Oxford Landing has expanded from humble beginnings in the late 1950s to now occupy 300 hectares of vineyard land in the sun-drenched soils of South Australia’s Riverland. A powerhouse of budget grapes and economical wine, the Riverland is also home to some of the most progressive growers in the country, with Oxford Landing arguably leading the charge. With a mix of sustainable and certified organic blocks under his management, viticulturist Glynn Muster applies a small-scale mindset to a large-scale vineyard, treating each small block individually, while also prioritising the reduction of water use, increasing local biodiversity and offsetting their carbon footprint.
On the banks of the Murray River in the Riverland, Oxford Landing was established in 1958 by Wyndham Hill-Smith. He had brandy and fortified wine production in mind, but a small amount of cabernet sauvignon – which still exists today – was also planted to make dry red wine. Today, brandy and fortified production are off the table, and those first vines have been substantially supplemented to now cover over 300 hectares, with sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot gris, viognier, riesling, vermentino, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, merlot, tempranillo and sangiovese in the ground.
“The Riverland is an arid part of the world,” says chief viticulturist Glynn Muster, “but our vines and the surrounding native vegetation receive a lot of TLC. The vines are split into 2-hectare blocks so that each one can be treated as an individual ecosystem. That means our team can make sure the varieties, grapes and the turf below is treated individually, ensuring healthier fruit, greater harvesting flexibility and ultimately more flavour.”
“The Riverland is an arid part of the world, but our vines and the surrounding native vegetation receive a lot of TLC. The vines are split into 2-hectare blocks so that each one can be treated as an individual ecosystem. That means our team can make sure the varieties, grapes and the turf below is treated individually, ensuring healthier fruit, greater harvesting flexibility and ultimately more flavour.”
This approach extrapolates a small vineyard sensibility across a vast holding, a concept that was anathema in the region not so long ago, and still is for many growers. But Muster prefers to constantly question practices, to test new methods and to strive for innovative solutions to problems both old and new.
“Continuous improvement of process can only be achieved if us as vineyard managers get out of our vineyard bubble. Sometimes you pick up light-bulb moments from a viticulture field trip or a casual conversation. Within our business, it is an expectation that innovation and striving to build wine quality and economics is part of one’s fundamental job responsibility.”
Innovation is certainly something that Oxford Landing continually work hard at, with the viticultural team creating a 100 per cent recyclable vineyard trellis system, which is used throughout the 150 blocks. Additionally, an under-vine mower engineered and fabricated by the team is used to manage weed issues without herbicides, while between the rows, ruby saltbush is grown to both control weeds and preserve soil moisture – a constant pressure in a dry region and a warming climate.
“Combating climate change is a massive challenge,” reflects Muster, “especially with the effects on our permanent water sources. Our approach is wholehearted, not just one practice but a combination of several. This may be using drought-resistant rootstocks and varieties, irrigation management, canopy management, row orientation, mid-row management, and so on. Most importantly, we must consider how we improve soil organics to retain moisture but also mitigate soil evaporation. Our trial with mid-row saltbush is one example of how we are working to improve our soil organics.”
Through various measures, water use has decreased by 30 per cent over the last three decades, while the vineyard’s yields have increased by 35 per cent, amounting to a dramatic effective reduction of water use. Additionally, all wastewater from across the operation is recycled, further insulating them from dependence on a finite and diminishing resource.
The innovations at Oxford Landing have largely come out of a belief in sustainable vineyard practices, as well as the conversion of a portion of the vineyard to certified organic and biodynamic viticulture (which goes into the Yalumba Organic wine range), with creative solutions constantly required.
“While day to day we are growing vines, we also continually strive to reduce our impact on the environment,” says Muster. “We are committed to sustainable practice and believe it will produce better vineyards. Our goal is to pass on the land to the next generation in better condition than when it was inherited.”
For a vineyard the size of Oxford Landing, this is no small commitment. A 600-hectare neighbouring property was bought in 2007, with the aim of offsetting any impact from their operation and making as big an effort as they could to arrest some of the effects of climate change.
“For every hectare of vines,” says Muster, “we now have two hectares of native vegetation, which includes 345 hectares of revegetation. We planted 170,000 mallee species of eucalyptus and 45,000 shrubs. It’s the largest private planting of mallee in the state of South Australia. This assists with rebalancing our carbon credits and bringing innovation and improved biodiversity into our management approach.”
“For every hectare of vines, we now have two hectares of native vegetation, which includes 345 hectares of revegetation. We planted 170,000 mallee species of eucalyptus and 45,000 shrubs. It’s the largest private planting of mallee in the state of South Australia.”
By any measure, this is an extraordinary contribution, and given the nature of the Riverland as a winegrowing region, where wine is mostly sold in bulk at low prices, it is even more extraordinary. When you consider that the Oxford Landing wines are typically sold for under $10 a bottle, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the operation would be industrial through and through, but you’d be quite wrong, with economic and environmental sustainability inextricably linked.
“Over many years, the management of the Oxford Landing vineyard has paid off,” says Muster, “and we now utilise this vineyard to demonstrate innovation to the broader grower base, educating other growers and helping them improve the health, quality and efficiency of their own vineyards. The management of this vineyard demonstrates our belief that to focus on excellence in winemaking, it absolutely requires excellence in environmental management – the two are inseparable.”