The Riverland has long been the bulk wine heart of South Australia, with growers churning out cheap fruit pumped up with irrigation. And while the region will likely always serve this function, the script is being rewritten by players like Starrs Reach, who both sell premium fruit and make wine under their own label. Sheridan Alm runs the operation with a focus on minimal inputs, sustainability and restoring non-vineyard land, including Mallee scrub, wetlands and floodplains. With grenache and mataro core varieties, Alm is intent on proving that the Riverland can focus on quality on a large scale, growing grapes that suit modern wine styles that focus on bright fruit flavours and freshness.
The Starrs Reach operation is very much a family affair, with six generations of the Mason family having farmed in South Australia’s Riverland, stretching back to a great pioneer of the region, George Ezekiel Mason. Michael and Robyn Mason built the vineyard business over the years, buying the Starrs Reach site in 2010 (first planted in 1998), bringing their holdings to four sites across over 300 hectares, which is largely planted to vines and almond trees.
Today, the operation is managed by the Masons’ daughter Sheridan Alm as the general manager and viticulturist, with her husband, Craig, the operations manager. While the family naturally produce a large amount of fruit from Starrs Reach, Alm notes that they are not a high-yield producer, with a firm quality focus. “While most vineyards of this size would be viewed as a commodity producer, Starrs Reach Vineyard has carved out its point of difference in offering sizeable parcels of quality fruit. Contrary to popular belief, you can do both.”
Across just over 175 hectares, the Starrs Reach Vineyard is planted to grenache, mataro, durif, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and colombard. Fruit goes to their own label, while also being purchased by makers both large and small, including Thistledown, Jacob’s Creek and Penfolds. “Our grenache and mataro plantings may be some of the largest in Australia but that doesn’t mean that they produce generic wine styles,” says Alm. “This vineyard has earnt a reputation as a consistent producer of premium parcels to over eight well-known brands, which encouraged us to further pursue value-adding opportunities and develop our own brand.”
That pursuit of growing premium fruit in what is traditionally a bulk wine region is helped considerably by what Alm considers to be a special vineyard site and their pursuit of sustainable practices, with a longer-term goal of converting to organics. “Making the commitment to become an organic grower is our next challenge,” she says. “We have been able to remove curative fungicides and reduce preventative fungicides in previous years. The process to organic conversion will require a gradual reduction in synthetic nutrition and an increase in organic nutrition to the point where organic carbon and soil structure can provide the soil network needed to maintain commercial yields.”
The arid conditions of the Riverland are a boon to instituting sustainable practices and converting to organics, with disease pressure naturally low. “We try and do as little as possible in the vineyard and the hot and dry climate of the Riverland gives us a head start, allowing low inputs and minimal intervention in the vineyard,” Alm says. “Keeping your hands in your pocket makes sense as every time you do something, you alter the natural balance.”
The abundance of sunshine also provides a logical energy source for the one of the largest business inputs: electricity. A 100-kW array already supplies around 70 per cent of the power used at their Litchfield Vineyard, while a 200-kW array will soon be installed at the much larger Starrs Reach Vineyard. Much of that power is used to pump water from the Murray River and run the state-of-the-art irrigation network, with water sharing dual billing as the biggest input.
“Making every drop of water count is the focus of every day,” says Alm. “Our family is proud to be the founding members of the Yatco Wetland Landcare Group, which championed a major wetland and irrigation infrastructure project to allow the adaptive management of the third largest wetland in the South Australian Murray Darling Basin. The project showcases farmers and the environment working together to achieve healthy ecosystems alongside sustainable production systems.”
Annually, Alm says that project accounts for a water saving of 3 gigalitres. Under the system, water flow regulators create periods of wet and dry that mimic the natural cycles that were erased when locks and weirs were established. The system has also seen a significant decline in the European carp population, allowing native fish species to recover, while the wetlands provide ideal habitat for black swans and the endangered Southern Bell Frog that Alm says are now flourishing. Long term, she also believes the increase in native birdlife will help to balance pest problems.
The irrigation system is the lifeblood of Starrs Reach, with live data from weather stations, digital imaging and soil probes combined with live analysis of current usage, water budgets and market information to direct the best timing and quantity of applications. “Irrigation is completely automated and soil moisture monitoring and smart scheduling technology allow water inputs to be micro-managed to allow optimal productivity and enhanced fruit flavour and composition,” says Alm.
Water is also withheld from certain varieties at vital times during flowering and veraison. This scheduled water stress controls both bunch and berry size, which results in more flavourful and concentrated fruit, and with a better skin to juice ratio. The bunches also tend to be looser, allowing more airflow and helping to mitigate disease pressure.
Aside from vines across the four vineyards, the family care for 80 hectares of Murray River floodplain and heritage-listed Mallee Highland vegetation across their holdings. The 50 hectares of floodplain, 30 hectares of Mallee Highland vegetation and kilometre of river frontage at Starrs Reach are being restored under the EcoVineyard program through revegetation, restoration of waterways, removal of grazing and control of animal and insect pests.
Alm notes that this is no small job, but she believes the long-term benefits for the local environment and their vineyards is impossible to overestimate. “At the same time, we’re bringing biodiversity into the vineyard by planting native groundcovers under vine, which can only improve the vineyard microclimate, protect our crop from sunburn and heat stress during extreme weather events, increase water use efficiency, suppress weeds as well as improve organic carbon levels, soil structure and provide habitat for native beneficial insects. Over 4,000 native plants have been planted in and around parts of the vineyard.”
This quest to revegetate with formerly endemic native species and increase biodiversity on both vineyard and non-vineyard land is a long-term program. “Reinvigorating the existing seedbank of native ground cover species including seasonal swards of bluebush, creeping saltbush, creeping boobialla and wallaby grass at a commercial level is a challenge that will take many years, but we have a good base to start from,” says Alm.
While there are plans at Starrs reach to remove less-suitable vines to introduce heat-tolerant Mediterranean varieties – with chardonnay and merlot making way for fiano, nero d’avola and mutipulciano after the 2022 harvest – the family is committed to varieties that have a proven track record. “Alternative grape varieties suited to our hot and dry climate are making their mark,” says Alm. “But our vineyard’s focus is on celebrating the workhorse varieties that have been here for decades, like grenache and mataro. They soak up the sun and use little water to produce great quality with minimal intervention in the vineyard and at the winery.”
There is considerable history for the family in the Riverland, but Alm has an unwavering eye on continually improving into the future, with sustainability and broader environmental goals fundamental tenets. “Starrs Reach Vineyard is blessed with the gift of the mighty Murray River coursing through its boundaries, rich red sandy loam over limestone, long sunny days and starry nights,” she says. “However, the terroir is as much about the land as it is about the people of the Riverland. A multicultural, fruit salad region built on the backs of Soldier Settlement Schemes and many migrant families. Our wines tell the story of our Riverland vineyard, ripe fruit from the vine, spice from the red soil and an easy-going body for the lifestyle we owe to a mighty river and clear blue skies.”