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South Australia: A Sunburnt Country

Australia, the driest continent on earth, is facing a water crisis. ADAM LECHMERE visits one affected area, Barossa, to see if its wineries are sustainable, or if they contribute to the problem.

In South Australia people are fond of telling you they live in the driest state in the driest continent on Earth. ‘South Australia is a big, old, dry biscuit,’ they will say.

It is true. Australia is the oldest, flattest and most arid continent. Its lack of mountains contributes to the dryness – vast, flat lands mean high evaporation and seasonal river systems, with great variation between winter and summer flow. Australia has far and away the least rainfall of any of the five continents. Four-fifths of the country has less than 600mm rainfall a year. Half has less than 300mm.

Two hundred years ago, settlers came from very different lands – the wet, fertile countries of Western Europe – and brought in farming practices that had worked well back home. Their methods required water, lots of it, and space, and South Australia set about clearing land, deforesting and using reservoirs and weirs to control and divert the flow of rivers.

The result is a water crisis. In late 2002, the Wentworth Group – a collection of leading environmental scientists who describe themselves as ‘concerned’ – wrote, ‘Our land management practices over the last 200 years have left a landscape in which freshwater rivers are choking with sand, topsoil is being blown into the Tasman Sea, salt is destroying rivers and land like a cancer, and many of our native animals and plants are heading for extinction.’


The group concludes, ‘We are taking more resources from our continent than its natural systems can replenish. That, by definition, is unsustainable.’

Sustainable Viticulture?

So where does the wine industry stand? Are wineries sustainable or are they as rapacious as other industrialised agriculture – the dairy farms and flood-irrigated rice and cotton fields?

Everyone knows the extraordinary story of the South Australia wine industry. In the 1960s, no one had heard of Chardonnay, and two-thirds of South Australia wine production consisted of fortified wines. Australians were drinking a mere two bottles each per year. Nothing was exported. Only 700 tonnes of Cabernet Sauvignon were processed in 1966.

Fast forward to 1996 and the industry had mushroomed. Yet even then it didn’t really know what sort of growth was in store. In that year, Strategy 2025 was published, which aimed for South Australia to achieve 6.5% of the value of world wine production by 2025. To achieve that, grape production would have to double, from 850,000 tonnes to 1,650,000 tonnes, and 40,000 ha (hectares) of new vineyards would be needed.

Strategy 2025 was realised almost before the ink was dry on the document. A record 1.7m tonnes were crushed in 2001–2002. While South Australian production increase was a modest 2%, Victoria went up 12% and New South Wales by 26%. In April 2002, decanter.com reported that a new winery opened in Australia every 72 hours.

In 1996–7 the Australian grape industry used 400 gigalitres (400 billion litres) of water. That figure has since increased by around 30%. Given the shortage of water on the continent, wasn’t it irresponsible of Strategy 2025 to encourage development at such a frantic rate?

‘Not at all,’ says Keith Jones, environment manager at SA Wine and Brandy, a statewide organisation funded by wine companies and growers. ‘Sustainability is built into the strategy.’ He points to paragraph seven of the document, which reads: ‘Water is a priority issue in wine industry planning, not only for the grape supply expansion but also for the long-term sustainability of existing supplies.’

‘There has been a ground swell of support,’ Jones says. ‘Everyone is focussed on the issue.’

But many disagree. One of the most urgent problems associated with over use of water is the build-up of salt. Australia is naturally salty, and rivers – especially the Murray – are salty. But are they getting saltier?

Some say they are, and that the boreholes that feed the vines are becoming unusable. Water is drawn from ground systems that have been kept at a certain level by native-evolved trees like eucalyptus, which have incredibly deep roots that keep the water table down. Remove the trees, and the groundwater rises. With that comes the salt.

‘We have areas of Australia where the water tables have risen and have reached the salt levels, which brings the salt up and in turn sterilises the soil,’ Jones says.

The Threat of Salt

Viticulturalist Prue Henschke, who works with her husband Stephen at the world-renowned family winery and also sits on a dozen committees, including the Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology and its US equivalent, explains the twofold impact of rising salt levels in Barossa.


First, and most important, there is the physical degradation of the soil structure as the clay absorbs more sodium, a condition the scientists call sodicity. Secondly, there is a loss of vigour through reduced photosynthetic activity, which affects yield. This is more relevant to the bulk-producing, heavily irrigated regions along the Murray river.

‘The more you take fresh water out of the aquifers, the more they fill with salt,’ says journalist Philip White, whose articles regularly lambast the wine industry for its complacency in the face of what he sees as an ever-growing problem.

