By Fergal Gleeson

The need for action on sustainability is understood by most. The weight of evidence on record breaking temperatures, unprecedented levels of carbon and melting polar ice caps is hard to ignore. Winemakers in Australia and in Margaret River have responded. Over 30 Wineries in Margaret River are members of Sustainable Winegrowing Australia (SWA).

SWA is the Australian wine industry’s sustainability program – set up to support growers and winemakers to improve the sustainability of their businesses. SWA is managed by the Australian Wine Research Institute supported by Wine Australia and Australian Grape & Wine.

Being a member requires the submission to SWA of environmental, social and economic data on energy consumption, water usage, waste and biodiversity. About half of the 30 wineries are Certified Members meaning that in addition to supplying data they are independently audited.

I spoke to three winemakers about what they are doing about sustainability and why they are doing it.

Ben Cane is a Winemaker at Cape Mentelle, an Australian who has spent much of his career in California before coming to Margaret River in 2018.

“Cape Mentelle have always had a great respect for the land and we understand the privilege of owning and tending old vines”, Ben tells me. Cape Mentelle are long term members of ‘Sustainable Winegrowing Australia’ which Ben feels is important. “It’s a measure of our commitment and puts into action rather than just words how strongly we feel.”

While many people ‘talk the talk’ on environmental matters it was interesting to find out the concrete initiatives Cape Mentelle are driving.

“We have been focussed on reducing our carbon footprint in all we do in the winery, vineyard, offices and warehouses. Solar panel installation, conversion to LED lighting, more highly detailed recycling and waste separation, compost creation, elimination of herbicide use and undervine cultivation,” Ben tells me.

“We bring sheep to graze between our vines between winter and spring, which helps us avoid cultivation when soils can be wet and will be compacted by running tractors over them. We have the added benefit of receiving the manure for fertilisation from our woolly friends. This results in vastly improved soil health, which can result in better resource utilisation, less pollution and ultimately better balanced vines.”

“The biggest impact in the vineyard has been decreased water usage by using precision viticulture to highlight specific areas requiring irrigation, allowing us to reduce usage by 60% between 2016 and 2019.” Cape Mentelle are now fully water self-sufficient.

“Our water capture and recycling system is a great example of a passive flow method of solid removal using natural means allowing us to avoid town water use, capturing rain to supply Cape Mentelle. Our winery waste water is sent back through a series of detoxifying dams of reed beds that remove impurities and allow us to irrigate a wood lot.”

“Upgrading our tractor fleet to be more fuel efficient and using recycling sprayers to recapture any excess spray improve resource utilisation and reduce pollution,” Ben points out.

“Extensive use of compost and natural fertilisers help to improve our water holding capacity in the soil by building organic matter and allow the vines better means of resisting climatic change. “

“Cape Mentelle are in the final stages of attaining ISO14001 certification which is an auditable international standard of environmental practices in the winery, vineyard and all facets of our business. It’s a very rigorous program, but once again illustrates our commitment to sustainability” Ben says.

David Martin is the co-owner of boutique winery Stormflower Vineyard in Wilyabrup and was a cofounder with his business partners of Little Creatures Brewery in Fremantle. Their production is on a very different scale to Cape Mentelle but they are no less passionate about sustainability.

“I basically wanted to run the vineyard in way that looked after the environment as much as possible, and did not involve the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers” he tells me. “Organic certification provided a verifiable way of doing this, and Stormflower has been certified organic since 2016. Once I had certified organic grapes, the move to certified organic winemaking was the logical next step.”

“We don’t use chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers. We use certified organic composts and fertilisers, we use sheep to control weeds and minimise the amount of machinery used for this purpose, and we do as little disturbance of the soil as possible.

The biggest impact that Stormflower has made has been in the use of certified organic composts and fertilisers. This encourages and enables the build-up of the soil biology, which allows the vines to take up nutrients naturally.

As well as being certified organic Stormflower are also members of SWA.

“It is important because it focusses on measuring and recording data that is different from that required for organic certification, such as the efficiency of use of water and energy, and actions taken around waste management and biodiversity” he tells me. “The discipline around keeping records of this data will encourage us to find ways to improve our performance in these areas.”

I asked David if there confusion about what ‘sustainable’ means versus other ‘green’ approaches like organic, biodynamic or natural winemaking.

“Probably, as they are very different things, a producer can have very strong certified sustainability credentials via the SWA programme without being organic, biodynamic or natural. Both “sustainable” and “natural” are ill defined terms. Even with certification, there is no specific standard of sustainability under the SWA programme. It simply means the data that is being recorded is verified.”

“Both organic and biodynamic have certification standards with respect to viticulture and winemaking. Properly done, with certified grapes, organic and biodynamic winemaking are all environmentally sustainable practices.”

David has put together a useful website on Margaret River wineries that are certified organic and biodynamic and those that are in progress towards it.

There are currently 5 wineries who are certified to one of the standards and whose current range of wines is entirely certified organic or biodynamic: Cullen Wines, Blind Corner, Burnside Organic, Settlers Ridge and Stormflower. Encouragingly there are 16 more on the journey. Cullen Wines is also ‘carbon negative’ which means that they are removing more carbon from the atmosphere through offsetting initiatives than they are creating.

The next steps in terms of sustainability for Stormflower Vineyard will involve enhancing the biodiversity of the vineyard through revegetation of the land that is not under vine and increasing the diversity of plants within the vineyard area.

For long term and highly awarded Xanadu Winemaker Glenn Goodall “It really just comes down to wanting ‘to do our bit’ and to demonstrate some environmental stewardship.”

About a decade ago, the opportunity arose to get involved with an environmental pilot program and Glenn was keen for Xanadu to join so that they could benefit and improve by being part of a recognised program.

For Xanadu initiatives have included investing in equipment and practices to become more energy and water efficient, recycling, composting, reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the business. They have implemented land care plans, based on biodiversity and biosecurity on the Estate vineyards and encouraged Growers to do the same.

“In the short term I’m looking forward to finally getting the winery converted over to solar power!” he says.

For Glenn there’s no ‘silver bullet’ to sustainability. “It all adds up, but it’s the cumulative effect that results in the biggest impact, which is our attitude and endeavour to keep improving.”

“Record keeping is not a particularly ‘sexy’ aspect, however the requirement to keep accurate records around energy and water use, effluent management, biodiversity etc. means that we have got metrics that we can measure ourselves against,” he tells me.

Unlike Cape Mentelle and Stormflower, Xanadu have taken the extra step of becoming Certified Members of the SWA.

“We certainly feel that it is important to be certified,” Glenn says ”it give us peace of mind that our sustainability claims have been independently verified, and it will now permit us use of a certified trust mark – an assurance to customers and consumers of how the product is produced.”

“There is often confusion about what various claims in this space means; ‘sustainable’ does not necessarily mean organic or biodynamic, although these approaches certainly embrace sustainability! Gaining certification, in whatever approach is used, is the best way to verify how wines have been grown and made.”

For Glenn being part of the program allows Xanadu to benchmark performance against producers all around Australia.

This is perhaps the greatest benefit of working on sustainability through membership of the SWA. The sharing of information shows where there’s room for improvement.