The Reschke family have been based in Coonawarra since 1906, running a cattle property that stretches over 1,200 hectares. In 1988, Trevor Reschke decided to indulge something of a hobby, planting vines on the family land. The wines were initially made just for family and friends, until 1999, when the first commercial release hit the shelves. Today, though they work out of Mount Gambier for pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, Koonara is centred on Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. A block of those original vines is responsible for their marquee cabernet, ‘Ambriel’s Gift’. That site is a 3-hectare block – which also includes five rows each of merlot and cabernet franc – planted by Trevor Reschke, which is now managed, along with the rest of the vineyards, by his son Dru who farms organically (certified by ACO), but with his own unique take that sees the vineyards flushed with flowers.
In 2006, although the vineyard was still producing quality fruit, Dru Reschke noticed that there was a lack of resilience that resulted in the death of some vines during a particularly savage season of frosts. This prompted him to investigate other management techniques to improve the available nutrition in the soil, as well as create biodiversity of microfungi and bacteria to break down that nutrition to feed the vines, something he likens to the workings of the human gut biome.
As a result, Reschke embarked on an organic path, with the vineyard certified in 2017 after almost a decade of organic farming. But certification, and indeed organics, was really only a starting point. “We have created a unique form of high-nutrition organics, which we call ‘Ecosystem Organics’,” he says. “This has seen our vineyard costs decrease by over 30 per cent, as well as decreasing our disease and pest pressure to almost nil.”
A key part of Reschke’s approach has been populating the site with flowers. “The flowers we grow in the vineyard feed the five types of wasp that we have identified as having larvae which feed on our two major pests: vine moth and light brown apple moth. Wattles that bloom in winter are planted nearby to provide a food source for the wasps all year round.”
“The roots of the flowers have added about 1.5 per cent more organic material to the soil, adding the extra holding capacity of half an Olympic-size swimming pool of water per hectare, improving water usage and plant stress.”
With flowers populating the ground under the vines, weed control is not needed, and focusing on plants that produce low-lying flowers makes mowing largely unnecessary. “Not spraying or mowing under vine allows some plants to stay there, as many wasps lay their eggs on the stems, creating a natural cycle. The roots of the flowers have added about 1.5 per cent more organic material to the soil, adding the extra holding capacity of half an Olympic-size swimming pool of water per hectare, improving water usage and plant stress.”
Reschke is justifiably proud of this initiative. “It paid off,” he says, “as we haven’t sprayed even an organic pesticide for over 10 years. The ecosystem we created above the soil keeps pests in check, and the biology we build below the soil pushes nutrition back to the vine, preventing stress in high or low temperatures.”
“We haven’t sprayed even an organic pesticide for over 10 years. The ecosystem we created above the soil keeps pests in check, and the biology we build below the soil pushes nutrition back to the vine, preventing stress in high or low temperatures.”
“I applaud people for taking any step at all,” says Reschke, “but it’s an exciting world once you step into what will really make a difference for the better to the planet and their business. Sustainability is still costly – regenerative will save you thousands. We did one spray last year, and saw perfect nutrition, had zero pest and disease pressure, and used two-thirds less water than the average Australian vineyard.”
With no herbicide used in the vineyard for 14 years, that spray Reschke employed consisted of customised organic nutrition and a unique pest-control measure. “We were the first to trial Bacillus subtilis in vineyards as a probiotic to control snail and millipede numbers in our vineyards, reducing millipedes by 99 per cent, white snails by 95 per cent and brown snails by 80 per cent, as well as strengthening chlorophyll in the leaves.”
Reschke notes that the bespoke nutrient mix has as much to do with the lack of disease or pest pressure as the microbial and insect controls, helping to build natural resilience in the vines. “Through analysing minerals missing from the plants and soil, we create custom mineral mixes, which keep the vines healthier. Fertigation [fertilisation delivered by irrigation, which reduces tractor use] of compost teas, silica and seaweed – plus many other additives – strengthens cell walls in the leaves, reducing the need for excessive copper and sulphur sprays.”
One of the consequences of climate change in Coonawarra has been an increase in frost events, with fans installed in the most vulnerable sections, but mid-rows sometimes need to be mown to further mitigate risk at certain times. “If mowing needs to be done to reduce frost, we mow only every second row and wait for the flowers to regrow before mowing the others,” says Reschke, ensuring the beneficial insect habitat is maintained, which – along with the five wasp species – includes three species of golden orb spiders, which were introduced, as well as hoverflies and scorpion flies.
Reschke doesn’t check his beliefs at the gate, either, with a deep desire to help others farm better. It’s an approach that is part giving back to his community and part activism in pursuit of a better world. “A main initiative that I am leading is committed to planting wattles and mid-row flowers across the whole of the Coonawarra region,” he says, describing a project that offers subsidised flower and native grass seed to be grown in mid-rows, then harvested to be used by other growers.
“We have put our whole organic vineyards practice on our website for everyone to use,” says Reschke, “and I brought eco-guru Graeme Sait to South Australia to meet with six politicians to discuss a solution to meeting Australia’s Paris Treaty targets of 0.75 per cent carbon back into the soil by subsidising compost and increasing no-till farming. If all farmers can bring their soil carbon levels to 3 per cent, it will take a trillion tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere – the same amount that has been put there over the last 200 years.”
No doubt it’s the precise location of the Ambriel’s Gift site, along with meaningful vine age that sees it producing wine characterful enough to be the Koonara flagship, but Reschke notes that its distinctiveness and quality is only becoming more apparent as the impact of their farming is being increasingly felt.
“Every year, our winemaker Peter Douglas and I go through and taste 20 or so different cabernets,” says Reschke. “He never tells me what the wine is, and every year I say to him: “Please tell me this is Ambriel’s?!’ And each year it is. It has an intensity when it’s fermenting like no other cabernet. The size of the berry when it comes in is so much smaller than the other block, meaning more skin per litre. Since all the colour and flavour is in the skin, the more skin, the more colour and flavour we can get in the wine.”