Producers at Cullen Estate are mindful of the environmental legacy they leave.

There’s a great quote attributed to founder Robert Baden-Powell that you’ll find on Scout hall walls around the world: “Try and leave this world a little better than you found it.” That was intended to encourage grubby scouts to clean up campsites when they left. For a group of motivated vignerons, however, Baden-Powell’s ideal has led to a fascinating, almost unbelievable notion: Can we make great wines in a way that is not just sustainable, but also helps fight climate change?

For grower, vigneron (he runs Hither & Yon in McLaren Vale with brother Malcolm) and viticultural consultant Richard Leask, it’s a query that has changed his life.

“Sitting around the dining table one day I found myself asking the question – ‘Am I leaving my vineyard in a better shape than I found it?’,” he says. “That’s how I fell into the rabbit hole of regenerative farming systems.”

It’s a rabbit hole so deep that in 2018, Leask entered and won the $30,000 Nuffield Scholarship to study best-practice regenerative farming systems across the world, taking him to see flower farmers in Kenya, innovative blueberry growers in South Africa and grape growers in Central Otago.

While this is a varied mob, they all share a focus on improving that most important farm resource: soil. Although vineyard soils are held up as being the key tenet of terroir, they’re typically treated poorly. As Leask notes, there are still plenty of people in the industry who view soil as just a medium to keep up grapevines; it’s perpetually blasted with a toxic spray regime of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertiliser.

Dr Irina Santiago-Brown and Dudley Brown, of Inkwell, are embracing regenerative farming with  good results.
Dr Irina Santiago-Brown and Dudley Brown, of Inkwell, are embracing regenerative farming with
good results.

Carbon is not the enemy

Through regenerative farming systems, however, Leask believes vignerons can address soil health – and the solution is counterintuitively centred on carbon.

While increased carbon in the atmosphere is described as the biggest threat to humankind this century, in the soil, it is part of the solution. Increased soil carbon concentrations can bump up yields, improve water holding capacity and help nutrient retention. Regenerative farming aims to increase carbon concentrations and improve soil health in the process.

“It’s more than just carbon,” Leask says. “It’s carbon plus better microbiology plus increased soil structure plus diversity of animals above the ground. It helps everything.”

Down the road from Leask’s vineyard lies Dudley Brown and Dr Irina Santiago-Brown’s Inkwell Vineyards. Here, sustainability guru Irina and wine legend Dudley have embraced not just organic viticulture, but also the principles of regenerative farming – with palpable results.

“We haven’t put inorganic fertiliser on in 12 years,” Dudley says. “Our grapes basically get ripe at two baumé less than 10 years ago. I used to pick at 14-14.5; now it’s more like 12.5-13.”

Leask reports seeing the same thing on his 20ha “experimental” block – which features a dizzying array of cover crop species and techniques drawn from learnings around the globe.

“At 12.5 or 13 baumé, we’re saying, ‘Wow, we’re seeing some flavour’,” he notes. “Our canopies are also strong later in the season. This year they were only just turning yellow when other vineyards were nude.”

For growers, the promise of resilience to heat stress alone is worth the investment. But there’s another, bigger picture benefit here, too.

“We do soil tests twice a year and one of the things we notice is that soil carbon is actually going up,” he explains.

“We’ve gone from 0% to 2% carbon in the soil. That might not seem like much but that’s a lot to be sucking out of the atmosphere. We’ve now abated the carbon emissions from our 17 years here on the property.”

This is the point where it gets exciting. According to data from the UN Convention on Desertification, the first metre of soil contains more than twice the amount of carbon than the atmosphere -and it has the capacity to store twice that of global vegetation.

That game-changing sequestration potential led the UN to adopt the ‘4 per 1,000’ initiative developed by France, which aims to improve soil carbon stocks by 4% annually. Even this small improvement could be a crucial tool in the quest to keep global warming below the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change +2 °C threshold and save 5.5bn tonnes of CO2 per year.

