Pomegranate perfection

Tucked away on the outskirts of Auburn among leaves of autumn hues, bright red pops of colour burst from an orchard/vineyard and a small team are busily bringing in the 2020 pomegranate harvest.

This year marks Wakefield Valley Vineyard’s seventh harvest of the Mediterranean-native fruit, and according to vineyard/orchard manager Malcolm Parish, this season is shaping up to be one of the best.

“It’s looking fantastic,” he said. “We’ve got more premium-grade fruit this year than we’ve ever had and while the price is coming down now with more pomegranates hitting the market, this year we got in earlier than normal with our first picks and got some really good prices out of Sydney and Adelaide markets.

“Those prices held for three weeks and are only just now coming down.

“Instead of waiting, we jumped the gun a bit earlier this year, picking earlier and had consistently high brix readings and have been able to deliver fruit at a high 17, which the markets seem to be very happy with.”

Owned by Adelaide orthopaedic surgeon, Michael Sandow, Wakefield Valley Vineyard has 2000 pomegranate trees in the orchard, with varieties of mainly Wonderful and Angel Reds, which are sweeter and have softer seeds.

About 12-tonne of the brightly-jewelled fruit will be picked and graded by a team of six local employees.

This year’s harvest started 23 days earlier than last year, kicking off on April 1 and is expected to go through until the end of May.

Grown, picked and packed in Auburn, the fruit is sent fresh to the fruit and vegetable markets in Sydney and Adelaide, along with a quantity to a Riverland buyer.

While Sydney buyers prefer large, premium quality fruit, Adelaide market buyers seem happier with smaller fruit, and with each packaged differently to suit the market, orchard employees are kept on their toes ensuring buyers get exactly what they demand.

Far from having any negative impact on the pomegranate trade, Mr Parish said he believed demand for the fruit had increased during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

It has been said pomegranates may have anti-viral, antibacterial and antioxidant properties that may help treat and maybe even prevent high blood pressure, high cholesterol and inflammatory issues among its health benefits, and it seems traditional consumers are keen to get their hands on the ‘super-food’.

“The seeds are used in salads, smoothies and squeezed for their juice concentrate, and for flavouring in cooking,” Mr Parish said.

“Apart from our staff adjusting to social distancing during picking, packing and grading, and having to change some of our market delivery days to fit with changes in transport availability during this time, we have not felt any major negative impact.

“Middle Eastern people, Indians and Asians have used pomegranates for centuries as a health food so in a time of crisis, people are going back to this fruit for its health benefits.”

It is not just pomegranates on the go at the Wakefield Valley Vineyard, in the vintage that seems to go on and on – having started picking the 30 hectares of grapevines back in February –  walnuts are also being picked, awaiting grading and packing once the pomegranate season is complete, around June.

There are 2600 walnut trees on 7.5ha of the Wakefield Valley Vineyard property, with their main markets to Pooraka, Sydney and the Riverland.

The Chandler and Tulare varieties are packed into five-kilogram bags for sale.

However, the diversification of the vineyard into fruit and nuts has not been without its challenges, one of the greatest was the loss of a number of the prized pomegranate trees.

In a world breakthrough in research, the Wakefield Valley Vineyard is overcoming this setback, having helped identify that the trees were susceptible to Eutypa from the adjoining grape vines.

“Never before had it been identified anywhere else in the world that this was possible and the cause of tree deaths,” Mr Parish said.

“Seven or eight years ago, hundreds of hectares of pomegranate trees in the Riverland died and it was only when scientists from Waite, the University of Adelaide and Melbourne Uni visited this orchard to base their research on, they were able to prove the trees could get Eutypa from vines.

“Michael Sandow has been recognised for his work in helping make this breakthrough in the industry.

“Now that we know what was causing some of the die back in the trees, we’ve been able to cut and treat them and they’re now coming back into production.”

It was a challenge that has become a highlight, and for Mr Parish who has been involved in vineyards all of his life, and growing fruit as a career for the last 40 years, admits he never stops learning.

This year, the little red gems in that Auburn orchard are the shining light in what has been a couple of tough seasons.

“It really is a learning curve growing these different fruits and nuts,” Mr Parish said.

“In many ways the pomegranates this year, being so dry, are a highlight.

“They are drip irrigated but don’t need much water other than to help activate flowering so we give them a big drink at the end of September and end of October, but once we get to December, we can just about turn the water off because their natural habitat is in the desert.

“While this year the grapes were just horrific, it was a terrible year with no rain, and we lost half the walnuts because they couldn’t take the heat, the success of the pomegranates has really lifted the spirits of everybody.”