‘The wine industry has systematically abused aquifers and underground water storage. The Padthaway aquifer is destroyed – it’s full of salt. You can’t use aquifers in Langhorne Creek. Polish Valley is full of salt.’

Arguments rage as to whether salt is affecting the taste of the wine. White cites a number of examples of salty-tasting wine and he is backed up by winemakers who have rejected parcels of grapes because they were too salty. Rolf Binder at Veritas is one. ‘It does happen – it is a problem. I have rejected Riesling in the past because it was too saline,’ he says. He didn’t re-buy from that block because of the sodium levels.

A Barossa multinational has also rejected grapes from a Padthaway grower. The reason? ‘A combination of too much salt and other factors,’ a senior source says.

Some stories are exaggerated. It is said Michael Waugh, at the tiny and much-lauded Greenock Creek, didn’t release his 2000 Creek Block Shiraz because it was salty. Not true, says Waugh. ‘It just wasn’t right to put it on the market. It wasn’t the first time. I didn’t release the 1989 either.’

Greenock Creek is so salty, Waugh says, that he could walk on it. But it’s been like that ‘for aeons’.

There are other sceptics. Andrew Wigan, chief winemaker at Lehmann, has heard of buyers who have rejected grapes for saltiness but he says he’s never come across salty wine.

Salty or not, White believes the Australian wine industry has missed an opportunity. ‘When we moved from being a wine business to an industry, we decided to become the best irrigators in the world. We should have been the best dry-grown viticulturalists in the world.’

But it is irrigation that has made Australian wine a world beater. ‘Australian wine is known for quality and consistency. That is what irrigation gives it,’ says Jones.

Water and salt, like global warming, are issues without consensus. Even if everyone accepts there is a problem, no one can agree on its gravity, or its solution.

The Murray River BIL scheme is a case in point. In 1999, a private company called Barossa Infrastructure Limited ran a pipeline to carry 120 megalitres of water per day from the Murray to Barossa. That the scheme is controversial is shown by the fact that BIL has been refused permission to do the same in the Clare Valley. But protagonists cannot agree whether bringing fresh water into the area reduces or increases salination.

Cecil Camilleri, senior environmental manager at Yalumba, gives this precis: ‘There are two positions. The first is that we have ameliorated the situation because we’re bringing in less salt water. The second is that we should be leaving the Murray water where it is.’

There is also the ‘shandy’ theory. Fresh water is less dense than salt water and so floats on top. The more fresh water you pump into the salty Barossa, the more you will have at the top of the water table. The downside of that, White says, is that fresh water is the first to run off, leaving more salt behind.

Every big winery in Australia claims the moral high ground on water husbandry and environmental management. Southcorp, Yalumba and Beringer all have environmental programmes in place. Winemakers like Andrew Ewart at Mountadam pioneer waste water schemes and Orlando Wyndham, owner of Jacob’s Creek, is partnering with the South Australian Research and Development Institute to find different methods of saving water.

Russell Johnstone, Orlando’s group technical manager, claims the 10% of the vineyard at Langhorne Creek that is part of the experiment is using 33% less water than traditionally irrigated plots. The project uses partial rootzone drying (a system that waters only half the roots and tricks the vine into thinking it’s getting its full share); sub-surface irrigation; and mulching to increase water-retention.

The state and local governments act positively, but are subject to the revolving door of politics, says Camilleri. ‘They are receptive and proactive but the response is not consistent. They are not addressing the problem with sufficient fervour.’

SA Wine and Brandy chief executive Linda Bowes refutes that. She points to AU$500m funding from state and federal governments to address the problem in the Murray Darling Basin and says the South Australian government has been husbanding water supplies since 1914.

‘South Australia has conservatively managed its available water resources since the mid-1970s,’ she adds, and says that as schemes have increased in sophistication, ‘all Australian states now use a roughly similar system of water resources planning and allocation’.

Water, it is said, will rival oil as the cause of wars this century. Whatever the solution, it won’t please everyone. Prue Henschke makes suggestions and instantly sees their impracticability.

‘We need good management to survive intensive horticultural use – mulching, no cultivation, no saline irrigation, addition of organic matter. But grape growers are slow to take these on because they are more expensive and restrict yield.’ Or, she suggests, the industry ‘should be driving the pursuit of much higher quality to enhance the profit line’.

That would be a way towards White’s Utopia of a wine industry that is entirely dry-grown. But all these solutions go to the very heart of Australia’s success: sunshine in a bottle – and cheap. And for that you need water.

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