David Bruer

Farm: Temple Bruer

Region: Greater Adelaide and Mt. Lofty Ranges, South Australia (70 km south of Adelaide); Eden Valley and Loxton, South Australia

Commodity: Certified-organic grapes and wines

Farming area: 55 hectares total

Rainfall: 400 mm average per year

Email: baywines@internode.on.net 

Phone: 0412 246 178

 

We bought a property at Loxton, which is hotter than Langhorne Creek, to try out some heat-resistant grape varieties. We also bought a property in a cooler district, Eden Valley. As harvest windows get smaller, the chances of getting it on peak flavour are less and less. It’s like firing a gun and trying to catch the bullet.

 

David Bruer portrait

 

See what David and his staff have to say about:

Kelpie logo Watch: Growing Arundo grass for biochar

 

Using 3 properties to diversify climate risk

In the Langhorne Creek district of South Australia, we grow 21 hectares of wine grapes on a 40-hectare property called Temple Bruer. We have 2 other properties: at Eden Valley [26 hectares growing on 56 hectares] and Loxton [8 hectares growing on 11 hectares].

Temple Bruer is the largest dedicated certified-organic vineyard/winery business in Australia [certified A-Grade Organic by the National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA)].

We have 3 winemakers - Vanessa Altmann, Verity Cowley and myself - and a team of long-term staff, including nursery manager David Haeusler; Barrie Williams, our vineyard manager, who concentrates on our biochar work; and my son Michael, who is in Eden Valley and revels in the certification for the 3 properties.

Eden Valley’s a slightly bigger wine region than Langhorne Creek and produces slightly more grapes. It’s a cool climate, cooler than here.

We bought a property at Loxton because of what came out of the risk analysis that Graeme Anderson did at the very first Managing Climate Variability Climate Champion program workshop. Loxton is hotter than here, and we thought we could use that to try out some heat-resistant varieties.

250 km from Strathalbyn, Loxton has really low-carbon soil. But we haven’t got our water sorted out properly there yet, which once we do will help boost soil carbon.

 

Temple Bruer wine

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Dealing with unpredictable seasons - no more ‘average’ years

Our lowest rainfall ever was in 2008: we got 152 mm the entire growing season. The district average used to be 400 mm. I’ve seen quite a few vintages, but the last time we had what I would call an ‘average’ year was 2006.

Between 2007 and 2009, we’d crushed only between 300 and 350 tonnes due to the extreme heat days and droughts. This season [May 2015] we crushed 300 tonnes.

When we try to prepare ourselves for the next year, the next season, it’s very difficult because it’s so unpredictable.

Mentally, the preparation is to say, ‘Look, we’ve got lots of wine in store’. This year [2015] we’ve got less than 2.5 years of stock at any one time, so we’re lucky that the taste is good and the flavours are well-integrated.

It’s a region-wide issue - we go up and down with everybody else, but we tend to do better in the really difficult years because our soil carbons are higher and this means we’re more resilient. [Assessed soil carbon levels at Langhorne Creek are 5.1 per cent at their highest.]

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Catching smaller and smaller harvest windows 

Harvest time is coming forward. It’s about 59 to 62 days from first coloured berry to harvest.

We found our first coloured berries at Loxton on 30 December [2014], which is unsurprising. We expected that. What we didn’t expect was that we found the first coloured berries in Eden Valley on the same day where it was 4 °C cooler.

So harvest is coming forward, and the whole growing time is getting shorter. 

The Barossa winemakers have said that they’ve got 25 years left for shiraz because of the heat and vintage advancing by 0.8 of a day per year - not per decade, per year.  

So if the people at Temple Bruer work here for another 35 years, the vintage is going to advance by 28 days by the time they retire.

It all means that we can’t get varieties at their best. They peak in flavour and then go down. It’s not that we don’t have enough notice to harvest them, but our chances of getting it on peak flavour are less and less. It means we sample grapes every second day instead of weekly, for instance.

It’s like firing a gun and trying to catch the bullet. Making the same flavours will be more difficult. It’ll be an industry-wide change, and consumers will definitely have to get broader in their acceptance of what type of wines they like to drink. But we won’t concede defeat.

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Planting and pulling out grapes based on their heat resistance

For the white, we’re getting rid of verdelho and viognier - the grapes sunburn badly. We’ll keep chenin blanc for the moment - it seems to be a bit resistant to heat stress. And we’ll convert a block to grenache.

We know, for example, that varieties such as grenache, and particularly mataro, are very tough. They’d even develop a nice flavour on the surface of the sun, I suspect. But most varieties are not like that.

We pulled our block of riesling out because as the ripening advanced into the warmer months, from March back into February, into January, and we got a narrower and narrower peak of where we could harvest it, it became unmanageable.

There have been plenty of others who’ve had to do that, and it’s happening in the Barossa as well, and at McLaren Vale.

