The innovator defying ‘doom and gloom’ in a struggling wine region

Max Allen

Drinks columnist

The Financial Review

Mar 5, 2024

Riverland growers are in crisis. But Ashley Ratcliff of Ricca Terra Wines is buoyed by the region’s potential.

The grape harvest in South Australia’s Riverland region was drawing to a close when I caught up with Ashley Ratcliff of Ricca Terra Wines late last month. It’s been a “compressed vintage” this year, he told me – grape-grower-speak for when all the different varieties ripen close together, putting pressure on pickers and wineries alike.

“It feels like shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic,” he said.

It’s a typical sentiment for anyone involved in the wine industry at this time of year – especially in an enormous region such as the Riverland, where almost a third of all Australia’s grapes are grown. You work 18-hour days seven days a week and still can’t keep on top of all the grapes coming in.

But this year, Ratcliff’s line has more resonance than usual.

In January, grape growers blockaded the streets of Renmark with tractors, trucks and harvesting machines to protest at the dire state of the industry. Many of the region’s more than 900 growers are close to sinking. As they told industry representatives at a crisis meeting in February, a massive oversupply of grapes, driven by a global downturn in demand for cheap red wine, plus rapidly rising costs have led to unsustainably low prices for their grapes.

“Everyone’s doom and gloom at the moment,” said Ratcliff, who is co-chair of the Riverland Wine association and attended the meeting. “A lot of people are ripping vineyards out. Especially the red grapes.”

The problem, he explained, is that growers in the big, inland, irrigated regions such as the Riverland have historically been reliant on the big companies they sell grapes to.

During the 2000s and 2010s – especially as the China market boomed before its imposition of punitive tariffs in 2020 – those companies asked growers to provide them with shiraz and cabernet.

“And now the export markets for shiraz and cabernet have collapsed, the big companies are running away as fast as they can.”

No wonder growers are furious.

A different tack

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. For the past two decades, Ratcliff has been demonstrating with his Ricca Terra brand that there can be an alternative approach – or, rather, many alternative approaches – to growing grapes and making wine in the Riverland. The key as a grower, he said, was to watch the market carefully, listen to what it wants, and anticipate what grapes the wineries might want to buy.

“We set up Ricca Terra as a grape-growing business 20 years ago,” he said. “We focused on new and emerging grape varieties because there was a good demand from wineries. And then we started making wines under our labels in 2017 to help promote those varieties.”

Initially, much of the impetus behind the new varieties was concern over climate change: the Portuguese grapes that Ratcliff planted and sells under his Terra do Rio label are particularly well-suited to the region’s hot, dry conditions. But changing consumer tastes in the ensuing decades – a growing interest in aromatic whites and lighter, juicier reds – has shored-up demand for his grapes and wine.

“Everyone else in the region’s cutting back on production,” said Ratcliff. “We’re making more.”

He’s also finding new ways to tell a different story about the Riverland and its potential.

He recently released a reduced-alcohol version of his popular Ricca Terra rosé – his first, surprisingly successful foray into the no-lo market; a beautiful sweet white that embraces the region’s long history of dried-grape production; a range of three-litre casks; and a reserve red that he’s selling for $100 a bottle – not uncommon in cooler-climate “fine wine” regions but almost unheard of in the Riverland.

All are exciting new wines, as far away from doom and gloom as it’s possible to get. It’s the cask wines, though, that Ratcliff is most animated about.

“I can’t believe I’m talking about casks,” he said. “In my old job, at Yalumba, I was operations manager for a couple of years, in charge of their two-litre casks. I didn’t like it much, so when I started Ricca Terra, I promised myself I would never make wines that ended up in casks. Now I now find myself the owner of a cask-filling machine and promoting the sustainability of cask wines.”

What changed his mind?

“We had a client in Japan who asked us to put some of our wines in cask. So, we gave it a crack. We filled 600 units of a white, a rosé and a red. They sold out quickly. So, we filled some more, and they keep selling out.”

The more he thought about it, the more he realised that selling wine this way is actually a no-brainer. It’s much less energy intensive; the packaging is lighter and takes up less space (and, thanks to changes in production technology, it is almost completely recyclable); used in a hospitality venue, there is no wine wastage with casks; and, because cost is lower, there’s the potential to make more money. All of which sends a very positive message about the region.

“At Riverland Wine we’ve come up with a blueprint for a more sustainable future,” he said. “But it’s not going to happen quickly. We’re talking about generational change. And it’s only going to happen if we can get more brands involved in this new approach.”