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Should we be growing grapes in the Northern Territory? Have your say:

Katherine Lindh

At the 20th birthday of Scholefield Robinson Horticultural Services held in Adelaide in March, guest speaker James Halliday, leading wine industry journalist and author of more than 60 books on wine, had some suggestions on how to change (not cure) the Australian wine industry.

Halliday suggested using underground drippers, using less water and lower crop levels (such as at Oxford Landing), remove approximately 50,000ha of vines, and perhaps the most outlandish suggestion of all, to move the Riverland to the Northern Territory and grow two crops a year.

After further conversation with Halliday, he explained he did not mean to target the Riverland per se in his speech; rather he said the Northern Territory could prove to be an interesting place to grow grapes as there is a large quantity of water in this area.

“Growers in the Riverland are extremely water efficient,” Halliday said. “So, I don’t mean to say move the Riverland there, but I think there is a lot of potential in the Northern Territory as it has water.”

“Grapegrowing in the NT could be efficient for production as instead of growing one crop per year, growers can grow up to three crops, thus creating more production and profitability,” he said.

Halliday said growers would need to prune the crop every three months to control the growth and avoid disease.

“The climate in the Northern Territory is similar to that in Thailand and south east Asia. The average day time temperature is consistently around 33 degrees most days of the year in Darwin. In Asian countries with a similar climate, they prune the crops up to three months at a time,” he said.

Peter Dry, viticulture consultant at the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI), said you can certainly grow grapes in the NT, but the quality of the wine will not be great.

“I think James’s idea probably came from the fact that there is plenty of water in the NT,” Dry said. “However there are a lot of challenges in this climate, I think more investigation needs to be done to determine if it is profitable.

“Quality may be suitable for the low end of the market, but not the high end.

“Logistically, it is likely that vines will need to be pruned twice a year, so that the main crop (and probably the only crop wanted) ripens during the dry season (there would be too many disease problems if fruit ripens during the wet season). Therefore, if water is not available from bores, they would need to store water from the dry season irrigation.

“You would need to work out how to store this water for the dry season. Unless you put plastic over the vines in the wet season, it would be difficult to control the vine diseases and growth. There is also a lot of bird life in the top end of Northern Territory, which is why a lot of farmers stopped growing rice there.

“Having said this, it could be possible to have a small industry in Northern Territory, but nothing of the magnitude of the Riverland, Sunraysia or Riverina which account for about 60% of Australia’s production.

“The climate of the Northern Territory (and north west of WA – Kununurra) is similar to some places in northern India. In India, they deliberately prune twice a year, to get main crop ripening during the dry season which helps the crop to avoid disease. In Bali, vineyards are harvested every month. This requires pruning 1/6 of the vineyard every month and harvesting one sixth of the vineyard.

“If we were to grow grapes in the Northern Territory and the top of Western Australia, I think we would need to choose the varieties carefully — only growing those which are resilient to fungi and diseases. There would also have to be a winery built up there because it is not feasible to transport/freight to another state.

“I am of the view that there is potential there, so the question is, why hasn’t it been done before?” Dry said.

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