years ago, and I have the utmost respect for what the Sarris family have done. However, I’m tired of being fed broken promises, and I’d prefer my work here, where I know it won’t be a 404 page on a defunct website tomorrow.
There’s a great quote, attributed to founder Robert Baden Powell, that you’ll find on scout hall walls worldwide.
‘Try and leave this world a little better than you found it’.
For a group of motivated vignerons, however, Baden Powell’s saying has ultimately led to a fascinating, almost unbelievable notion: Can we make great wines in a way that is not just sustainable but also helps fight climate change?
For grower, vigneron (he runs Hither & Yon with brother Malcolm) and viticultural consultant Richard Leask, it’s a query that has changed his life.
‘Sitting around the dining table one day, I found myself asking the question “, am I leaving my vineyard in a better shape than I found it?”’ he said.
‘That’s how I fell into the rabbit hole of regenerative farming systems’.
It’s a rabbit hole so deep that, in 2018, Leask won the $30,000 Nuffield scholarship to study best practice regenerative farmings systems across the world, taking him to see flower farmers in Kenya, innovative blueberry growers in South Africa and grapegrowers in Central Otago.
While this is a varied mob, they share a focus on improving that most important farm resource, soil.
Classically, while vineyard soils are a crucial tenet of terroir, they’re typically treated poorly. Unfortunately, as Leask notes, plenty in the industry still view soil as just ‘a medium to keep up grapevines’ – blasted perpetually with a toxic spray regime of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertiliser.
Carbon is not the enemy
However, Leask believes vignerons can address soil health through regenerative farming systems – and the solution revolves around carbon.
While increased carbon in the atmosphere is the biggest threat to humankind this century, in soil, it is part of the solution. Increased soil carbon concentrations can bump yields, improve water holding capacity and help nutrient retention. Regenerative farming aims to increase carbon concentrations and improve soil health.
‘It’s more than just carbon’, Leask explains.
‘It’s carbon plus better microbiology plus increased soil structure plus diversity of animals above the ground. It helps everything’ he said.
Down the road from Leask’s vineyard in McLaren Vale lies Dudley Brown & Dr Irina Santiago-Brown’s Inkwell Vineyards. Here, sustainability guru Irina and wine legend Dudley have embraced not just organic viticulture, but also the principles of regenerative farming with tangible results.
‘We haven’t put on inorganic fertiliser in 12 years, ’ Dudley explains.
‘(But) Our grapes basically get ripe at 2 baume less than ten years ago. I used to pick at 14-14.5. Now It’s more like 12.5-13’
Leask reports seeing the same thing on his 20ha ‘experimental’ block – which features a dizzying array of cover crop species and techniques drawn from global learnings.
‘At 12.5 or 13 baume we’re seeing some flavour’ he notes.
‘Our canopies are also strong later in the season. This year they were only just turning yellow when other vineyards were nude’.
The promise of resilience to heat stress alone is worth the investment for growers. But there’s another, bigger picture benefit here too.
‘We do soil tests twice a year, and one of the things we notice is that soil carbon is going up’ Brown explains.
‘We’ve gone from 0 to 2% carbon in the soil. That might not seem like much, but that’s a lot to be sucking out of the atmosphere’.
‘We’ve now abated the carbon emissions from our 17 years here on the property’.
This is where it gets exciting. According to data from the UN Convention on Desertification, the first metre of soil contains more than twice the amount of carbon than the atmosphere and has a capacity to achieve twice that of global vegetation.
That game-changing carbon sequestration potential led the UN to launch the ‘4 per 1,000’, which aims to improve soil carbon stocks by 4% annually. However, even this small improvement could be a crucial tool in the quest to keep global warming below the IPCC +2C threshold and save 5.5b tonnes of CO2 per year.
What is also attractive about regenerative farming systems for grapegrowers is that it avoids the Steinerism eccentricities of biodynamics (so no cow horns), while enjoying many of the same results.
