It’s been a while between posts, I know.
Over recent weeks I just haven’t felt it – writing about wine seemed offensive as Australia burned. Who cares about fermented grape juice when the air here in Sydney is hazardous to your health, lives are lost fighting fires, and billions of animals die.
Wine hasn’t escaped either.
2020 is going to be a tough vintage for plenty of producers around the country, with 30% of the Adelaide Hills vineyards wiped out after the Cudlee Creek Fire. Lenswood – one of the coolest parts of the Hills – has been especially hard hit, with some of the oldest vines in the sub-region lost.
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We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your notes of concern regarding the Cudlee Creek bushfire that devastated many communities of the Adelaide Hills on Friday. We have now assessed the damage, which is significant and sadly will require a long-term replanting plan. These photos show the extent of the fire across our Lenswood vineyard. Riesling, chardonnay, grüner veltliner, pinot noir, merlot, cabernet, sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer all lost. Sadly this includes some of the oldest pinot noir in the Adelaide Hills, planted by Tim Knappstein in 1983. Both of our sheds, machinery and equipment lost as well. Thank you to the CFS for their efforts in the worst conditions on Friday. Our thoughts are with our neighbours and friends, and the rest of the Adelaide Hills wine community who have been impacted as well. Stephen and Prue Henschke and family.
It’s not just vines that are destroyed either. Dave Bowley at Vinteloper lost his house, vineyards, everything.
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For Tillbrook, the fire was so intense that bottles exploded.
At Tumbarumba, fire ripped through several key grower vineyards including Courabyra & Johansen.
The Kangaroo Island fire situation is ongoing, but the whole island remains under threat. It’s a wait and see moment. And while the Gippsland fires are not threatening vineyards, they’re now pushing up towards the Alpine Valleys, Beechworth and King Valley in NE Victoria.
In other words, there is fire all over the country. From the Stirling Ranges in WA, through South Australia, throughout eastern Victoria and all the way up the NSW coast and Great Dividing Ranges to SE QLD.
If the fire isn’t enough, along comes smoke taint.
Extended exposure to smoke is bad for vineyards at any time, but is particularly problematic for grapes after veraison (so once berries have changed colour and started to soften ready for harvest) as smoke is primarily absorbed via berry skins and it ramps up when skins are soft. Even just a small amount (ie a single exposure of heavy smoke) can ultimately leave wines with undesirable flavours, thanks to the phenols (which comes from wood being burnt) involved binding to grape sugars and then dispersed during fermentation.
The further problem with smoke taint is that it is insidious, regularly not showing up in sensory trials until the wine is finished (and bottled). There are tests available to pickup these known phenol compounds and the AWRI volunteered staff to work through the holidays to deal with samples. Though all it can take is some smoky MOG to introduce the taint to a ferment (which is why handpicking of high risk fruit is recommended).
One of the most exposed regions to smoke taint this year is the Hunter Valley, with close proximity to a number of fires (particularly the giant Gospers Mountain Fire). The main fire front danger was some weeks ago for the Lower Hunter Valley, but given that Chardonnay harvest started last week and nearly everything is at veraison, the risk is high. As Christina Tulloch told The Shout, 110 samples have already been sent to the AWRI for testing. There will be losses, obviously, and as Andrew Margan noted here, some producers have been caught out by backburning operations.
Amidst all this chaos, all this misery there are rays of hope. You only need to look at James Tillbrook’s facebook timeline to witness how disaster can bring communities together, with hundreds of strangers donating their time to help out someone who has lost it all, including donating kms of irrigation line that was burnt out.
You can also look towards the experience of Topper’s Mountain as a next step too, where ‘devastating’ bushfires in Feb 2019 took out 13.3% of their total vines. Toppers have now rolled out a My Vine Club crowdfunding campaign that allows supporters a chance to adopt one of the 3000 vines to be replanted.
These unprecedented fires may also serve a higher purpose by pushing the deathly seriousness of climate change into the public consciousness. The tipping point that we so desperately need to budge out so much of the Murdoch press denialism bullshit.
Important also to note the whole 2020 vintage isn’t a write off. It’s still early days, even for the Hunter and so much can happen. And I need to remind overseas readers that Australia is a huge continent, and lots of wine producing parts of the country are untouched and looking towards a great vintage.
As for now, well, just keep donating to good causes like the Adelaide Hills Wine Region Appeal and make sure you buy wines from affected producers around the country.
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