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Byron Shire
September 22, 2021

Riverland Wine: A hidden gem

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Ashley Ratcliff: a serious award-winning winemaker who doesn’t take wine too seriously.

Julz Recsei*

As I navigate the vast world of wine, I am constantly looking for something new and I found this a few years ago when I met Ashley Ratcliff. Mad as a bag of cats, he shares my philosophy on winemaking, and an attitude of ‘don’t take wine too seriously – just make it tasty and fun’.

Last year I went down to the Riverland, South Australia, where he grows and makes his wine, Ricca Terra (meaning Rich Land). The Riverland is a wine-growing region set on the banks of the mighty Murray (Murrundi) River. The soil has a rich red sandy base, the temperature ranges from -5 to +47 degrees Celsius and there’s an average rainfall of around 200mm a year, the same that we got in this Shire in three hours during Cyclone Debbie. So, it’s a hot/cold/dry/sandy area – sounds pretty glum! However, it is the largest grape-growing region in Australia that no-one knows about, even though traditionally the great Australian invention, the Goon Bag, is filled with Riverland fruit.

If you drink a wine that’s labelled ‘Wine of Australia’ then there’s a high chance it was grown in the Riverland. Ash started Ricca Terra Farms in 2003 with a belief that he could do something bigger and better, and a philosophy of growing wine grapes that are both more sustainable given Australia’s environment, and also a more suitable match to our Mediterranean diet. 

Traditional wine varieties need 1200mm–2000mm of rainfall annually to bear healthy fruit. The Riverland gets 200ml of rain, do the math; the rest is made up by pumping from the Murray, not so healthy for Pachamama. So, Ash started to rip out these thirsty vines and plant more sustainable varieties that require much less water, such as Fiano, Vermentino, Nero d’Avola and Tinta Barocca that are grown in hot dry areas of Spain and Italy. Much of our diet in Australia is influenced by these regions. Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc are more suited to a French style of cooking with lots of butter and richness – made to be warming food. So, these dry-climate wines are, in a way, made for Australia. 

As Ash started to plant these new varieties, new age winemakers started to pay attention. His fruit is being used by some of my personal favourite natural winemakers: Unico Zelo, Patrick Sullivan, Dawning Day and Brash Higgins, to mention a few, along with his own brand, Ricca Terra. His wines are vegan and totally ‘smashable’.

While I was down in the Riverland, Ash showed us around the different plots where he has 40 different varieties planted that are flourishing in the arid conditions. We tried countless grapes straight from the vine, which were all different shapes, sizes and flavours and it was amazing to try them off the vine and then try those grapes in the final bottled wines.

His pride and joy is his ski boat that he took us out on – the true majesty of the Murray can be experienced only from the water. As a testimony to his success, he was awarded the Innovative Vineyard of the Year by the Young Guns of Wine. Check out Riverland wines, a hidden gem of the wine world.

*Jules Recsei is a ‘Purveyor of good booze.’

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