Getting messy

What is also attractive about regenerative farming systems for grape growers is that they avoid the eccentricities of biodynamics (so no cow horns), while enjoying many of the same results. The key techniques utilised in ‘regen farming’ include extensive cover crops, avoiding soil tilling, mulching, allowing livestock in the vineyard (natural fertilisers) and minimising chemical use. An important mantra for regenerative agriculture is that there is to be no bare ground. Bare ground is not found in nature; it stops soil becoming rich in organic matter and amplifies soil heat. It’s kryptonite. But this approach also requires the grower to ditch the picture of manicured rows as healthy. “Vineyards shouldn’t look like golf courses,” Leask says. “We need to understand that it might look like a mess, but that’s nature.”

James and Chrissy Robson, from Ross Hill Wines, are living their philosophy.
James and Chrissy Robson, from Ross Hill Wines, are living their philosophy.

The payoff

Further north in the Hunter Valley, Alisdair Tulloch, from Keith Tulloch Wine,  is another who has seen results from ditching the status quo. His workplace has taken the process a step further, becoming one of just a few certified carbon neutral wineries in the country, through a rigorous, government audited certification process that requires offsetting all emissions during both grape growing and wine production.

Here’s the interesting part – while carbon neutral wine production is a challenge, it can actually save money. Tulloch explains: “The biggest issue for us hasn’t been cost, but technology; in many ways, reducing emissions has actually reduced our costs. This might seem counterintuitive, but as an example, our solar array has been a great investment both in terms of delivering clean energy and reducing our electricity bills.

“Eliminating our reliance on emissions-intense fertiliser by growing cover crops in the mid-rows in between the vines has had a similar effect. We supplement this farming with the addition of chicken manure from a local poultry farm, using another agribusiness’ waste product to our gain.”

A recent study undertaken by the Australian Wine Research Institute found sheep grazing in the Cumulus Vineyards in Orange saved $22,800, 127 person hours on a tractor along with 13 tonnes of CO2. Sheep also contribute manure and don’t compact the soil like tractors, plus they can be a secondary income stream for vignerons.

It’s not about costs, though. For producers like Tulloch, the motivation lies in the realisation that while reducing emissions is not easy, the payoff works on many levels, including with drinkers. “More and more we see environmentally conscious consumers,” Tulloch says. “[They’re] enthusiastic about hearing about our carbon neutrality, sustainable farming and environmentally friendly packaging.”

Dr Mardi Longbottom can see the appeal for vignerons being carbon aware, too. Longbottom runs the wine industry’s national sustainability program, Sustainable Winegrowing Australia. It involves vignerons voluntarily reporting production metrics to assess their emissions. In return, they receive comprehensive benchmarking reports back. It could just be healthy competition, Longbottom says, but the fact members report this process fuels the desire to change practices and forces everyone to question the ‘why’ of production to see if they can be more sustainable.

For some producers, like Vanya Cullen from Margaret River’s Cullen Wines, the quest to improve the earth is already in the DNA. “Mum and dad left a legacy,” she says. “They fought to save lake predators in Tasmania, then protected the coastline here, fighting against bauxite mining, successfully stopping it and making Margaret River pristine and natural.”

This legacy saw Cullen become one of Australia’s biodynamic pioneers, with the winery proudly carbon-negative, annually offsetting more carbon than it produces. Cullen’s most recent offset project is the Yarra Yarra Biodiversity Corridor, which aims to reconnect drier inland habitats with their coastal counterparts in remote Western Australia.

Back over on the eastern seaboard in Orange, Ross Hill Wines’ Peter Robson is clearly motivated by the sensibilities of Baden-Powell too. His winery’s certified carbon neutral quest is based on “a philosophy of leaving our land better than when we found it”. Ross Hill was one of the first in Australia to achieve the certification, and it largely came about after a NSW Government energy audit. This spawned the solar power focus and carbon neutrality followed as the process “gained its own momentum”, according to his brother, James Robson.