The key techniques utilised in ‘regen farming’ include extensive cover crops, avoiding soil tilling, mulching, allowing livestock in the vineyard (natural fertilisers) and minimising chemical use.
An important mantra for regenerative agriculture is that there is no bare ground. Bare ground is not found in nature, stops soil from becoming rich in organic matter and amplifies soli heat. It’s kryptonite.
But this approach also requires you to ditch the picture of manicured rows as healthy.
‘Vineyards shouldn’t look like golf courses’ Leask said.
‘We need to understand that it might look like a mess, but that’s nature’
Further north in the Hunter Valley, Alisdair Tulloch from Keith Tulloch Wine is another that has seen results from ditching the status quo.
His family have taken the process a step further to become one of just a few certified carbon neutral wineries in the country, with a rigorous, government-audited certification process that requires offsetting all emissions during grapegrowing and wine production.
Though here’s the interesting part – while carbon-neutral wine production is a challenge, it can save money, as Tulloch explains:
‘The biggest issue for us hasn’t been cost, but technology; in many ways, reducing emissions has actually reduced our costs’ he said.
‘This might seem counterintuitive, but as an example, our solar array has been a great investment both in terms of delivering clean energy and reducing our electricity bills’.
‘Eliminating our reliance on emissions-intense fertiliser by growing cover crops in the mid-rows in between the vines has had a similar effect. We supplement this farming with the addition of chicken manure from a local poultry farm, using another agribusiness’s waste product to our gain’.
A recent study from the AWRI of sheep grazing in the Cumulus Vineyards at Orange found that it saved $22,800, 127 person-hours on a tractor and 13t of CO2. Sheep also contribute manure and don’t compact the soil like tractors. Plus, they can be a secondary income stream for vignerons.
It’s not about costs, though. Instead, for producers like Tulloch, the motivation lies in the realisation that, while reducing emissions is not easy, the payoff works on many levels, including with drinkers:
‘More and more we see environmentally conscious consumers’ Tulloch explains.
‘(They’re) enthusiastic about hearing about our carbon neutrality, sustainable farming and environmentally-friendly packaging’.
Dr Mardi Longbottom can see the appeal for vignerons being carbon aware too.
Longbottom runs the wine industry’s national sustainability program, Sustainable Winegrowing Australia. This program involves vignerons voluntarily reporting production metrics to assess their emissions. In return, they receive comprehensive benchmarking reports back.
It could just be healthy competition, but members have reported that this process ‘fuels the desire to change practices’ and forces everyone to question the ‘why’ about wine production processes and see if they can be more sustainable.
For some producers – like Vanya Cullen from Margaret River’s Cullen Wines, the quest to improve the earth is in the DNA.
‘Mum and dad left a legacy’ she said.
‘They fought to save lake predators in Tasmania, then protected the coastline here fighting against bauxite mining, successfully stopping it and making Margaret river pristine and natural’.
‘(regeneration and protecting the land) is a part of our makeup as a family’.
This focus ultimately led Cullen to be one of Australia’s biodynamic pioneers, with the winery now proudly carbon negative – ie, they offset more carbon each year than is produced. Cullen’s most recent offset project is the Yarra Yarra Biodiversity Corridor which aims to reconnect drier inland habitats with their coastal counterparts in remote WA.
On the eastern seaboard, Orange’s Ross Hill Wines Chairman Peter Robson is motivated by Baden Powell’s sensibilities, too, with his winery’s certified carbon neutral quest based on ‘a philosophy of leaving our land better than when we found it’.
Ross Hill was one of the very first in Australia to achieve the certification, largely after a NSW government energy audit.
According to James Robson, this spawned the solar power focus, and carbon neutral followed as the process just ‘gained its own momentum’.
Talking to other vignerons and it becomes evident that pathway is not unusual. Once the realisation dawns that sustainability is achievable, it just drives further continuous improvements and carries benefits beyond the feelgood factor, as James explains:
‘The business outcomes have been exceptional, it gives us a great story, but it has also opened up great opportunities – Qantas Wine is now our 5th biggest customer’.
