Visiting Tino Beccario – grape grower

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Tino: I’ve been in the area since 1950 growing grapes – some of you from around here will remember that Richlands was a big grape-growing area in the 50’s 60’s & 70’s. The main varieties grown were the Black Hamburg and Cloach. They have now fallen out of favour and we took up new varieties in the 80’s. Grapes will grow in a wide range of soils from sandy loams to the heavier soils. They need two things – a reasonable winter – the colder the better – and good drainage. If you grow them around your house, I’d recommend the northern aspect because they need full sun for good results. We have 12 varieties here and a few wine grapes for our own use. Some varieties we have are Cardinals, White & Black Muscat, and Maroo Seedless. We chopped out the Menindee Seedless because we couldn’t get them to bear in this area – they tasted like apples but people liked them.

We graft onto our own rootstock here though grapes will grow on their own roots. You can just plant a cutting but it depends on the area. If you have red soil or you’re inland, they would probably grow quite well on their own roots. It’s really the nematodes that knock them around. We had no success with that here, so we graft them. There are a large number of rootstocks available (check with the DPI). On our farm we’ve experimented with about 15 and the best was called SO4. They’ve changed its name to Telechi 5C. That’s the rootstock we use. It’s vigorous, but not too vigorous, and we have good results, finding it compatible with most varieties. Some rootstock is not compatible with particular varieties. Ramsay, a very vigorous rootstock, is one to watch. It wasn’t compatible with some of the varieties. You’d put it in and they would grow for a year or two then die. So, rootstocks are very important.

The most critical part of the growing is the controlling both Downy and Powdery Mildews. To control them you use Copper and Sulphur. There are a wide variety of Coppers – Copper Oxychloride or Mancozeb and Wettable Sulphur. In the old days we used Bordeaux Mixture, which was copper and lime mixed together. It was probably the best ever. It was rain resistant. It did take some effort to mix and it is not compatible with a lot of other sprays. Rather than keep spraying with Rogor or Lebacyd for the fruit fly we use an attractant that we spray – we trickle it on every 4th row. We mix an insecticide with the attractant that draws the fruit flies to it. They eat it and it’s the end of them. We spray it once before the grapes ripen, then every seven days after that. That has given us good control over the fruit fly. You have to spray for Mildews especially in a wet year. If you don’t get any grapes, it’s because you have mildew. Work is being done to develop Mildew resistant varieties – one of them is Chamboucin. It’s a wine grape. I’m experimenting with them, and they seem to be quite clean and don’t get Mildew. Another important thing with grapes is fertilising – we use Nitrophoska – have a look at your growth – if you’re getting good growth, then you don’t need too much fertiliser. Apply it sparingly.

Member: Which is the best mildew-resistant variety?

Tino: Probably Isabella and Chamboucin.

Tino: We had to net all the vines last year because of birds.

Sheryl: What are the water requirements for grapes?

Tino: We’re not geared to water – we have a bore and we put a bit of water on if it’s really dry but they do quite well without water. I must stress that we cultivate our soil. DPI will tell you that’s not the way to go – they’ll say grass it and keep it clean on the side and that’s OK if you have plenty of water to give them. To cultivate, we use a Triple-K cultivator once we’ve cleaned out the off-seasons undergrowth. That normally digs down about 10cm and it keeps the soil loose, forming a buffer from the hot sun and preventing moisture being drawn out from underneath.

Bruce: For those of you who don’t understand, you may wonder why that’s working. If you don’t cultivate, the grape will have its roots near the surface, in the top few inches.  Then when it becomes really dry, the grape becomes too dependent on those surface roots. It will dry out. Whereas, what Tino is doing is effectively creating a kind of mulch. By disturbing the surface soil each time, and cutting out roots that crept towards the surface, the grape doesn’t become dependant on surface moisture. In the summer the surface will dry out, but there is water that will stay down lower. He’s altered the soil structure so it doesn’t actually act with a capillary action, sucking water up from deep below and allowing it to evaporate.

Tino: We’ve dug holes 1m deep and you couldn’t get the dirt up with the shovel because it gets so powdery deep down. If you don’t cultivate and keep that buffer between the moisture under the ground and the sun, it will dry out.

Sheryl: How do you know when to start irrigating – when the leaf starts wilting?

Tino: If you wait until that, you may as well forget it!

Sheryl: What do you use as an attractant for Fruit Flies and what do you add to it?

Tino: We use Q Fly Lure. It tells you what to use with it.  We use it with Lorsban.

George: How often do you put it on?

Tino: We put it on before the grapes ripen – about every 7 days – we trickle it on top of the leaf cover. It doesn’t go anywhere near the fruit – that’s the beauty of it.

Sheryl: What time of the year do you fertilise?

Tino: We fertilise after they shoot, and we use Potassium Sulphate as well when the berries have formed

Sheryl: How much do you use?

Tino: Use it sparingly.

Bob: What nets do you use?

