An unlikely wine region is proving to be fertile ground for progressive winemakers, writes Max Allen.
You don't expect to hear the words "terroir" and "the Riverland" in the same sentence. After all, the former is a French concept traditionally associated with single-vineyard, cooler climate "fine wines", and the latter is a warm South Australian region traditionally associated with producing vast quantities of cheap booze.
But when Adelaide Hills winemaker Brendan Carter talks about his 2015 River Sand Fiano - a deliciously complex white he made using grapes bought from the sun-baked heart of the Riverland - he throws the T-word around with passion. "Look at the landscape where these grapes are grown," he says. "The red sands, the Murray River, the gum trees - it's the most unique terroir we have. And if you grow the right grapes - like fiano, which doesn't need so much irrigation, and which retains its acidity in the heat - you can express the characteristics of that terroir."
Carter's not the only out-of-region winemaker fired up about the Riverland. The list of exciting small-scale producers from elsewhere buying grapes from here is impressive. Coonawarra-based Sue Bell makes pale, dry nero d'Avola rosé under her Bellwether label using Riverland fruit; Brad Wehr of Margaret River label Amato Vino travels across the Nullabor to source - among other things - fiano, nero and Montepulciano grapes; McLaren Vale's Brad Hickey ferments Riverland zibibbo (aka muscat) in amphorae for his Brash Higgins label; and Con-Greg Grigoriou's distinctive small-batch brand, Delinquente, is all Riverland fruit.
Most of the interest from these outside winemakers is in non-mainstream, alternative grape varieties. "Except we don't call them 'alternative'," says Riverland winemaker Mel Kargas. "We call them 'appropriate'. Sure, the bread-and-butter of the region is still chardonnay and shiraz and merlot because that's what the bulk market wants. But I like to think the future of the Riverland lies in less water-hungry and nutrient-hungry varieties like fiano, nero and Montepulciano."
It's a good point: while wine writers get excited by artisan-made grape-varieties-that-end-in-O, the big wineries still want large crops of more familiar varieties such as chardonnay and shiraz. In response, some of the region's growers are making trial batches of new clones of these varieties: at a recent tasting of some of these trial wines I was impressed by the depth of flavour in new clones of merlot from Italy and Argentina. Watch this space.
The man leading much of the revolution on the river is viticulturist Ashley Ratcliff.
In his day job, Ratcliff is production manager for Yalumba, but he also finds the energy and time to run his own Ricca Terra Farms in the Riverland with his wife, Holly, and vineyard manager Neil Bourton. Ricca Terra vineyard is planted predominantly with Italian grape varieties (the Ratcliffs supply the fruit for many of the wines mentioned above), but demand has been so strong he's started collaborating with other progressive local growers under the Ricca Terra banner, and is setting up another business to supply certified organic grapes.
"There's more call for alternative varieties than we can keep up with," says Ratcliff. "Once we've got going, we'll probably also be the largest independent organic grower in the state. I see these as the great opportunities for the region."
Again, he's not the only one. Thanks in part to the family-owned Angove wine company converting its 350-hectare Nanya vineyard in the Riverland to certified organics, the Riverland now produces around 7,000 tonnes of certified organic grapes annually - more than any other region in Australia. Much of this fruit ends up in large-volume brands such as Angove's and Yalumba's organic labels, but some is bottled by smaller out-of-region players such as Vanessa Altmann of the very cool Switch label and veteran organic winemaker David Bruer of Temple Bruer, and by local certified biodynamic producers Whistling Kite and 919 Wines.
Seven thousand tonnes of organic grapes sounds a lot - until you compare it to the 400,000 tonnes of conventionally grown grapes harvested here each vintage. There are still serious questions to be asked about the long-term profitability (most Riverland growers are paid woefully low prices for their grapes) and sustainability of an industry that completely relies on the Murray River for irrigation water.
But the more the word "Riverland" is proudly emblazoned on the label of high-quality wines - especially if they're made from lower-yielding, less-thirsty, organically grown varieties-that-end-in-O - the better we'll be able to answer those questions. And the more we'll be able to taste the region's unique terroir.