Australian vineyard soil health explored

Claude and Lydia Bourguignon (Photo: Xhienne)

Vineyard soil and geology have never received as much attention as they do today. In Australia, what lies beneath their feet has seldom been of much interest to winemakers but now, there is widespread acknowledgement that soil health is crucial to vine health and wine quality.

To that end, renowned French soil scientists Claude and Lydia Bourguignon have just visited Australia. The consultancy was initiated by Rob Walters, of Melbourne-based importer Bibendum. Bourguignon made himself quotable a few years ago for saying if the Burgundy region continued the way it was going, its soils would soon have no more life than those of the Sahara Desert. This put a rocket under the region, and Burgundians moved to improve their approach to soil management.

The Bourguignons have consulted to many prestige domaines in Europe including Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Dujac and Domaine Leflaive.

The husband and wife team visited eight vineyards in Victoria and Western Australia, including Walters’ Macedon Ranges vineyard, Bindi, 1000 Candles and Rochford, as well as Margaret River vineyards Vasse Felix and Voyager Estate.

Vasse Felix chief winemaker Virginia Willcock told me she had been thrilled to have the Bourguignons visit her vineyard, digging holes and making observations. She said Claude had been impressed with the quality of the Wilyabrup soils, had dug down 1.5 metres and found sufficient water-holding clay beneath the gravel to suggest the vines could be grown without irrigation. He encouraged Vasse to cultivate the inter-row soil in order to cut the surface roots, encouraging the vines to send their roots deeper to the moisture beneath. His message might be summarised thus: a deep root system and a living soil are required to produce high-quality, mineral wines that reflect their place. Both Vasse Felix and Voyager are moving towards organic management.

Walters said that although he has an established vineyard, he is still planting, so the Bourguignons’ opinions were valuable for his future plans. He said the Bourguignons have a unique service which measures the structural, mineral and biological elements of the soil as well as the health of the vines and root structures, and then relates that back directly to wine quality and style as well as the way the vineyard should be managed.

They had taken soil samples from all of the vineyards back to their laboratory, LAMS*, in France for analysis. They had analysed soil from 9000 properties worldwide and used this to establish a Terroir Index, which they could draw on to make recommendations for planting and vineyard management.

Walters said their policy was to not analyse any soil without visiting the vineyard personally, and as this was quite expensive, he had found others to share the cost.

One thing that had surprised the visitors, for the wrong reason, was how widely spaced most Australian vineyards are. Their approach is to suit the planting density and vineyard management to the soil.

Walters’ vineyard is sited not far from Bindi and his first wine, a 2017, will be released later this year under the name Place of Changing Winds.

*Laboratoire Analyses Microbiologiques Sols.

2 thoughts on “Australian vineyard soil health explored”

  1. Frank van de Loo says:

    Hmm. Wonderful to have the Bourguignons visiting Australian vineyards, and I’m sure there was a lot they could have learnt from us as well as we from them. But there seems to be a bit of cultural cringe going on. Just because they feel it is good to cultivate vineyards in France doesn’t mean it makes any sense to do so here, where the soils and geology are so much more ancient, subject to periodic drought and generally more fragile. Cultivation kills the soil through oxidation of organic matter. Young French soils can tolerate this abuse much more than ours can.
    “One thing that had surprised the visitors, for the wrong reason, was how widely spaced most Australian vineyards are. Their approach is to suit the planting density and vineyard management to the soil.” But perhaps that’s precisely what we’re already doing. The narrow planting dogma is questionable in France, and how different are our viticultural conditions!

    1. Huon Hooke
      Huon Hooke says:

      Yes Frank, I’m sure there is much more to it. Re cultivation, a ‘one size fits all’ approach would be crazy and I’m sure not what the Bourguignons advocate. Re planting density: it does seem that most Australian vineyards were historically low-density, and rows widely-spaced to fit a tractor, no other reason, and few have ever questioned whether it ought to be so.

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