Australia’s Riverland wine region is a place that brings forth evocative scenes to those who know it. Grand paddle steamers, a vibrant river trade, historic country homesteads, a bold irrigation scheme, soldier settlements, an influx of immigrants, thriving booms, spectacular busts… all set against the sheer red cliffs and rugged landscape of the majestic Murray River. The history of South Australia’s mighty Riverland wine region has all the makings of an epic movie. Today, a new wave of independent and innovative winemakers working with alternative varieties, sustainable farming techniques and organic and biodynamic viticulture are creating an exciting new story for The Riverland...
Riverland: Wine history, evolution and revolution
South Australia’s Riverland is situated approximately three hours north of Adelaide on the Murray River. Nearly 10,000 square kilometres in size, it features vast tracts of orchards and vineyards punctuated by a string of towns, including Renmark, Berri, Loxton, Barmera, Waikerie, Morgan and Blanchetown. It’s Australia’s largest wine producing region, accounting for over 50% of South Australia’s output, and 30% of the nation’s grape crush overall, most of which is exported.
Despite its capacity and massive export presence, it has remained a relatively unknown and unsung region. However, cutting edge winegrowers and winemakers creating biodynamic, organic, and natural wines out of an exciting array of alternative varieties are changing the game. Small-batch, hand-crafted, approachable, artisan wines are the new face of the Riverland, and producers from all over Australia are vying for a piece of the action.
Riverland: A brief history
The Riverland was first established in 1887, when George & William Chaffey, Canadian engineers who had established irrigation systems in California, were invited by Alfred Deakin (then a minister, later to become Prime Minister) to establish an irrigation system using the Murray River. The prospect was a thrilling one for the Chaffey brothers, and they sold their stakes in their U.S. interests to head down under with their innovative machinery, irrigation know-how, and community development skills.
The result of their bold move were the towns of Mildura in Victoria’s Sunraysia district, and Renmark in South Australia’s Riverland. The irrigation techniques were a boon for the area, and the suddenly fertile land was used to grow a range of crops; including stone fruit, citrus fruit, grain and almonds. Encouraged by the success of the new developments, other towns followed suit and The Riverland region was born.
The new settlements were not without their problems, however, and the Chaffey brothers – hampered by the collapse of the Melbourne land boom, issues with seepage, and an inquiry into their practises in Parliament – eventually went bankrupt and their operations taken over by the Government. George returned to America, but William remained in Mildura, eventually setting up the Mildara wine company and becoming mayor of the town.
The area enjoyed a vibrant river trade and paddle steamers ruled the waterways, transporting goods and supplies on the network of rivers and tributaries throughout the inland areas. The first paddle steamer voyage on the Murray was in 1853, when William Randell launched the P.S Maryann at Mannum. Within 10 years’ there were more than 200 riverboats working the Murray, making it the busiest water highway in Australia. By 1910 though, rail and roads, ferries and bridges had ousted the paddle steamers – though some magnificent examples remain as popular tourist attractions on the river today.
By the 1920s, development of The Riverland as a wine growing region was gaining ground. In 1919 the Soldier Settlement Scheme encouraged returning soldiers to lease plots at several towns along the River, including Waikerie, Kingston-on-Murray, Berri, Cadell, Chaffey, Renmark and Barmera. Fruit co-operatives had been successfully negotiating the sale and distribution of fresh, dried and canned fruit for many years and in the early 1920s these returned service settlers formed the Berri Co-operative Winery & Distillery Ltd. to market and process grapes for wine. The fruit supplied was used to make fortified wines including port, sherry and brandy. After World War II, more soldiers and immigrants brought their skills and traditions to the area, creating vibrant communities and more plantings of crops and grapes.
Riverland: Boom to bust
By the late 1980s, The Riverland had become a powerhouse for grape production. Its warm, sunny climate, minimal disease, fertile soils, seemingly unlimited supply of water and technological advancements in picking and pruning meant that large and profitable yields were easily achieved.
Good export conditions and successful marketing campaigns in the UK and US for Australia’s ‘sunshine in a bottle’ wines, (and, later, the astonishingly successful ‘critter’ wines) fuelled a winegrowing boom, with prices reaching impressive heights; Riverland Chardonnay achieved over $1,000 a tonne.
By the early 2000s, plantings had doubled, and production and export demand were still high. However, the seemingly endless boom had started to turn to bust. An oversupply of grapes across South Australia, the drought, water restrictions, growing competition from other new world markets with lower production costs, a rising Australian dollar, and a drop in positive sentiment toward Australian wine all came together to bring about a sharp reversal and the end of the good times. Prices plummeted, and many small growers were forced to leave the land.
