&noscript=1"/>

Ricca Terra – Caravel, Riverland Ashley Ratcliff

Top Vineyards

Ashley and Holly Ratcliff’s Ricca Terra Farms set out to shake up perceptions of the Riverland as a region that only grew grapes for generic bulk wine. They believed that by implementing quality-minded practices and focusing on climate-apt varieties, they would be able to unlock the region’s potential. By any measure, they have succeeded, elevating the profiles of grapes like nero d’avola, fiano, aglianico and arinto in the process. But that wasn’t all, with the Caravel Vineyard planted relatively recently to largely celebrate Portuguese varieties, like touriga nacional, tinta cão and tinta barroca, along with some more Italians. The fruit goes to their own Ricca Terra and Terra do Rio labels, as well as being sold to top makers, such as Bellwether, Unico Zelo, Shaw + Smith, Alpha Box & Dice, Jumpin’ Juice and Gatch Wine.

Today’s Ricca Terra farms is planted to some classic French mainstay varieties, like with much of the Riverland, but many are old vine plots from soldier settlement schemes from WWI and WWII. Along with renovating old olive groves and farmhouses, this is as much about preserving history as anything, with a raft of Italian and Iberian varieties taking the progressive lead across the 10 sites, with 80 hectares of land under vine, and over 30 grape varieties represented.

One of those sites, planted from 2016–18 to terra rossa soil over limestone, the Caravel Vineyard has a mix of climate appropriate varieties, with French grapes notably absent. Currently with 6 hectares under vine, the site is planted to greco, arinto, nero d’avola, nero di troia, montepulciano, aglianico, souzão, tinta cão, negroamaro, touriga nacional, tinta barroca, tinta amarela and tinta caiada, all of which are grafted onto drought-tolerant rootstock.

Nero d'avola

“The Caravel Vineyard was purchased six years ago from a neighbour who grew pumpkins… and cannabis!” says owner and viticulturist Ashley Ratcliff. “We decided to dedicate this land to Portuguese, with some more Italian, grape varieties, which we believed would perform well in the Riverland – the only way to know was to plant.”

Ratcliff is no stranger to shaking up norms. Aside from his diverse varietal choices, the very fact that he saw the potential for the Riverland as a region capable of making premium wine was somewhat revolutionary when he and his wife, Holly, founded Ricca Terra Farms back in 2003.

“The Riverland is the largest wine growing region in Australia. It has a deep and lasting reputation of growing bulk, cheap and some say commercial-quality wines. For a grape grower to remain financially viable in the Riverland, they need to grow more grapes per hectare of land compared to regions that produce higher valued wines. Growing a larger crop means more inputs such as water and fertiliser. Ricca Terra has taken a pure quality approach to growing grapes in the Riverland. The focus has been small, diverse and high quality.”

“When Shaw + Smith comes knocking looking to buy grapes, you know change is happening.”

This approach has seen Ratcliff employ techniques that are associated with premium regions, including hand pruning and picking, as well shoot and bunch thinning. Further, he stresses some varieties – such as nero d’avola – at flowering to reduce yields and lift quality, with the vines adapting to the conditions and naturally ‘shattering’ or dropping flowers. The result is more open bunches, which are not as disease prone, as well as less but more concentrated fruit at harvest. That’s an approach that couldn’t be any different to the standard regional aim of producing as much as possible, often in the range of 20–30 tonnes per hectare.

Additionally, Ratcliff was firmly focused on reducing chemical and water use across the operations. He employs rootstock that actively seeks water, lessening the pressure on irrigation, and mulches to limit evaporation, with water use 30–50 per cent lower than most of their neighbours. Copper and sulphur are used to control fungal issues, while cover crops manage mid-row weeds, help retain soil moisture and assist in increasing organic matter. “The plantation of native pine trees along the boundary has also been undertaken as a buffer, as this vineyard [Caravel] is going to be certified as organic in the next three years,” he says.

Ratcliff’s mission has always been to grow quality grapes, with the business reliant on those production costs being justified by the price per tonne of the fruit he sells, as well as the shelf price for his own wines. “Experimenting with new varieties comes with risk, but not taking this risk is a risk in itself. Our aim is not to be big. For some varieties, we grow up to 100 tonnes [across the sites], but for others, such as tinta cão or souzão, we have only planted one row. We make wines from the single row varieties to gain a better understanding of the variety and how it performs in our vineyards.”

This trial-and-error approach is key, as Ratcliff knows that the novelty of having an uncommon variety will wear off quickly if that fruit doesn’t measure up and deliver wine of genuine character. “The varieties we have planted attracted some of the best winemakers in Australia who value our dreams and what we do. Consequently, this value converts to more than sustainable grape prices…. Our belief that the Riverland is a premium wine growing region has been ratified by the winemaking customers we attract. When Shaw + Smith comes knocking looking to buy grapes, you know change is happening.”

That change has had a local impact, too, with his viticultural team made up of “generational Riverland grape growers whose history has been to plant and grow grape varieties that suit the bulk wine market. After five years managing our vineyards, they are planting alternative grape varieties in their own vineyard and evolving from grape-growers to winegrowers.”

This shift is no doubt due to both the realisation that there is a market, if farmed well, for less-known grape varieties, but also that some of that the varieties that have been particularly successful are somewhat future proofing for increasingly hotter and drier seasons.

“When daytime temperatures reach 48°C plus, it’s hard to ignore climate change,” says Ratcliff. “A number of grape varieties we grow actually make better wines as a result of warmer growing conditions. We have been surprised as to how well certain grape varieties perform in extreme heatwaves, and of course we have learned what grape varieties have a limited future with the onset of climate change.”

“When daytime temperatures reach 48°C plus, it’s hard to ignore climate change,” says Ratcliff. “A number of grape varieties we grow actually make better wines as a result of warmer growing conditions. We have been surprised as to how well certain grape varieties perform in extreme heatwaves, and of course we have learned what grape varieties have a limited future with the onset of climate change.”

Across the operation, Ratcliff helps to protect that hard work in the vineyard not just for his own wines, but for those of others. “Once harvested, we chill the grapes in our cool room before we transport to customers. We use our own truck for transport to limit the time from harvesting, or cool room, to the winery.”

Aside from an obvious desire to supply pristine grapes in good faith to paying customers, it’s clear that Ratcliff’s mission would be incomplete, or indeed founder, if there wasn’t a fighting chance for those grapes to make the best wine possible. It’s a mission that is perhaps equally wrapped up in promoting alternative varieties and the region, and one that he takes very seriously, with the Caravel Vineyard a neat microcosm of the Ricca Terra approach.

“We have attracted many new winemakers to the Riverland who would normally not source grapes from the region. We see these wines sold through quality bottle shops and exclusive restaurants all round Australia and the world… We feel the Caravel vineyard has set an example of a sustainable and profitable future for the Riverland. It is disruptive, challenges the norm and has created interest within and outside of the region. It is an interesting, sustainable and profitable vineyard. It is the future of the Riverland.”