Article – The Age – Taming a mighty river…

Posted on Oct 27, 2011

art bruce bassham 20111017125215149657 420x0 Article   The Age   Taming a mighty river...

Bruce Bassham

This article appeared in The Age – October 18 2011
The Riverland has contributed to, then suffered from, over-supply; it has been hit by drought, water restrictions, salinity, climate change and the global financial crisis.
Eventually the big wine companies stopped renewing growers’ contracts. Things looked grim.
During a two-day visit to the Riverland earlier this year, organised by the Riverland Alternative Wine Group (RAWG), it became obvious some growers had been doing it tough. With vintage a few weeks away, Bassham’s future hinged on whether contracts were forthcoming. After losing his biggest contract in 2008, and with ”bottom-feeders” buying his fruit for next to nothing the following year, he thought: ”If that happens again, I’ll have to sell my property.”
His vineyards were planted to chardonnay and shiraz, plus some cabernet sauvignon, semillon and gordo. But with guidance from the RAWG, he planted and grafted some varieties that were new to him, such as vermentino, fiano, nero d’Avola and montepulciano. He’d never planted a variety without having a contract securing it. It was time to be proactive.
Ashley Ratcliff, viticulturist and the inaugural chairman of the RAWG, says the group came about officially in November 2008 to investigate how different grape varieties could be used to mitigate climate change and provide a point of difference in the marketplace.
Ratcliff, whose job as agribusiness and technical manager for Yalumba includes focusing on the Riverland, says the group wants to identify other grape varieties that are suited to the Riverland’s climate, ”and from there, to encourage our members, our growers, to plant them”.
Chardonnay and shiraz still dominate but the climate is too hot and continental, particularly for the former, to produce outstanding examples. Varieties that cope well with such conditions come from the Mediterranean; think vermentino.
The real public test for the group took place a few weeks ago, when several members launched their 2011 vermentino. Why vermentino as the inaugural wine? Ratcliff says it thrives in the hot, dry conditions of Sardinia in particular, and was identified as ideal for the Riverland. ”This well could be the point in history where the Riverland gets to hang its hat on a variety, on a wine it can adopt and call its own,” he said at the launch.
To put this into context, where small but important steps are being taken, there are 35 hectares of vermentino planted in the Riverland, and at the 2011 launch an astonishing 12 wines were presented; just three years ago there were none. It would be foolish to suggest all were outstanding. A few were ordinary because they lacked varietal character or the winemaking wasn’t quite right. But most were smart, fresh, crisp and utterly delicious to drink.
Now, back to Bruce Bassham’s vermentino story. Just before vintage, deals were struck and he sold all his vermentino fruit, some of which featured in other wines at the launch. The punt to plant alternative varieties is paying off. ”They have anchored our financial future,” he says.
Wine made from Riverland fruit is rarely recognised, usually labelled as ”from South Australia”. Keeping a small parcel of vermentino, the Basshams decided to produce their first wine, proudly labelling it as from the Riverland. So now they are innovators, too.