Riverland: The home of good value Australian wine
Today, the Riverland continues to provide much of Australia’s value wine. The Berri Co-op (now owned by Accolade Wines and supplying the Berri Estates, Stanley Wines, Renmano, Banrock Station and Hardys labels) is Australia’s biggest winery and distillery, with an annual crush of over 200,000 tonnes. Kingston Estate crushes over 90,000 tonnes. Yalumba and Angove Family Winemakers also provide a range of well-known, much-loved, good value, good quality Riverland labels that wine drinkers reach for every day thanks to their easy approachability, exceptional value and vibrant food-matching opportunities. The traditional varieties of Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet and Merlot are still popular – indeed, they still top the statistics tables today. But the Riverland is on the cusp of a revolution and a new story is being created for the region led by trailblazing producers focussing on the region’s strengths and advantages to create a dynamic new wine scene…
The new Riverland wine story is almost a mirror image of the old one. Once home only to broadacre plantings, now microplantings are the next big thing. Traditional varieties were the mainstay; now alternative varieties are taking centre stage. Industrial winemaking was once the order of the day, but hand-crafted, small-batch, natural and minimal intervention wines are gaining all the attention.
Much is changing in South Australia’s Riverland … Now there’s an exciting new edge, with several grape growers ignoring the status quo to change their viticulture practice. They’re embracing organics and biodynamics and planting alternative southern European grape varieties with great success.
David Sly, ‘Australia's hottest wine regions for 2017’, Australian Wine Companion
New vines. New viticulture. New viniculture
The most exciting development for wine lovers and winemakers is the growing interest in alternative varieties that better suit the hot, dry growing conditions of the region. Less water-hungry Mediterranean varieties that have proven themselves on the sun-baked plains of France, Italy, Spain and Portugal are now making their home in the sunny climes of the Riverland. Vermentino, Fiano, Bianco d’Alessano, Petit Manseng, Montepulciano, Lagrein, Nero d’Avola, Grillo, Tempranillo, Graciano, Durif, and Touriga Nacional are all being produced with incredibly exciting results.
Winemakers and growers are also pushing the boundaries with new (or old) winemaking and natural farming techniques. Minimal intervention and sustainable methods that respect and protect the region’s precious natural resources are key. Pam and Tony Barich from Whistling Kite have been farming their tranquil wildlife-friendly organic and biodynamic vineyards since 1976, and Eric and Jenny Semmler at 919 Wines offer an exciting range of fortifieds and certified organic and vegan friendly wines – all made with alternative varieties.
Con-Greg Grigoriou’s distinctive Riverland Delinquente label states, ‘Sometimes you've got to go home with a bunch of grapes who're ugly as sin’ are hand-made, small batch, organic and vegan-friendly. All of them are made from Southern Italian varieties. His ‘smashable’ wines include Screaming Betty Vermentino, The Bullet Dodger Montepulciano, Tuff Nutt Bianco d’Allesandro and Pretty Boy Nero D’Avola Rosato.
Winemakers from other regions are also excited at the scope and potential that the Riverland brings. Brash Higgins, run by ex-New York Sommelier turned ‘vinitor’ Brad Hickey, is a boutique winery based in McLaren Vale, but its cult $37 Zibibbo (a Muscat fermented in amphorae) comes from the Riverland. Brendon and Laura Carter’s hand-crafted Unico Zelo label is based in the cool-climate Adelaide Hills, but they turn to the ‘River’ for their ‘savoury, textural, brooding’ Nero D’Avola and ‘aromatic, textural, refined’ Fiano – two varieties that offer ‘insane acid retention’ despite the heat. Brad Wehr of small batch artisan label Amato Vino travels from the Margaret River to the Murray River to source the ‘lo-fi’ gear. Single-vineyard micro-batches, minimal winemaking input/adds, natural ferments, unconventional vessels – ‘the wild stuff’. His latest bold venture involves a tiny batch of Slancamenca Bela, a Balkan grape variety – wild stuff indeed.
There have been several proponents of the push toward alternative varieties, but the leading light behind the alternative grape revolution is trailblazing viticulturist Ashley Ratcliff of Ricca Terra Farms in Barmera, which supplies many of the alternative grapes for the Riverland wines that are gaining such acclaim.
Few people have done as much to promote alternative grape varieties, which suit the hotter, drier inland wine regions of Australia, as Ashley Ratcliff & Ricca Terra Farms
Ricca Terra was established in 2003 by Ashley and Holly Ratcliff with a mission to identify and nurture grape varieties that suited the hot, dry, water-challenged climate of the Riverland. The wines from their vineyards are prolific Gold and Trophy winners, and their sustainable viticulture, irrigation methods and vineyard management have seen them gain acclaim from several entities, including Landcare, the Australian Society of Viticulture & Oenology, the Environment Protection Authority, ABC Rural and Gourmet Traveller.
Riverland: Still the grande dame of Australian wine
The Riverland was established by grand visionaries, and it seems there is no shortage of them now. Ricca Terra’s mantra is ‘Viticulture with Vision’, and a bold band of visionary winemakers and wine growers are reshaping perceptions of The Riverland in Australia and around the world. It’s an exciting new era for the Riverland – and an exciting time for wine drinkers who are looking for something new.
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