Australia’s Riverland Rethinks Its Bulk Wine Model

Craig and Sheridan Alm in vineyard Starrs Reach Vineyard, New Residence, Riverland, South Australia
Starr's Reach Vineyard / Image Courtesy of Starrs Reach Vineyard

Riverland—Australia’s largest wine growing region is one of its least known. Located northeast of Adelaide, Riverland covers 1,584 square miles along the South Australian stretch of the Murray River and is home to over 54,000 acres of vines. In 2022, Riverland fruit comprised 32% of Australia’s total crush by volume. Combine this with the fruit of neighboring inland regions and the figure jumps to a staggering 73% of Australian wine’s entire production.

Yet, few Aussies can point to Riverland on the map. That’s because the vast majority of this hot, dry region’s grapes, which are irrigated from the mighty Murray River, is sold in bulk to large wine companies for low prices. It’s been that way since the end of World War I, when a soldier resettlement scheme resulted in vine plantings of varieties like Palomino and Grenache for the production of fortified wines. Then, in the middle of the last century, table wines took off, and Riverland became the main source of sweet, white “Moselle” wines sold in bag-in-box form from varieties like Gordo and Sultana. Riverland ultimately cemented its bulk-wine business model at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st when Australia earned a global reputation for cheap and cheerful wines from French varieties like Shiraz and Chardonnay.

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Even Riverland’s name has been obliterated. Most wines that comprise some or all of the region’s fruit are labeled under that vaguest of geographical indications (GIs): Southeastern Australia.

Times, however, are changing. Despite recently experiencing one of its wettest springs that threatened the Riverland with flooding, the overall trend is toward a hotter and drier Australia, with water from the Murray River increasingly restricted. Economically, the Australian wine industry is recovering from the 2021 loss of its largest export market, China, due to trade disputes. It leaves a region like the Riverland in a complicated position. Many growers face tumbling fruit prices and uncertainty over whether buyers will even materialize, as large wine companies tighten purse strings and regroup. The timing is right for a rethink—both about Riverland’s bulk business model and about sustainable farming practices.

Reimagining the Riverland seems like a great challenge—one that is really important to the health of the entire industry.

A growing number of producers are doing just that, crafting shockingly fresh, vibrant wines from organically farmed, drought-resistant Sicilian, Spanish and Portuguese varieties that suit the Riverland’s climate, while simultaneously preserving the region’s oldest vines. They’re reimagining their region and proving that quantity and quality can reside together. And they are listing the Riverland name loudly and proudly on their labels.

Ricca Terra
Ashley Ratcliff (left) and the Ricca Terra family / Image Courtesy of Scott Logan at Litepost Photography

Ricca Terra

Perhaps no individual has changed the image of Riverland more than Ashley Ratcliff, who, with his wife, Holly, bought a 20-acre vineyard in the region in 2003. “It was the only place I could really afford to start,” says Ratcliff, who was working for large wine companies like Pernot Ricard and Yalumba in the Barossa. “There was no real grand plan or anything. It was just, well, let’s try the Riverland and see what happens.”

Drought was already a long-standing issue Down Under. “Climate change was just starting to grab some attention,” says Ratcliff. “So, I went to Southern Italy—in particular Sicily—and Southern France, and I realized that so many of these varieties were available in Australia, but no one was planting them. And I thought, well, why don’t we try it? What have we got to lose?”

Ratcliff set to work grubbing up the Sultana, Ruby Cabernet and Chardonnay planted on his vineyards and replanted the fertile, red earth-over-limestone soils to so-called alternative varieties like those he’d seen in southern Europe.

“We started with Nero d’Avola and Vermentino,” he says. Varieties like Montepulciano, Fiano, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Nacional followed. Unusually for the region, Ratcliff farmed his vines with organic principles from day one, scrapping mechanical pruning and harvesting in favor of a more hands-on, labor-intensive approach.

Today, Ratcliff’s farm is planted to 46 different grape varieties across 10 vineyard sites covering 200 acres. The fruit is sold to around 40 winemakers across Australia, including many of the nation’s most progressive small-batch producers.

Even more unusual for the Riverland, the Ratcliffs also make their own wines under their Ricca Terra brand (with sub-labels 22 Degree Halo and Terra Do Ria, the latter of which celebrates single vineyard Portuguese varieties). They’re colorfully labeled and affordably priced bottlings of everything from a single-varietal Arinto, Souzão and even Lambrusco.

The Ratcliffs envision these varieties as Riverland’s future, but they’re also passionate about preserving the past. Their label, Soldier’s Land, which consists of a Riesling, Shiraz and two Grenaches, comes from vines planted almost a century ago by returning war soldiers. Partial proceeds from the label’s sales goes to the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL), an organization that supports military veterans. But the project also serves to rescue some of the Riverland’s few remaining historic vines from being ripped out.

“We go and save these old vines, give the grower $1,000 a ton not to grub up, rather than $300 a ton to sell to big wine company,” says Ratcliff. “There’s going to be a lot pulled out over the next couple of years, which is going to be a tragedy, but we’re doing our bit to try save them.”

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Con-Greg Grigoriou, Delinquente / Image Courtesy of Josie Withers

Starrs Reach

The straddle between past, present and future is evident with another grower in the region: Sheridan Alm of Starrs Reach Vineyard. Alm’s family have farmed along the Murray River for six generations. In true Riverland fashion, Starrs Reach vines sprawl across 545 acres. The family also farms 200 acres of almond trees.

