The South Australian Vine Improvement Association’s (SAVIA) plan to develop a roadmap for the delivery of high health planting material for the wine industry is gathering momentum.

A framework has been developed and a range of projects have been identified to ensure the new propagation material standards for the vine improvement associations and nurseries are based on science, use the latest technology and are underpinned by an accreditation system.

Vinehealth Australia caught up with Chris Bennett, SAVIA Executive Officer, and Peter Arnold, Riverland Vine Improvement Committee General Manager, for a chat recently to find out more about the framework and the aims of the project.

“There’s a huge volume of work that needs to be done to create the processes and systems needed to guarantee high health planting material, for the benefit of the entire wine value chain,” Chris said.

“Adherence to the standards, once developed, will be regularly checked through an audit process, with a Standards Board overseeing the whole system. That’s the vision.”

Virus testing a key priority

Chris said one of the first priorities was reviewing vine sampling and virus testing protocols to ensure industry can have maximum confidence in virus testing results and can take appropriate action based on the results.

“The protocol for taking samples for virus analysis sounds very simple. You just go in there and take some samples and send them off to the lab,” Chris said.

“But to do that well, you need to take a statistically significant sample. That depends on the size of the block, the variety, the age of the block, how it has been managed and how much it has been exposed to viruses.

“It’s quite complex, so we need to be very confident that the protocols we use consider all of the variables and stand up to scientific rigour.”

Evolving standards

Chris said SAVIA was also keenly aware that technology is enabling more effective and responsive testing, which will deliver greater confidence in virus testing results.

“We need to evaluate the options to determine the best laboratory techniques to use for virus testing and the associated accuracy and cost of these techniques. New technologies are advancing rapidly and becoming more available, so we need to keep up,” he said.

“The new standards will not be a static thing. As we move forward, we’ll ensure that we incorporate the best technology. When we find gaps or where more research needs to be done, we’re identifying relevant projects and looking for funding sources.”

That’s where Wine Australia comes in. SAVIA has had positive discussions with Wine Australia about a range of vine improvement projects and related funding.

“In its current strategic plan, Wine Australia has incorporated vine health issues and viruses as key pillars, which aligns perfectly with our work,” Chris said.

“We’re also working closely with Nick Dry who has two separate but complementary projects running through Wine Australia, looking at the national germplasm collection and nursery standards. There needs to be collaboration between the various groups to ensure everything we do complements and enhances.

“It’s about the industry bodies, vine improvement groups and nurseries working together on a set of standards that are applicable, actionable and cost effective for industry to comply with.”

The heart of Vine Improvement

The Riverland Vine Improvement Committee (RVIC) delivers three million vine cuttings to the wine industry each year. General Manager Peter Arnold said the development of the roadmap for the supply of high health planting material underlines what vine improvement is all about.

“We’re a not-for-profit sector that is all about reinvesting the income generated by vine cutting sales into actions to develop the best planting material possible,” Peter said.

“We need researchers to give us the best techniques to provide assurance that high health material is exactly that. And we need up to date, credible standards to follow.”

Chris said the new standards will set the benchmark for the supply of planting material in the South Australian wine industry.

“We are setting a very high bar for vine improvement standards and, as a result, we’re exposing ourselves to scrutiny,” Chris said.

“We’re happy with that because we need a really transparent system. We need to be able to demonstrate industry-leading standards, because that’s what differentiates us from Joe down the road who’s got a few vines that he’s prepared to sell over the fence. They may be cheap, but there’s a downside to it and it could end up costing you a lot of money in virus management in the long run.”

The cost of virus

Chris said growers, in general, underestimate the ongoing cost of having virus-infected material. “There’s lower productivity, there are quality issues and there are overall vine health issues,” he said.

“If you bring in infected vines, those viruses are going to spread to other vines in your vineyard and it just goes from bad to worse. We’re finding in the Riverland, for instance, that Grapevine Virus A can lead to vine death three or four years after infection.

“There’s a huge cost to this. Replanting vines is very, very expensive. And viruses can be spread through the vineyard by various vectors, so the situation is serious. You can lose productivity for five or more years.”

Ask for a virus test

While virus testing in Australian vineyards still isn’t common, Peter says he’s seeing more vineyard owners asking for proof of virus testing when buying planting material from RVIC, as their understanding of the importance of high health planting material grows.

“We’re definitely seeing more of this, but smaller growers don’t ask as much as they should,” Peter said.

“Generally, there’s an industry understanding that Vine Improvement product has a level of virus testing history and there therefore an associated high health status implied. But buyers can’t assume testing has been done when they are asking a neighbour or friend for some cuttings. Vineyard owners should always ask for testing.

“Organising virus testing is more work for us to do, but I don’t mind because it means those growers are hearing the calls to only use high health planting material, and they understand the value in paying slightly more for this material.”

Next steps for SAVIA

As well as finalising the new propagation and nursery standards, an accreditation system for vine improvement groups and nurseries to ensure they adhere to the standards will need to be created.

This will be underpinned by an audit process, with a Standards Board overseeing the system.

SAVIA is hoping to have the new roadmap, including the Standards Board, in place by October 2022.

“And we’ll continue to work closely with Wine Australia, Nick Dry, Vinehealth Australia, interstate vine improvement groups and the nursery industry to make sure that everyone has the same vision and that, most importantly, everybody is in the tent and supportive,” Chris says.

“Because, at the end of the day, we all need adoption of the standards if the industry is to benefit.”