Dealing with rising temperatures may be a conundrum for fruit growers confronting ­climate change, but in Australia it’s been ­complicated by widespread drought since 2003.

Two years ago, participants in the annual International Fruit Tree Association conference and tour heard how competition for water rights, a relatively new phenomenon here in North America, pitted ranchers against fruit growers in some areas. With the cost of water then running at Au.$800 to Au.$950 (U.S.$722 to U.S.$858) a megagallon, and actual allocations limited to two months’ worth, growers were forced to take a close look at their use and management of water.

While the situation in many areas has improved, water restrictions have become a fact of life across Australia. The allocation that wineries in the Murray-Darling Basin are facing this season are expected to be about half the allocation in 2006–2007—better than what might have been without the rainfalls of August and September but nowhere near the levels enjoyed at the start of this decade.

“South Australia is the driest state in the driest continent on earth. There’s more water under the Sahara than there is on Australia,” quipped Jane Ferrari, travelling winemaker for the Barossa Valley’s Yalumba Wine ­Company during a recent visit to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Questions about the ongoing drought and sustainable water management are among the most frequent questions she fields during her travels.

The various, and sometimes conflicting, needs of water users complicate management of water rights, which in the Murray-Darling Basin are administered by the states of Victoria, South Australia, and New South Wales. The basin includes the Barossa and is colloquially known as the River Country. The involvement of three governments and private stakeholders hasn’t always made for the best results.

“We’ve mismanaged our major, number-one important resource in our country for a long, long time. I think it’s at a crisis point, and I think we’re in the lap of the gods to a certain extent,” Ferrari said.

Make a difference

That’s where Ferrari said fruit growers such as the Hill Smith family that owns Yalumba, have tried to make a difference. Hill Smith crushes grapes from approximately 2,500 acres of vineyard.

Since the winery came back into the family’s hands through Robert Hill Smith’s purchase of the business in 1989, Yalumba and its Oxford Landing, Heggies, and Pewsey Vale wineries have worked to improve their approach to land use and management. Water ­management has received special attention

Winemaker Peter Wall, now a director of the company, began in the early 1990s by going out to Yalumba’s Heggies and Pewsey Vale properties and leaving large tracts of virgin scrub to catch runoff. The strategy helped conserve soil moisture, providing the vines with resources they wouldn’t have if managed water supplies were cut off.

More recently, as the Barossa developed and the valley’s four major players consolidated their winemaking and bottling activities in the area, Yalumba has sought to manage water more wisely. Barossa sits at the lower end of the Murray-Darling Basin and hence gets what’s left after users further north have taken their share.

Recognizing the impact of increasing demand by wineries on the Barossa’s water table, Oxford Landing began phasing out its old, inefficient overhead sprinkler systems and installing drip irrigation.

The process took a decade, said Robert (Fred) Strachan, regional viticulturist and vineyard manager for Oxford Landing Estates, but it meshed perfectly with the water restrictions that were beginning to be felt in 2004.

“This, coupled with soil-moisture–monitoring systems, has resulted in the ability to use up to half the water that we were using over ten years ago whilst maintaining ­similar cropping levels,” he said.

The use of drought-resistant rootstocks such as Ramsey, 140 Ruggeri, and 1103 Paulsen have also helped the vines adapt to reductions in water use. Rainwater and wastewater capture also help limit the winery’s impact on the water table.

Drop in prices

The changes in irrigation practices were made mandatory for all the winery’s grape growers in 2003, Strachan said. Growers were given three years to make the transition, and Strachan said few have regrets, despite some initial reluctance.

The shift to more efficient irrigation practices not only made environmental sense, it’s also made financial sense in an environment where water typically adds Au.$100 (U.S.$90) to the cost of producing a ton of grapes.

“When grape prices are low like they were last year and expected to be again this year, it is putting a lot of pressure on growers in general, and their viability is becoming very questionable,” Strachan said.

A precipitous drop of 30 to 40 percent in prices for wine grapes over the past year, coupled with ongoing drought in many areas, has placed many growers in desperate straits. Grower liaison officers have often found themselves in the position of providing counseling to families in crisis. Many vineyard properties have been put on the market.

Strachan prefers to focus on the positive, however, arguing that growers have to see the benefits of producing the best-possible quality of fruit under the circumstances.

“We cope with all this uncertainty by just focusing and controlling the controllables. Having water plans and budgets that can be adapted rapidly is essential,” he said. Growing quality grapes is essential, too, and winemakers from Australia have repeated this point several times in recent years.

Smart management is needed, said John Angove, managing director of Angove’s Winery, when he visited Vancouver in 2007 for the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival. Otherwise, water restrictions would play havoc with the grapes, and quality would suffer. The challenges made it imperative for growers to manage their crops for premium production, not only so that wineries could command top dollar for their best prod­uction, but also to produce better fruit for all tiers of ­product.

“You get it right in the vineyard, and the rest looks after itself,” he said at the time.

Similarly, Brenton Fry, director of Yalumba export division Negociants International, notes that the naturally lower yields of the drought years have encouraged producers to make wines that showcase the region’s terroir.

“Natural low yields can deliver flavor like nothing else can,” he said. “You can stress a vine by holding off water and things like that and making it crop low, you can bunch thin, but there’s no substitute for a vine that ­deliberately yields low volume.”

After years of attracting a following for mass-produced critter wines with populist flavor profiles, Australia’s more recent vintages showcase the growers’ skills and attract a more sophisticated following.

“This is a chance to show you what Australia is moving up into,” Fry said.