The large scale of Starrs Reach makes Alm’s commitment to quality and sustainability all the more impressive. Yields are kept low, as are vineyard inputs.

“To put it bluntly, we try and do as little as possible in the vineyard. And the hot, dry climate of the Riverland gives us a head start, allowing low inputs and minimal intervention,” Alm says.

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To increase biodiversity, she and her team have planted over 4,000 native plants in and around the vineyard to act as ground cover, the benefits of which are numerous, including an increase in water retention, beneficial native insects and soil structure. Seventy percent of the farm’s energy is powered by its solar panels.

Alm has also tackled water management—a constant issue in Riverland. She and her family helped found the Yatco Wetland Landcare Group to restore and utilize the third largest wetland in the South Australian Murray Darling Basin, located near their vineyards. The project has generated an annual water saving of three gigaliters (around 800 million gallons), and has seen a reduction in European carp, allowing native fish species as well as other native aquatic life to repopulate.

Alm has undertaken a mighty task. The rewards of her work can feel painfully slow. But her gaze is always toward the future.

“Having over 80 hectares of Murray River Floodplain and Mallee Highland Vegetation to care for is no small job,” Alm says. “Managing pest plants and animals and righting past wrongs by working with, not against, the natural assets of our land is key but does not yield immediate results.”

Thistledown Wines grapes in a vineyard
Thistledown Wines / Image Courtesy of Thistledown Wines

Million Suns

Giles Cooke MW, winemaker and managing director at Thistledown Wines, is known particularly for his Grenache from some of South Australia’s most expressive vineyard sites. Thistledown has been a customer of Starrs Reach for years, but 2022 saw the first bottling of a second label, Million Suns—a collaboration between the brand and the Riverland vineyard, in part, as Cooke puts it, “to emphasize the tangible work that is being done in a region that was previously only known for mass market wines.”

“When we started at Thistledown [in 2011], Grenache was virtually being given away,” says Cooke. “And reimagining the Riverland seems like a great challenge—one that is really important to the health of the entire industry.”

Producers like Thistledown have, arguably, had the greatest influence in altering Riverland’s public image. The majority of producers buying Riverland fruit from progressive growers like Ratcliffe and Alm are small in scale, but large in visibility, often crafting fun, creatively named and labeled wines that find their way onto social media feeds and into Australia’s most hip bars and restaurants. The wines are affordable enough to be poured by the glass, but not so cheap they’re destined for the bargain bin.

Delinquente Wine Co
Con-Greg Grigoriou, Delinquente / Image Courtesy of Delinquente Wine Co

Delinquente

Perhaps no one demonstrates this better than Con-Greg Grigoriou at Delinquente Wine Co. Firmly rooted in the Riverland, Grigoriou’s grandparents on both sides settled in the region in the 1950s during a wave of southern European immigration. Farming runs in the family, although Grigoriou initially wanted nothing to do with his father’s organically farmed vineyard and cooperative winery. It was natural wine that made him change his mind.

“I got into wine more from a drinking point of view, particularly minimal intervention and natural wines, which really appealed to me. So, getting into winemaking, I was coming at it from that angle. Trying to create something that’s small-batch and really interesting, honest and expressive.”

While Grigoriou works from a winemaking facility in Adelaide, he purchases organically farmed fruit from two Riverland-based grape growing families who, he says, have an even longer history in the region than his family.

Delinquente labels feature edgy, eye-catching illustrations of characters with face tattoos and names like Screaming Betty, Roxanne the Razor and Weeping Juan. Varieties run the gamut from Nero d’Avola to Arinto as well as the only Bianco d’Alessano planting in Australia. There’s also a trio of cloudy Pet Nats and a slightly more premium sublabel simply called Hell. The wines are electric, wild, low alcohol and remarkably fresh, considering their hot-climate origins.

Laura Carter. Location: Unico Zelo Winery. Details: Winemaker, Laura Carter checking on Esoterico maturing in amphora
Laura Carter, Unico Zelo / Image Courtesy of Unico Zelo

Unico Zelo

Another trailblazing producer, Unico Zelo, also began in 2014. Winemaker Brendan Carter founded the B-Corp certified winery and distillery with his wife, Laura. Despite the winery’s base in the Adelaide Hills, 125 miles from Riverland, Unico Zelo is closely associated with the region. Many of the brand’s wines are made from Riverland fruit. The Carters have long been fascinated by this historic region.

“As an industry, we’re often so focused on the colder fringe of winemaking, that we forget the intrigue and challenge of the warmer geographical fringes of winemaking,” says Carter. “It’s that curiosity that drives us to craft wine from the Riverland.”

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The Carters champion the drought-resistant varieties grown by Ratcliff and a few others via their brightly labeled wines like Fresh A.F., a blend of Nero d’Avola and Zibibbo and their Jade and Jasper Fiano. These varieties, the Carters believe, are key to Riverland’s future.

“I’d rather plant in the ground today what it takes 50 years for an ill-fit variety to match—without the expense of time, energy, effort or natural resources to get there.” says Carter.

This article originally appeared in the Best of Year 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

Published on December 7, 2022
Topics: Travel