Vine time to think ahead

Forward thinking: Mark Walpole in his Beechworth vineyard. Picture: Marcus Best Photo by RICKY FRENCH

Viticulturist Mark Walpole likes to think ahead — sometimes decades ahead.

As a champion of ‘new’ grape varieties that match long-term changes in climatic conditions at his Whorouly and, more recently, Beechworth vineyards, Mr Walpole says he can see no reason why production of grapes in the Murray Valley ‘food bowl’ couldn’t be moved upstream in future to north-east Victoria.

“We might see a fundamental shift of horticulture back towards the Hume Dam and to places like Rutherglen, which have the soils,” he said.

Mr Walpole’s long career at Brown Bros as a viticulturist saw him bitten by the non-mainstream grape variety bug, and supported a move to plant Touriga Nacional, Tempranillo and Verdelho vines at the Walpole family vineyard at Whorouly in 1988.

“We were probably the first to grow Tempranillo in Victoria and it’s really done very, very well so we have expanded those plantings as time has gone by,” he said.

“The grapes used to go to Browns and they made a cellar door-only wine for many years that was very successful.

“As time went by they had to take a more national approach and they planted vines at Banksdale (King Valley) and Heathcote to ensure an increased supply.”

In recent years, the Alpine Valleys, like King Valley, had become far more focused on non-mainstream varieties, Mr Walpole said.

“We went from large blocks of five, six or 10 acres [two, 2.4 or 10 hectares] of the mainstream varieties to grafting them over to something like Prosecco or Pinot Grigio on smaller blocks and selling much smaller parcels to many people, as opposed to large parcels to one or two buyers.”

Mr Walpole bought land at Beechworth in 1995 and planted vines in 1997 and 1998. Initially the grapes were contracted back to Browns and, in time, formed the beginning of his Fighting Gully brand.

“I have done the same thing at Beechworth as I did at Whorouly with new plantings of varieties to see how they would perform and the knowledge that I have probably got an extra month that I can get grapes ripe,” he said.

Even still, during the past 20 years, the changing climate has brought forward ripening of Pinot grapes at Beechworth from March to February. That prompted Mr Walpole to graft his Pinot vines over to Grenache, aiming to push out the ripening to the middle of March or April.

“Ideally the best vines are made from grapes that ripen towards the end of the season. So having Pinot ripen in the middle of February is really very challenging.

“The heat at the beginning of spring is one of the most critical things related to ripening. A hot October and November tends to bring ripening forward, while if you get a cool October and November it tends to push the ripening out.

“I expect that will be the case this season based on the accumulation of warmer days over the growing period.”

Roll out the barrels: Mark Walpole outside the barrel store at his Beechworth winery. Picture: Georgie James Photography Photo by Georgie James Photography

As well as grape variety selection, Mr Walpole has adapted other practices to offset the impact of warmer weather.

“In this area we use grass a lot. If it is a dry season, you knock down the grass early to preserve as much moisture as you can in the soil; during a cooler year you let the grass grow.”

Another fundamental change Mr Walpole has made has been to rotate his vine rows in new plantings 90 degrees to have them running east-west, rather than north-south.

“North-south rows had been based on vineyards in the Northern Hemisphere at higher latitudes where they were seeking the morning sun on one side and the afternoon sun on the other,” he said.

“You just don’t need that here. There is ample light and we want to avoid the afternoon sun on grapes.

“We manipulate the crop load to get the best result. We set up canopies fruiting wise so they are hanging out on the eastern side in dappled light rather than on the western side.

“And we do leaf plucking on the morning sun side on north-south rows in both the Whorouly and Beechworth vineyards to get the morning sun.”

Another weapon in his arsenal to keep the vineyards cool has been the use of a kaolitic clay spray on the western side of his vines prior to vintage, aiming to reduce the temperature of both the leaves and the fruit to avoid sunburn.

The natural clay product is mixed with water and sprayed onto the vines, keeping them functional during the hottest periods.

Looking ahead another 20 years, Mr Walpole said he expected wine grape growers in north-east Victoria would continue to move towards varieties that performed well under changed climate conditions.

Mr Walpole said the Alpine and King valleys would continue to see the evolution of varieties that do well in the milder climate, building on the success of Pinot Grigio and Prosecco.

He is working with two new varieties from Switzerland via Italy — Petite Arvine and Cornalin — that are grown specifically in cooler areas.

“We’re not a cool area but the difference we have over other areas are the mountains behind us; cool air comes off those mountains at night and brings greater humidity.

“That gives the plant a chance to recuperate from a hot day and go into the next hot day. That humidity is something we will always have.”

This case study is one of a number the North East Catchment Management Authority is undertaking to demonstrate how leading farmers are managing the risks associated with climate change. The initiative is supported by North East CMA through funding from the Federal Government’s National Landcare Program.