Bugs in the vineyard are usually the stuff of nightmares for many viticulturists. Yet at South Australia’s Barossa Valley’s Kaesler Wines – they’ve got somewhat of a different approach.
With a vineyard ethos of sustainability and a focus on ‘green’ ecology practices that rely on biodiversity – bugs are a vital player in the vineyard. Winemaker and overseer general Reid Bosward thinks of it as smart management.
“We are essentially organic in our methods, but we’re not chasing certification. We are just very observant with what we are doing with nature. Nigel Van der Zande, our vineyard manager, actually has a big green stripe down his back. He’s nature boy. He watches this stuff and he really understands it. He understands ecosystems, not massive ecosystems, but he understands ours.” Reid says.
A deep sense of connection and understanding to the land, soil, and micro-ecosystem is the starting point. “We start with the dirt,” Nigel aka Nature Boy, agrees, running his hand through the healthy vines. “That’s the most important aspect. We are forever trying to figure out how to get the best out of the dirt and into our grapes.”
This wasn’t always the case for the Kaesler land parcels.
“These soils used to barren, effectively,” Reid says, “if you looked at the vineyard in 1999, many of the leaves had a brown singe around them. That’s a deadly sign – that means salt.”
The vineyard had been previously irrigated with around a million litres of water every year. Which brought up the yield – but at a cost.
“A million litres of water from our bore was basically the equivalent of two tonnes of salt per hectare,” Reid continues. “So it was actually slowly killing the vineyard.” Farming practices inherited from the estate’s original owners – Silesian migrants – that were 200 years old added to the soil woes.
“The first thing we did was cease the irrigation and start doing things that were more prosperous for the soil.”
This includes a number of sustainable management techniques that yield long-term results – instead of reactive actions that have undesirable consequences. Practices like planting native grasses in between the rows. However, the mid row management is not just native grass there are approximately seven species of grass, medics and clovers which all flower at slightly different times in an effort to extend the window they can attract insects to the property.
“These native grasses are really important because they have a very deep root system that drills down into the ground and grows in the winter,” Reid says. “We don’t mind things growing here in the winter, as they don’t compete with our vines. But in the summertime, these grasses will slowly die and their roots will become shorter, and the worms will follow up and eat the roots.” Worms equal soil health.
But with the good grubs come the bad – the scourge of Australian vineyards, the light brown apple moth. A type of leaf-roller moth, they lay their eggs on leaves and fruit – the caterpillars eventually hatching, then eating foliage and grapes. However, there’s a natural practice in use at Kaesler that deals with the wee devils.
“The way that we prune our vines is an old school way. Its cane pruning – we wrap a new cane every year and it promotes a really healthy canopy, which also creates quite a long bunch. The openness of that bunch allows the bugs [like the light brown apple moth] to be exposed,” Nigel explains. “That means that predatory insects, like parasitic wasps, can get to them.”
It’s a grossly captivating spectacle. The wasps lay their eggs inside the light brown apple moth caterpillars.
“The wasp larvae then hatch inside the caterpillar and feeds its way out and kills the caterpillar for us.” Biological pest control at its finest. Nigel promotes greater numbers of the parasitic wasps by growing flowering mid-row cover crops. Additionally, a magpie work crew picks up any slack, using their long beaks to get borer bugs in the bark of the vines.
Relying on these natural predators has lead to the minimal use of pesticides.
“We don’t use insecticides here – we haven’t really needed to I suppose,” Nigel says, “The predators just sort of get on top of the bad bugs, just before you think ‘oh you know, maybe we should think about doing something’ – you never really have to, they tend to just balance themselves out.”
The end result is a thriving vineyard that sits in harmony with the land, and its inhabitants – great and (microbial-ly) small.
“I think the way that I am running the vineyard is a little bit more holistic. It’s on a very sustainable level.”
It’s the big picture and doing right by the historic vines that matter to Nigel.
“We’ve got vineyards at Kaesler that were planted in 1893, some planted in the 60s and out at our Marananga parcel, vines that were planted 1899. I have a deep sense of responsibility for this vineyard and the health of it going forward. I might be here for another ten years – if I’m lucky – and then someone else is going to have to look after it. I want to hand it on in better shape than what I got.”
You only need to look at the healthy vines to see that the proof is in the pudding (wine).
Kaesler offers a guided vineyard walking tour and discover the sustainable practices in action. You’ll even be treated to a wine tasting in the Kaesler Cellar Door – to taste the fruits of hard labour. Get in touch here to book your tour and experience some of Barossa’s oldest vines.