While carbon neutrality is a guiding light, for the Robson family, there is unfinished business.
One key project with an intriguing outlook is in turning grape marc into biodiesel to fuel tractors. However, there is a serious future goal too, as James explains:
‘We have started a massive native tree planting program which will cover over 50 acres of the farm. In the future this will be a native walking track (but) it will take a long time’.
Down in Victoria, Tahbilk’s focus on emissions reduction and native vegetation has been a long-term project, too, as Hayley Purbrick explains:
‘We have been revegetating the property since 1995 for environmental co-benefits on farm, and did a carbon audit in 2008 motivated by Ross Garnaut’s Climate Change review’ she said.
‘Based on the review, we felt at that time there was a potential opportunity for Tahbilk to participate. We didn’t do too much at that time except purchase a composting machine’.
Flash forward a decade, and now Tahbilk are carbon neutral, with a comprehensive program for the future:
‘We are very close to achieving our goal of becoming naturally carbon balanced, which means we will be able to internally offset our own carbon emissions with our own revegetation sequestration’ Purbrick said.
‘After five years of dedicated work we have been able to reduce our footprint permanently by 25% and build up our revegetation levels to 160 hectares’.
Over the ditch in Marlborough is Yealands, who are not just the first NZ producer to be carbon neutral, but have a newly stated goal to achieve 80% emissions reduction by 2045.
Among the suite of processes used by Yealands (including an awe-inspiring solar panel roof), their innovative vineyard cuttings burner program is headturning. General Manager (Community Relations & Sustainability) Michael Wentworth explains:
‘We harvest up to 10% of our vine prunings, season them to reduce water content (so they burn clean), and burn them in purpose-built boilers’
‘The vines have a relatively high calorific content so are a good source of heat/energy to use in place of LPG for our water and glycol heating in the winery’
‘The initiative alone reduces our carbon footprint by over 140 tonnes per annum’.
A price on carbon: The final frontier
While it remains a politically vexed issue fast turning into a pipe dream, the reality is that the vineyards of the future could be used as carbon sinks. Not just help offset winery emissions, but even form an income stream for forward-thinking vignerons who would then sell carbon credits. Tulloch explains:
‘It’s not a pipe dream at all. In fact, it would be happening at a huge scale already if we just had a real, easily accessible carbon market in this country’.
‘A vineyard in Australia could fix double the amount of carbon in the soil than they currently do, but they wouldn’t see an extra cent’.
‘This is a particularly hard pill to swallow when you look at how damaging the changing climate has been to agriculture in our country’.
With the potential in some areas of a soil carbon concentration of 4-6%, carbon farming is definitely possible. However, Wentworth explains that it might just need more research and a whole farm approach:
‘As more study is undertaken around carbon sequestration in vineyards over time, that combined with native plantings and other enhancement initiatives will offer the potential to operate more in the “sink” space’ he said.
But there’s a problem.
One key challenge with carbon is that it is hard to store – then if you decide, for example, to till the soil, then you release carbon, are in deficit and need to start buying carbon credits again!.
Still, Leask put the reality into context.
‘If I’m going to leave a legacy I’m going to have to do some stuff that i’m not going to get paid for’.
(Featured photo is from Yealands website)
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It’s a pity about GT Wine mag. While it definitely catered to that AB demographic, to the point of bordering on pretentiousness at times (let’s all tootle out to the Yarra Valley for the weekend in our Range Rovers and buy a carton of Levantine Hill on our platinum Amex), its reviews, photography and wine travel features were excellent and if it does disappear it will leave a hole in the Australian wine magazine market. As it I haven’t seen a copy of Winestate on the shelves in at least 18 months and the Halliday magazine ain’t what it used to be: smaller, full of press release and promo content, the same old articles all the time (how many issues about cellaring are they going to keep churning out ?) and reviews I can get from the Halliday website, rendering the magazine itself largely redundant.