Tino: We use cotton/nylon – they’re very good. We started off with plastic that was supposedly biodegradable. We use rolls of 5m by 150m. You could try buying them from Growforce, although you can only buy them in bulk. They will keep the silvereyes out, and you should get 20 years of use out of them. We made up an attachment to put them on and take them off.  It’s a bit of a contraption that goes behind the tractor and makes the net go through some loops. It requires 3 people to manage netting – one driving, and two walking behind to put them on. It is the same when taking them off.

Bob: What happens when the vine grows through the net?

Tino: We only put them on just before they ripen. To free the vines, we slip a 1 inch water hose under the net, and, one on each side of the row, my brother and I, walk along every row. We do this every 3 weeks or so and it flicks the nets up. Don’t leave them on too long or the new shoots will go through the netting.  The first couple of years when we had finished with the nets, we tried to roll them up but that was not successful so we coded each patch of grapes and we bag the net in coded bags ready for next years use. 

Tino: When pruning, the idea is that the shoots you leave this year are on last year’s wood – all grape-bearing shoots have to be on that wood.  The problem is that if you cut back and it’s not on last year’s wood, the fruit won’t form. One other important thing is to always keep the vine coming back. 

Peter: There’s a fair amount of energy stored in the wood as well as the roots so why don’t grape growers leave a fair amount of wood there?

Tino: We could leave an enormous amount of wood and we’d get an enormous amount of grapes but they wouldn’t be first quality grapes  A typical example would be Black Muscat – you can get a box of grapes on a vine of this type, but the colour wouldn’t be black, it would be wishy-washy and the taste wouldn’t be there.  We work on 3-5kgs per vine and this gives good quality fruit, as the nutrients go into your existing bunches of grapes. There are 2 ways of pruning. Spur and rod pruning – when you’re pruning you have to think 3 years ahead. With the Black Muscat on our farm, no grapes will come out on the spurs – only the rods will bear. The difference between a rod and a spur is – a rod is a long cane of 8 to 10 buds; and a spur has only two buds.

Sheryl: Do you prune every variety the same?

Tino: No. Merbane I prune differently. Wine grapes I also prune differently – instead of one rod, I’ve been leaving two. The spacing between vines is 1½ metres. We don’t irrigate. When pruning, I only leave 2 rods – one each side.

Sheryl: With North to South and East to West directions, do you have different varieties going East to West as opposed to North to South?  

Tino: If you get a really hot summer then East to West would be an advantage because grapes do burn. Planted East to West they are shaded underneath. If they are planted North to South they can cook on a hot sunny afternoon. We have Black Muscats going East to West and there’s not a lot of difference between those, but in a backyard situation, you’d plant them on the Northern aspect of the house. That is, the trellis would run East to West. We graft all varieties just below ground.  We only grow table grapes commercially, and I dabble in a bit of wine grapes for my own use.

Sheryl: They’ve got a higher sugar content haven’t they?

Tino: The only way to get the sugar into them is not to overload your vine with berries, and if you get a reasonable season allow them to fully ripen. The only reason you can’t get decent grapes at the market is because it’s a falling market and the grower tries to earn as much as he can. So if it looks good, he picks it early. If you can’t eat it, you shouldn’t be picking it and the reason we have a bit of a following here is the very reason that they taste good.

Bruce: I can vouch for Tino’s Muscat grapes making a dry wine you get 14% alcohol – plenty of sugar in them.

Bob: My father knew somebody who used to plant the wild rootstock, and then he’d dig down underneath the ground and graft it then cover it over with newspaper and soil and keep it damp.

Member: That was before they had tape.

Peter: Are the rootstocks you use resistant to phylloxera?

Tino: All rootstocks released by the DPI are phylloxera resistant. There was a small area on the other side of the river with phylloxera but we’ve never had it here. We put in a cover crop, Sudex. It grows right up over the posts. We slash it twice and it puts mulch back into the ground and stops the soil wash. Also, if you get the heavier rains earlier in the year, it helps to drain the soil. We plant it after we finish taking off the crop in late January. Drainage is a most important thing.  We’ve had some problems. We found that if you over-fertilise they grow too lush, and they tend to split. We found that by getting them to grow hardier, they’ll stand up better to all conditions. Cardinal will split but the Muscat should be fairly split resistant.

Member: I have Black Opal, and if I get heavy dew in late April, they split.

Tino: They’ve changed its name to Black Maroo – we have 6 rows of those.

Sheryl: Why do you graft below ground?

Tino: Our soil was originally more acid than is ideal for growing grapes. In the early days we added dolomite annually to correct the acidity. Now that the pH (a measure of acidity/alkalinity) is up to about 6.5 (almost neutral), we haven’t applied dolomite for some years. Grapes will grow if the pH is between 5.5 and 6.0. For many years we applied dolomite at a rate of 10 to 15 tons per acre. We used dolomite rather than lime because first, it includes magnesium as well as calcium; and second its action on the soil and soil microorganisms is gentler than lime. Most organic gardeners prefer dolomite to lime.

Article compiled by Sheryl Backhouse