Winemaker releases experimental bush block vintage produced under little rainfall, no trellis

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A winemaking family in north-west Victoria has set out to prove that you can make top quality wine in a warm climate with very little rainfall or irrigation.

Chalmers Wines Australia has released the first wines from its bush block — a vineyard which has no trellises and only a handful of overhead sprinklers to mimic rainfall during extremely dry times.

“Back in the day, in Mildura, people were growing bush vine Grenache and things like that because that’s what you did,” owner Kim Chalmers said.

“We’ve quite deliberately gone back to that style of cultivation, which is much more labour-intensive and a lot less yield, but we’re wanting to really push the envelope on just how dry can it be for a grape vine to grow.”

Kim Chalmers, Bart Van Olphen, Tennille Chalmers, Jenni Chalmers and Bruce Chalmers pKim Chalmers, Bart Van Olphen, Tennille Chalmers, Jenni Chalmers and Bruce Chalmers p
Kim Chalmers, Bart Van Olphen, Tennille Chalmers, Jenni Chalmers, and Bruce Chalmers are pushing the vine envelope.(Supplied: Chalmers Wines Australia)

Ms Chalmers said textbooks from Europe assume that you need at least 450 millimetres of rainfall per year to grow productive vines and make wine.

Mildura’s average annual rainfall is 280mm.

“We’re trying not to irrigate it all, but if we do need to give the vines a little drink we give it an overhead irrigation as if it’s had a rain event,” Ms Chalmers said.

Just 0.5-1.6 megalitres of irrigation water has been applied per hectare, with commercial wine grapes in the area averaging 6ML.

Making low-rainfall wine

The parcel of land used for the experiment, at Merbein in north-west Victoria and planted in 2017, was once a commercial orange orchard, abandoned and left unirrigated for more than six years.

Yet orange trees remained there, thriving with green, shiny leaves, and bearing full-flavoured, sweet fruit.

A view of the bush vine vineyard taking from the skyA view of the bush vine vineyard taking from the sky
A birds eye view of the bush vine block, a former orange orchard.(Supplied: Chalmers Wines Australia)

That indicated to the Chalmers that a vineyard could grow on the site if drought-tolerant varieties were chosen and a rootstock that would be able to reach moisture deep underground.

Italian varieties including Inzolia, a white variety grown in Sicily — also known as Ansonica in Tuscany — and a red variety called Negroamaro from Puglia were chosen.

Both varieties were imported from Italy by the Chalmers family over the past 20 years.

White wine grapes hanging from a bush vineWhite wine grapes hanging from a bush vine
The Inzolia grapes in the bush vine block were sourced from west of Sicily.(Supplied: Chalmers Wines Australia)

The vines on the 0.9-hectare block are spaced 2.5 metres by 2.5 metres apart, which equated to 1,600 vines per hectare.

Only 1,380 bottles of Inzolia and 1,224 bottles of Negroamaro have been produced.

But Ms Chalmers said the grapes harvested off the block were making “amazing quality wines with huge personality”.