Cabernet sauvignon lasts quite well. But shiraz doesn’t, and merlot falls over really quickly.

 

David Bruer grapes

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Temple Bruer’s winemakers speak about how climate variability and change affects wines

Vanessa Altmann, winemaker:

In the last 5 years, we have seen more extreme weather events, which make it harder to grow sound quality fruit and get the flavour profile that we have been bringing out previously.

People expect a certain level of consistency and quality in what they’re drinking from us. So when we have something like a heatwave, for example, it can really disrupt the berries and change the flavour profile - and that flows on into the wine.

In 2008 when we had a really big heatwave and it basically dried up the berries, sunburnt them, the berries shrivelled, and the composition - the make-up of the berries - changed. And that changes the flavour quite dramatically, which adds flavours we don’t really want into the wine.

When the berries shrivel, the concentration of sugar is higher, leading to higher alcohol wines. We have to then bring that wine back to a safe level, a level that we feel is safe for consumers. We’re having to do that a little bit more now.

Some of the techniques to fix these problems are expensive, and we don’t have the machinery so we’ve got to contract out the work, adding to the cost of production. In the worst years, we’ll have to do it to almost every wine.

And the other side is when we have big rain events, like in 2011, having to use technology to bring the wine back into a style that is saleable to our customers as well: concentrating the wine, for example.

So it has made it more difficult to bring out a consistent product.

Verity Cowley, winemaker:

I started in 2011, and it was probably one of the worst years for rain - it was quite shocking to come into. But since then we’ve had quite abnormal ripening, so I suppose it’s always a battle between trying to pick for flavour and chasing your tail.

As the date of ripening has been advancing, it has shortened our picking window. The picking window is when the grape is at a flavour profile that you want it.

If that happens in a cooler part of the season - maybe in March - your picking window’s usually a bit broader, so you can get that flavour profile easier. If it happens at the end of January then you have a really short picking window, so you maybe just have one day when the berries are at optimum flavour profile.

If you miss it, then you have something that’s outside of what your consumers are expecting. So you have to spend your time trying to correct it. It really reduces the scope of what you can create in the wine.

This week [first week of February 2015] we had to make a decision about our verdelho. We had a medium heatwave coming up, and of the verdelho we’ve got, half of the fruit is very under-ripe and half is practically ripe. We had to make the decision whether to leave it out there and risk the heatwave, or get it off early.

So we decided to leave it, but we haven’t got good flavour at the moment and that’s ultimately what we sell. It may never get good flavour.

We’re in uncharted territory, completely, and I don’t like it, I must say.

 

David Bruer grape vines

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Using cover crops that can handle the cool

We use a mix of cereals and legumes for our cover crops. We don’t ever follow one crop with the same crop the next year; we try and mix it up in the hope that diseases might be less prevalent.

We use triticale as a cover crop, because it gets going in the colder part of the year much better than most others. It’s our preferred cereal.

Or we use oats or barley, but we’re not getting the biomass out of barley that we would like, so we might try and find something else.

Our legume is usually field peas or faba beans. We do use vetch sometimes, but it can get away from us too easily.

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Warming causing increases in fungal diseases on grapevines

We’ve seen a significant increase in the fungal disease Eutypa [pronounced ‘you-TIP-a’; Eutypa lata] in the last few years - I think it’s due to the increased warming here, but I haven’t yet got proof of that.

[The fungus infects pruning ‘wounds’ when there is moisture on the vine, such as just after rain or in high-humidity conditions.]

It kills the trunk, so the whole vine eventually dies. We’ve cut the tops off the vines in one of our blocks of cabernet and are trying to regrow the tops. We don’t know whether we can resurrect them, but we likely have to pull them out and replant them. We have already turned the cut-off tops into half a tonne of biochar.

Other fungal diseases are downy mildew and powdery mildew. Although organic control of downy mildew is difficult, we’ve worked out a protocol to deal with the fungus after it comes out of the leaf but before it spores; we have an 8- to 12-hour window.

Luckily, it’s the same thing we use to deal with powdery mildew [a fungal disease] - another disease associated with too much moisture and moderate temperatures.

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Using 7-day forecasts, especially for heatwaves

We’re pretty happy with 7-day forecasts, especially the minimum temperatures. Because that affects us so much in reducing the heat load on our refrigeration - that refrigeration gobbles up a lot of money.

We all keep an eye on the forecast separately and then we talk about it, especially if there’s a heatwave coming. The accuracy for those around here is excellent.

We don’t look at a parcel of fruit [i.e. a block of one type of grape] from a climatic perspective; we definitely factor experience with each fruit into our decisions. You can kind of predict what’s going to happen, through experience.

A 3-month outlook wouldn’t be relevant for us. It doesn’t hurt to have some idea, but it doesn’t seem accurate enough.

