Via Financial Times

It is harvest time but Graeme Shaw’s prize winning grapes are being left to rot after a bushfire season that has highlighted the vulnerability of Australia’s A$6bn (US$4bn) a year wine industry to climate change. 

“The taste is so bad it is like licking an ashtray,” said Mr Shaw, offering grapes from his 85 acre vineyard about 40km from the capital of Canberra. “They’ve been tainted by smoke, which blew in from fires more than 80km away. We just can’t risk our brand by making wine or selling fruit this year.” 

Shaw Wines is one of at least a dozen Australian winemakers that will not produce a 2020 vintage because of the fires, which so far have burnt more than 11m hectares of land, equivalent to the size of Iceland, killed 34 people and spread toxic smoke as far away as New Zealand. 

Some growers in the Adelaide Hills, Kangaroo Island and parts of New South Wales were burnt out completely, and many more wineries have discovered their grapes have absorbed compounds from the bushfire smoke, which taints the wine during fermentation. 

Drought, bushfires and extreme weather have long been part of the Australian climate but scientists warn they are becoming more frequent and intense as global temperatures rise. It is a similar story in other popular wine-growing regions, with California, Portugal and Spain all experiencing catastrophic fires in recent years — events that have made the industry think hard about adapting to climate change. 

Bushfires and smoke have tainted this year's wine harvest. Map showing beurnt land and wine grwoing regions of Australia

“The fires are sage warnings about what the future will look like unless governments do something about climate change,” said Snow Barlow, professor of agricultural science at University of Melbourne. “Grapes are very sensitive to environmental changes, which puts winemakers on the front line of this. We [winemakers] have coped well with one degree of warming but moving to two or three degrees of warming would be very difficult.” 

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With fires still burning in parts of Victoria, Prof Barlow estimated one in 10 Australian wine regions had been affected by the fires and smoke, which could reduce the 2020 vintage volume by up to 8 per cent. Wine Australia, an industry group, estimated 4 per cent of the harvest could be lost. 

Added to this was the fact that the coronavirus had forced winemakers to cancel marketing events in China, Australia’s largest export market worth A$1.28bn. “This is the most difficult year for the Australian wine industry since the financial crisis, due to bushfires and the coronavirus,” said Andreas Clark, chief executive of Wine Australia. 

Graeme Shaw inspecting a bottle of wine
Graeme Shaw of Shaw Wines, outside Canberra. Smoke taint has meant his prize-winning grapes now taste ‘like licking an ashtray’ © Shaw Wines

Growers and independent winemakers in affected areas — some of which were still reeling from a two-year drought — were hardest hit by the bushfires, Mr Clark said, while the nation’s biggest producers Treasury Wine Estates, Accolade Wines and Pernod Ricard Winemakers were still able to source fruit from unaffected regions. 

In the longer term, all producers fear the impact of rising temperatures, which could shorten the time it takes to ripen fruit on the vine. This can affect the complexity of wines, increase their alcohol content and put pressure on production capacity at wineries during a compressed harvest season, according to growers. 

“When my father started making wine half a century ago we would pick Riesling in the first week of May. Now we pick in March or in a warm year even late February,” said Tim Kirk, owner of Clonakilla, which will not produce a 2020 vintage because of “smoke taint” from the fires near Canberra. 

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Clonakilla has invested in more machinery and production capacity to cope with shorter, more compressed harvests and has planted new grape varieties — including Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Counoise — to cope with a warmer climate.

Dry year

Australian vineyards hit by bushfires

  • Tyrrell’s Wines dates back to 1858. Drought and smoke taint will cut at least 80 per cent of its 2020 vintage
  • Shaw Wines, a family-run winery producing Riesling, Sémillon and Shiraz, will not produce any wine this year
  • Clonakilla, which planted its first vines in 1971 and is famous for Shiraz, has scrapped its 2020 vintage
  • Ravensworth Wines is hoping to use its “smoke tainted” grapes to make fruit beer, rather than wines in 2020

To cope with scorching temperatures, the vineyard also uses a clay-based spray-on sunscreen to protect its vines and grapes, although this cannot protect the grapes from smoke taint. Other vineyards have also taken action — Brown Brothers teamed up with Australia’s science agency CSIRO to develop a new grape variety better suited to the arid conditions in its Victorian vineyards.

“There are still challenges ahead for the wine industry due to climate change but it has shown its ability to adapt to changing conditions, collaborate on ground breaking research and embrace new ideas,” said Christopher Davies, CSIRO scientist. “This should stand it in good stead.” 

But for now, many are still reeling from the impact of the fires. One of the worst affected wine regions is the Adelaide Hills, where a bushfire in late December ripped through 25,000 hectares of land, which encompasses about a third of its wineries, best known for cool climate Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay varieties. 

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Greg Horner, owner of Mt Bera Vineyards, spent three days defending his property from the fire to save vines, which he had already been forced to replant after a devastating fire in 2015.

“It was very scary and stressful, but we did it. Unfortunately our Pinot Noir grapes have been rejected by Treasury Wine Estates due to smoke taint,” said Mr Horner. “We are likely to see some growers who lost their vines in the fires exit the industry. It’s very expensive to rebuild.”