Chalmers Wines launches experimental bush block vintage produced under low rainfall, no trellis

A family of winemakers in northwest Victoria set out to prove that it is possible to produce top quality wine in a warm climate with very little rainfall or irrigation.

Chalmers Wines Australia has released the first wines from its bush block – a vineyard that has no trellises and only a handful of overhead sprinklers to mimic rainfall during extremely dry spells.

“Back then in Mildura, people were growing bush vine Grenache and things like that because that’s what you were doing,” owner Kim Chalmers said.

“We deliberately went back to this style of cultivation, which is much more labor intensive and much less yielding, but we really want to push the limits of how dry a vine can grow. .”

Kim Chalmers, Bart Van Olphen, Tennille Chalmers, Jenni Chalmers and Bruce Chalmers push the envelope of the vine.(Supplied by: Chalmers Wines Australia)

Ms Chalmers said European textbooks assume you need at least 450 millimeters of rainfall a year to grow productive vines and make wine.

Mildura’s average annual rainfall is 280 mm.

“We try not to irrigate everything, but if we need to give the vines a little drink, we give them overhead irrigation as if there had been a rain event,” Ms Chalmers said.

Only 0.5 to 1.6 megalitres of irrigation water was applied per hectare, with commercial wine grapes in the region averaging 6ML.

Making low rainfall wine

The plot of land used for the experiment, at Merbein in north-west Victoria and planted in 2017, was once a commercial orange orchard, abandoned and left without irrigation for more than six years.

Yet the orange trees stayed there, thriving with shiny green leaves and bearing sweet, flavorful fruit.

A view of bush vine vineyard taken from the sky
A bird’s eye view of the Bush Vine Block, a former orange orchard.(Supplied by: Chalmers Wines Australia)

This indicated to the Chalmers that a vineyard could grow on the site if drought-resistant varieties were chosen and a rootstock capable of reaching moisture deep underground.

Italian varieties including Inzolia, a white variety grown in Sicily – also known as Ansonica in Tuscany – and a red variety called Negroamaro from Puglia were chosen.

Both varieties were imported from Italy by the Chalmers family over the past 20 years.

White grapes hanging from a bush vine
The Inzolia grapes from the bush vine block came from western Sicily.(Supplied by: Chalmers Wines Australia)

The vines on the 0.9 hectare block are spaced 2.5 meters by 2.5 meters, which equates to 1,600 vines per hectare.

Only 1,380 bottles of Inzolia and 1,224 bottles of Negroamaro were produced.

But Ms Chalmers said the grapes harvested from the block produced “incredible quality wines with huge personality”.

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