It’s not being called a ‘vineyard of the future’, but a 0.4 hectare trial site in the Barossa Valley is certainly visionary. The aim is to try to create a ‘no spray, no prune’ environment that also uses water more efficiently.
The hope is that some combination of these three factors can reduce overall vineyard costs sufficiently to allow Australia to at least consider moving to the higher density plantings that are common in Europe (where there are often more than 5000 vines per hectare, compared with around 1500 here).
There is no imperative now, but governments and industries around the world are looking at ways to use scarce arable land more effectively.
The project, funded by Wine Australia, is a collaboration between the CSIRO and the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), led by the CSIRO’s Dr Mark Thomas and based at SARDI’s research station near Nuriootpa.
This project will attempt to change that picture by targeting three of the biggest costs. ‘It’s hard to get accurate figures because input costs vary between regions, but if you look at the Barossa Valley, where they do a lot of hand pruning, it’s estimated that 30 per cent of operating costs relate to pruning, 29 per cent to labour and 31 per cent to water’, Dr Thomas said.
It’s going to be a complex task. The CSIRO has a group of new rootstocks, some of which confer low or high vigour to the scions, and new scion genotypes that don’t require pruning and the researchers will mix and match these. The new scions are also resistant to both powdery and downy mildew, so they don’t need to be sprayed with fungicides. These different combinations will be grown under different densities and with a variety of irrigation treatments.
‘What we want to do over the next couple of years is to get the yield data, make wine to ensure quality is not affected, and assess the input costs to see what reductions you could potentially achieve’, Dr Thomas said.
‘It’s going to be pretty intensive, particularly during the season, because we are also going to be testing new digital technologies to monitor how efficiently the vines are using water.’
‘From a research perspective, we’ve got an opportunity to move away from the old ways of going out into the vineyard and taking a measurement then coming back a week or two later, because the digital technologies will allow monitoring of the vines 24/7.’
As well as Dr Thomas and Dr McCarthy, the six-person research team includes the leader of CSIRO’s Winegrapes and Horticulture Group, Dr Ian Dry, a technician and a specialist in sensors who will oversee the monitoring equipment.
It’s research that is likely to change as it goes, depending on what the early results show, and the final results could show anything. Dr Thomas says it’s quite possible that they will ‘succeed’ in each component part yet not achieve sufficient overall savings, or equally that only one or two ‘successes’ may be enough. And it may be a different story for different regions.
Whatever the outcome, the potential for change is only with new plantings. ‘It’s not something you could apply to an existing vineyard.’