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Networking to be in touch with other district growers

Barrie Williams, vineyard manager:

I’m the chair of the grape growers committee at Langhorne Creek, and the chair of the vine improvement committee. We go to workshops and meet other people from different districts, and they talk to you about the science side of things, and we just tell them what we’re up to.

I went to a biochar workshop and I said, ‘We’re growing the arundo grass’, and a couple of guys go, ‘What’s that?’ I told them it’s for our biomass, and they got interested just from that. So there’s benefits all the way through.

Verity Cowley, winemaker:

I’m on the winemakers committee. We get benefit from networking because we get to see what’s going on in the district. Quite a few people in those networks didn’t know we’re organic.

 

David Bruer vineyard

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Organic increases the resilience of the vineyard for Temple Bruer

We’ve been organic certified for 20 years now, and it’s also a good niche to have.

If you look at an average over a number of years, our yields are the same as non-organic vineyards. We don’t do as well as the chemically subsidised vineyards in the really good years, but we do much better in the drought years.

We’ve got more-resilient plants, so if you take a long-term average we’re about the same.

We’ve recently got organic certification in the Chinese market. We’re the first company to complete that certification, and now we have a new export market. They’re also very interested in learning how we have achieved carbon neutrality.

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Achieving carbon neutrality without buying carbon credits

We’re carbon neutral here: we look at every single component in minute detail and see how we can reduce emissions. Many things are only little, but these little things all add up.

We do audits ourselves and then we get it verified by Canopy.

One of the things that drove me to go carbon neutral was when an old school friend of mine questioned how we were doing it. I told him about the lightweight bottles, running the ferments warmer than we used to, our refrigeration and lights, our cars being EU-compliant, cutting out air freight and all that kind of stuff.

He said, ‘That’s really good… Where’s the rest come from?’ When I said we’d bought carbon credits, he said we were cheating! So that was like a red rag to a bull.

We now intend to get to carbon neutrality without buying carbon credits - that’s what our biochar project is for. And we have it written in our ISO [quality] targets, so I can’t get out of it even if I wanted to!

Here at Temple Bruer we are doing this a few ways:

  • Lightweight bottles: We were horrified by the carbon footprint of our original bottles: it was 70 per cent of our carbon footprint! Glass has to be heated to about 1,100 °C to pour, and even recycled glass still has a huge carbon footprint. Going to lightweight bottles made a huge difference - it saved us 19 per cent of our carbon footprint through just one step. 
  • Making compost: We’re really hot on recycling as many nutrients as possible, because it’s got nitrogen and phosphorous in it - we want that back in the vineyard. We put in faba beans, oats, grape marc [the skins, pulp, seeds and stems of grapes after pressing] and lees [sediment from wine after fermenting and aging]. We use about one-third of our compost to grow a bigger, brighter, better cover crop. And with the other two-thirds, we put a strip of compost under the vine row. Under the vine row you can’t mow weeds, but we’re finding that compost there can do some weed suppression.

 

Making compost using grape seeds

 

  • Generating our own green power: We need power 24/7 - we try not to work at night, but we do occasionally. We have huge requirements for refrigeration. We’ve got about 20 kilowatts of solar power hooked up. We’re only about 5 kilowatts away from getting off the grid altogether.
  • Using heat from the fridges for hot-water heating: We use lots of hot water for cleaning, and we’re getting a little bit more than half from our refrigeration system. Our hot water is about 3 per cent of our carbon footprint, so if we can reduce that by half   it’s a case of every little bit helps.

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Making biochar to improve soil moisture and nutrient capacity, and vineyard resilience 

A while ago, we were looking to upgrade our irrigation system, but then decided to investigate biochar instead.

Biochar improves the water-holding capacity of the soil and helps make the vineyard more resilient. It’s the best way to go, because it solves a multitude of problems.

What’s biochar?   Biochar is charcoal produced from plant matter. If it’s put into soil, it can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; increase the soil’s ability to retain water, nutrients and agricultural chemicals; and prevent water contamination and soil erosion.

How will Temple Bruer make biochar?   By burning a fast-growing grass, Arundo donax, in a kiln without oxygen, the winery can collect gas (to burn for electricity), charcoal (the biochar) and some leftover tars (which can be condensed for organic herbicide, for example).

 

David Bruer in his arundo crop

 

Arundo donax, arundo for short, is just a grass, but it’s a grass on steroids. It’s unbelievable. It’s a rhizomatous plant, like irises are. It’s Mediterranean in origin but is all around the world.

It sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere - it fixes [absorbs and holds] more carbon than any other plant. It fixes approximately 10 times the amount of carbon as the Tasmanian blue gum, which is regarded very highly in the world as a carbon-fixing plant.

We planted 0.98 hectares in 2013, and 0.22 hectares in 2014.

 

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Interview dates: June 2010 and May, 2015

 

 

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