That pathway is not unusual. Once the realisation dawns that sustainability is achievable, it drives further continuous improvements and carries benefits beyond the feel-good factor.

“The business outcomes have been exceptional,” James says. “It gives us a great story but it has also opened up great opportunities – Qantas Wine is now our fifth biggest customer.”

Alisdair Tulloch, from Keith Tulloch Wine, says carbon neutral production saves money too.
Alisdair Tulloch, from Keith Tulloch Wine, says carbon neutral production saves money too.

The future

While carbon neutrality is a guiding light, for the Robson family, there is more to come. One project with an intriguing outlook is the plan to turn grape marc into biodiesel to fuel tractors. There is a serious future goal, too, as James explains: “We have started a massive native tree planting program which will cover over 20 hectares of the farm. In the future, this will be a native walking track, (but) it will take a long time.”

Down in Victoria, Tahbilk’s focus on emissions reduction and native vegetation has been a long-term project, too, according to Hayley Purbrick, who heads the carbon-neutral effort there.

“We have been re-vegetating the property since 1995 for environmental co-benefits on farm, and did a carbon audit in 2008 motivated by Ross Garnaut’s climate change review,” she says.

“Based on the review, we felt at that time there was a potential opportunity for Tahbilk to participate. We didn’t do too much at that time except purchase a composting machine.”

Fast forward a decade, and now Tahbilk are carbon-neutral, with an expansive program for the future.

“We are very close to achieving our goal of becoming naturally carbon balanced, which means we will be able to internally offset our own carbon emissions with our own re-vegetation sequestration,” Purbrick says. “After five years of dedicated work, we have been able to reduce our footprint permanently by 25 per cent and build up our re-vegetation levels to 160 hectares.”

Over the ditch in Marlborough is Yealands. They’re not just the first New Zealand producer to become carbon neutral, but they also have a stated goal to achieve 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2045. Among the suite of processes Yealands is using (including an awe-inspiring solar panel roof), their innovative vineyard cuttings burner program is a head-turner.

General manager of community relations and sustainability Michael Wentworth explains: “We harvest up to 10 per cent of our vine prunings, season them to reduce water content (so they burn clean), and burn them in purpose-built boilers. The vines have a relatively high calorific content so are a good source of heat and energy to use in place of LPG for our water and glycol heating in the winery. This initiative alone reduces our carbon footprint by over 140 tonnes per annum.”

Tahbilk's Alister and Hayley Purbrick.
Tahbilk’s Alister and Hayley Purbrick.

A price on carbon: The final frontier

While it remains a politically vexed issue with the potential to turn into a pipe dream, the reality is that the vineyards of the future could be used as carbon sinks. They’d not just help offset emissions, but they could even form an income stream for forward thinking vignerons who would then sell carbon credits.

“It’s not a pipe dream at all,” says Tulloch. “In fact, it would be happening at a huge scale already if we just had a real, easily accessible carbon market in this country. A vineyard in Australia could fix double the amount of carbon in the soil than they currently do, but they wouldn’t see an extra cent. This is a particularly hard pill to swallow when you look at how damaging the changing climate has been to agriculture in our country.”

With the potential of a soil carbon concentration of 4-6%, carbon farming is definitely possible. Wentworth anticipates it might need more research and a whole-farm approach.

“As more study is undertaken around carbon sequestration in vineyards over time, combined with native plantings and other enhancement initiatives, that will offer the potential to operate more in the ‘sink’ space,” he says.

There are downsides. Carbon is hard to store and if you decide to till the soil, then you release the carbon, go into deficit and need to start buying carbon credits again.

For Hither & Yon’s Richard Leask, it’s worth the potential cost. “If I’m going to leave a legacy, I’m going to have to do some stuff that I’m not going to get paid for,” he says with a shrug.

Vanya Cullen  of Cullen Wines.
Vanya Cullen of Cullen Wines.