Terroir of the Riverland

Imagine a magnificent vineyard with abundant sunshine and a climate that suits the vines down to the ground.

A place where the soils are as ancient as they are ideal for vines. A place where generations have toiled and learned to nurture the very best from their plots of vines. 

A place where, since the dreaming, water is provided mostly from the lazy flow of one of the longest and most important river systems in the world. A land that receives just a sprinkle of rainfall and is set on the edge of the immensely vast Australian Outback. Imagine the Riverland.

  • Under natural conditions, the Murray River in South Australia flooded every year and could dry out. 
  • Weirs hold the river at pool level and prevent the channel from drying out.
  • A flow of 50,000 ML/day raises the river level and floods the low lying forests.
  • This flow occurred naturally 8 years in 10. Today it occurs 3 years in 10.
  • The biggest flow on record was in 1956 which reached 340,000 ML/day. This is a 1 in 200 year event.
  • Red gums are on lower terraces and receive more frequent flooding. Box trees are on higher terraces and receive less flooding.
  • The frequency of flooding drives the health of the Murray River. Less floods = less healthy. More floods = healthier.
  • Floods trigger breeding in all wildlife living in and around the river. Tree stress and death is an indicator of river health.
  • The river is underlain by a highly saline water table which can rise if surface water levels are held artificially high.
  • Inefficient irrigation on the highlands up until 2000 resulted in water tables rising and salt being discharged into the river.

What is terroir?

Terroir is a concept best summed up as a sense of place the sense of place you smell and taste in a glass of wine. The smells and tastes which make that wine unique. 

Despite being instrumental in telling a wine’s story, terroir remains an enigmatic concept. There is broad agreement that terroir is a combination of environmental factors (including climate/soil/topography) but also the human interventions that provide a wine with its distinctive charms.  

Currently, we are unravelling Australia’s unique terroirs in an effort to understand their relationship with grape and wine quality. How does working the vineyards highlight the terroir of a site or region? 

We do know that vine growth is the major driver of wine style and quality. Vine growth is regulated by water availability, which is in turn controlled by soil type, rainfall pattern and irrigation. Our Riverland wine region is unique in all these factors. No region can replicate its ancient red soils, its water source from one of Australia’s largest river systems, or the area’s remarkable weather. Ultimately, our community of dedicated and innovative wine producers (many of them progeny of immigrants from old world wine countries), the social pillar of terroir, whose respect for and intimate knowledge of their “place” are crafting exceptional winesWines which are still too much of a well-kept secret. 

What makes the Riverland terroir unique?

What makes a region unique?

Imagine you are standing in a vineyard on the edge of the Murray River at Blanchetown, or at Loxton or maybe at Renmark. Where you are standing is key to understanding and reveals why that vineyard is not only different to others in the region, but also different to any vineyard in the Barossa Valley or the Limestone Coast.

If you are standing low down and near to the river’s water level, you are standing in the river valley, on alluvial terraces of mixed sands, silts, and clays. These soils were deposited across a broad delta as the river formed its valley 600,000 years ago. You are on soils first planted a century ago, when the early pumps lifted Murray River water into contoured open channels close to the river level and delivered it to fruit growers.

If you are standing high up in places which overlook the valley, you are standing on an aeolian (wind formed) landscape. Sand dunes laced with fine limestone particles. These soils were blown in from the continental shelf during the two most recent ice ages; 40,000 years ago and 12,000 years ago. You are standing on sandy soils overlying rich, red clay. Clays that were an ancient freshwater lake bed. You are also standing among more recently planted vineyards. These vineyards could only be developed with the capacity of modern pumps to lift water higher and distribute it further across this vast plateau.

If you are standing somewhere between the cliff top and the river, you are in the valley and could be standing on a gently sloped eroded cliff face or on alluvial soils that both received a dusting of red sand and limestone several millennia ago.,

In the valley you’ll find eucalypt forests of mighty red gum and black box. Spreading over the dunes of the plateau is mallee eucalypt scrub. This vegetation reveals a great deal about the region; different species thrive in different terroirs. As it is with eucalypts, so it is with vines: the location of the site determines the style of the wine produced.

Wines grown on the richer soils of the valley are generally richer and more full-bodied than those grown on the meagre soils of the sandy plateau. Look for bright plum and berry flavoured reds, soft and full-bodied whites with exuberant fruit from the valley. Up on the plateau the wines retain a starved richness but have a little more acidity and vivid fruit tones. Reds here have a spiciness; cloves and cinnamon, while whites use that refreshing acidity to highlight their varietal typicity.

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