The University of Western Australia this month launched a four-year research mission to make table grapes one of the most valuable fruit crops in Northern Australia.

The research team aims to develop novel practices that enable table grapes to be commercially grown well outside their traditional climate range in subtropical and tropical Australia and bring domestic fruit to market months earlier.

The project is jointly funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia (CRCNA), table grape grower Fruitico, UWA and the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD)

It will be led by Associate Professor Michael Considine, who is an ARC Future Fellow at The UWA Institute of Agriculture and School of Molecular Sciences and a research scientist at DPIRD.

The current value of table grape production in Australia is about $750 million – generating $620 million in export value, which is nearly three times more than 2012.

Hort Innovation Australia rank table grapes as the third largest fresh fruit import segment and largest fresh fruit export segment in Australia.

CRCNA chief executive Anne Stünzner this project could see the productive potential of tropical table grapes increase significantly.

“Table grapes are already a high value horticultural crop,” Ms Stünzner said.

“Enabling producers to increase yields means potentially more money in their pockets and an increased opportunity to grow a diversified horticultural industry for the north.”

Associate Professor Considine said Victoria alone was responsible for nearly 80 per cent of production and only 10 to 15 per cent was grown north of 30 °S latitude.

“This is because grapevines were domesticated in the Mediterranean and depend on seasonal cues to direct phases of growth,” he said.

“While table grapes are grown in subtropical and tropical Australia presently, the yield penalty is at least double, because the seasonality is quite different to how vines were domesticated to behave.”

By reducing this yield gap, Associate Professor Considine said the production of table grapes in Northern Australia would be greatly increased.

“If table grape production could be expanded in Northern Australia, the opportunity for import replacements alone is $85 million per annum,” he said.

Industry partners DPIRD and Fruitico will work together with UWA to encourage growth of expertise in the viticulture industry.

Associate Professor Considine said the major focus was currently Broome, where Fruitico have established vineyards and land ready for expansion.

“Their team is also marvellous, so we can expect to make advances by focussing there first, before directing attention to Carnarvon,” he said.

“These two locations will act as case study hubs, from where we will develop and implement knowledge-based management programs for table grapes that enable increased yield in Northern Australia.

“This will ensure new management practices are embedded in industry in real time, accelerating the outcomes and thus rapid adoption by the industry.”

Associate Professor Considine said the greatest challenge to growing table grapes in subtropical or tropical climates of Northern Australia was that the seasonal temperature and day length rhythms were substantially different – which disrupts reserve storage following harvest, undermining yield and sustainability.

The researchers will develop novel combinations of these management practices that are tailored to the climate, in effect ‘de-risking’ production and thus increasing investment in growing table grapes in the region.