Few people have done as much to promote alternative grape varieties, which suit the hotter, drier inland wine regions of Australia, as Ashley Ratcliff.
Ratcliff recently completed a four-year stint as Yalumba’s Oxford Landing viticulture and winery manager, moving to Angaston as operations manager, in charge of all bottling, packaging and logistics.
He has spent 22 years in the wine industry, the last 12 with Yalumba. At the same time he and his wife Holly, a speech pathologist, established their own vineyards in the Riverland and started Ricca Terra Farms at Barmera, which manages five separate but interrelated vineyard properties. The Ratcliffs own two of these outright: Ricca Terra Farm and Loveday Vineyard. Some of their grapes go into Yalumba Y Series Vermentino and Oxford Landing Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The other properties are joint ventures: Comley Farm is with former Yalumba chief winemaker Brian Walsh and his wife Margot; Bassham Family Vineyards with Bruce and Val Bassham; and Sherwood Estates with the Proud family at Loxton, which includes Australia’s only planting of bianco d’allessano, a white Italian grape which shocked everyone by winning the wine of show trophy at the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show (AAVWS) in 2010.
Ashely Ratcliff was born and raised in the Barossa on a farm, not a vineyard. He studied agricultural science at Roseworthy and became interested in viticulture while working at a farm supplier. He started as a grower liaison officer with Orlando Wines, then a grape buyer for Rosemount, Kirribilli and Casella, before being approached by Yalumba.
He chose the Riverland for his own vineyards because the land was more affordable than the Barossa. He didn’t see any point just growing the standards – shiraz, cabernet and merlot – so he looked at other varieties. The Riverland was a “big commodity region” and there weren’t many good news stories, so Ratcliff decided to do something different; something he could tell a positive story about and inject some optimism into the region.
Now, Ricca Terra Farms supplies about 1,000 tonnes of grapes a year to 30 mostly small wine producers, which are as far distant as Margaret River and Coonawarra. The farms grow a multitude of grape varieties, but the excitement is with the Mediterranean grapes, mostly Italian, which are more suited to hot, dry conditions than the French grapes such as chardonnay and merlot, and will be increasingly suited if climate change continues to have a warming effect. These varieties require less irrigation water which can be an important cost saver, especially as Riverland grape prices are always among the lowest.
The varieties that excite him the most are nero d’avola and fiano, while montepulciano, vermentino and lagrein are also impressing. What delights him about nero? “It’s a vigorous variety, but we are finding we’re able to grow nero with good colour, flavour and yield with less and less irrigation,” he says. “And the less we irrigate, the lower the vigour, which means less need for canopy management.”
Montepulciano is also useful as it doesn’t need much vineyard work to grow a balanced vine with good-quality fruit. The white fiano is similarly suitable.
Other varieties include durif, carmenere, moscato giallo, orange muscat, zibibbo (muscat gordo) and a little-known Serbian grape called slancamenca bela.
Ratcliff has been involved in Riverland viticultural projects, including mulching trials which demonstrated how it conserves soil moisture and saves on irrigation water. The cost of mulching was shown to be less than the cost of water – and the environmental benefits are obvious. Indeed, the environment is important to Ricca Terra Farms. “The single objective is to hand the land on to the next generation in better condition than we inherited it,” he says. The means to that end are water conservation, the use of low-impact agrochemicals, and support for industry programs that promote and enhance sustainable farming.
Ratcliff is a high-energy guy. He has run 10 marathons and last year helped organise Yalumba’s charity run between the Oxford Landing winery (in the Barossa) and the vineyard to raise money for a cancer charity. Oxford-2-Oxford involved more than 300 people running or biking 110km, raising $180,000. When Ratcliff won the Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology Viticulturist of the Year, the ABC’s Horticulturist of the Year (and runner-up to Farmer of the Year) as well as the Riverland’s Winemaker of the Year award, all in 2013, he decided to use the opportunity to promote the Riverland, generating much positive press for the region.
Ratcliff is also deeply involved in industry organisations, including technical committees and the AAVWS. He is a very worthy winner of this award.