On Australia – fires and wine

Bush trained vines at Lowe Wine in Mudgee Australia

On Australia – fires and wine

First things first. Many of the wineries and vineyards in Australia have been severely affected by the drought and the bush fires. The best way to help? Get out and drink Australian wine. Some of these vineyards may not have a vintage this year, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have wine. Most have their cellar doors open. If you are in Australia, go see them! If you are not…well head to your local wine shop, where ever you are on the globe and ask for Australian wine. Search for smaller producers that could really use your help. Yes, it might be difficult to find. Keep asking, drive up the demand.

It was October and we found ourselves in Australia’s New South Wales for the Wine Media Conference, that was held in the Hunter Valley. At the time, this seasons bush fires had only recently begun. Most of these were happening north of where we were in Queensland and our friends who were touring the Granite Belt wine region brought us stories of the fires there. Small fires were popping up. You could see the worry when you spoke with people. But at this point, the concern was mostly about the drought.

Drought after drought

There was a significant drought from 2003 to 2012. After a few years, that were a bit more normal, drought hit again in 2017, this time the impact was more severe. We spoke with people who had family farms that were suffering as available water levels dropped to a point where they could no longer irrigate. We also spoke with winemakers who were concerned about the future of their vineyards.

The drive from Hunter Valley to Mudgee

We traveled through several regions in New South Wales, but our drive to and from Mudgee illustrated the difficulties of the drought most starkly.

We drove into Mudgee from the Hunter Valley. The Hunter, at this point in the spring, was pretty lush and green. From the Hunter we headed inland through the Goulburn National Forest. This is considered “the bush” in Australia. The “bush” is an area that is undeveloped and filled with indigenous flora and fauna. Think of it as backwoods or hinterland, it’s really just a mostly untouched natural region. These regions cover a large portion of Australia.

The drive to Mudgee from the Hunter Valley
The drive to Mudgee from the Hunter Valley

As we drove the road became smaller. The population is lower in the inland regions. Most of Australia’s population forms a ring around the country on the coast. With smaller population come smaller roads and we went from 4 lane to 2 lane to a road with no center stripe, and even a section of gravel and dirt, as we crossed through the forest to Mudgee.

The impact of the drought on wildlife

We saw our fair share of kangaroos and wombats, sadly none were living. People asked when we returned if it was like dear on the East Coast of the US. No…it was a dead animal every 50 yards for a great portion of the trip. Much of this comes from the drought. We were told by a winemaker that the roos come to the green strip of grass on the sides of the road to feed, because there is so little for them to feed on otherwise. At dusk and dawn, drivers are hard pressed to miss them.

They do care deeply about their wildlife. We saw signs, like the one below, along all the roads with numbers to call if you hit or see injured animals.

WildLife Injuries Hotline in Australia
WildLife Injuries Hotline in Australia

The fires increase

It was not long after our return to the states that the fires spread. In early December a friend was visiting Sydney and took a photo in the Royal Botanical Gardens. Standing in a spot close to where I had been just a month and a half prior, she took a photo of the Lewis Wolfe Levy fountain, a statue of the goddess Diana, with a background of a brown and orange glow of a sky filled with smoke. I had been following the fires as they encroached on Sydney, but this picture brought home the severity of the fires, showing me the stark contrast to the city I had visited.

The 2020 Harvest

Wineries and vineyards now look to what to do this harvest. While, the wineries and vineyards we visited have not been directly impacted by the fires there are those indirect impacts, greater lack of available water, smoke taint, lack of access for visitors and impacts on their employees, many of whom may travel in from areas more affected by the fires.

We have seen wineries, like Tyrrell’s, one of the oldest and largest wineries in the Hunter Valley, publicly state that they will not pull in a harvest this year. Read more from the Guardian here They do not want to compromise the quality of their wine and do not feel comfortable with the amount of smoke taint that their vineyards may have encountered. Depending on the location of the vineyard and the winds, some may be impacted, while others are not.

2020 in the Mudgee Region

I reached out to Cara George with Mudgee Region Tourism to see how the Mudgee Region had been affected this year by the fires and the drought. Cara provided me with a statement from Mudgee Wine

The 2020 grape growing and wine making vintage has been a particularly tough one for growers throughout Australia including the Mudgee Wine Region. 

We have all felt the effect of the prolonged drought, extreme heat and continued bush fires and subsequent smoke. Firstly we want to express our sympathy to those who have lost vineyards, wineries and stock in various wine regions in Australia. We also sympathize with those regions that may be dealing with the effects of smoke in grapes in the upcoming harvest.

Secondly, it is important that we acknowledge that 2020 is not the ideal vintage for everyone in the Mudgee Wine Region. As a region we pride ourselves on making top quality wines that consistently win awards across the country. With our commitment to the very high standard of wines that drinkers have come to expect from Mudgee, and the effects of the drought and smoke across the region we are expecting to see a much smaller than average harvest in 2020. 

Mudgee Wine Association along with many individual members have been and continue to conduct testing with the Australian Wine Research Institute in relation to effects of smoke in the grapes. Given the results of these tests along with some small batch ferments conducted in wineries, it is likely that many brands will choose not to harvest in 2020. Those who do choose to harvest will be doing so with confidence that the quality of the wine will remain at the high standard expected of the Mudgee Wine Region.

Despite the harsh realities of the 2020 vintage, our region is full of beautiful vineyards, cellar doors, accommodation and restaurants that continue to be open for business and ready for visitors. Our various Mudgee wine brands currently have fantastic vintages available from 2016, through to 2019 for tasting and purchase. In fact, there couldn’t be a better time to visit and support these small growers and winemakers in our beautiful region. 

Mudgee Wine Association January 28th, 2020

What is smoke taint

Smoke taint. Okay, I heard a bit about this issue with the fires in Sonoma in 2017. The difference was that those fires happened in October, and harvest was well underway. Many vineyards were not affected at all. In the case of Australia, the fires were beginning in the spring. Late January into March is harvest here in Australia, and the risk smoke taint increases after verasion (when the grapes change color).

The chemicals in smoke that cause smoke taint are volatile phenols and glycosides. These are found in fresh smoke and in lignin from burnt wood. They dissipate in 1 to 2 hours typically, so vineyards that are close to fresh smoke will be affected. At longer distances (and keep in mind smoke can travel long distances), you mostly just see suspended carbon particulates that are less likely to affect the grapes.

bushfire in grassland with trees in australia
bushfire in grassland with trees in Australia

Affects of Smoke Taint

Smoke taint in wine is aromatic and tactile. In small quantities it can present like Brett, with dulled fruit and a strange dryness in the mouth that is similar to oak. In higher concentrations this becomes magnified and decidedly off putting (think burnt garbage).

So…how to determine if your grapes are at the level that they will have off putting smoke taint? Well, the compounds can be detected on grapes by gas chronography, but this is an expensive process. Keep in mind we are trying to detect in parts per million. For most winemakers, the solution is to do a sample pre-harvest and do a sample ferment. Volatile phenols release during fermentation. The levels in fermented grapes are 5 to 10 times higher in fermented grapes compared to fresh grapes. In fermented grapes these volatile phenols can be detected, by smell or taste.

The New South Wales Government is providing grape growers with funding for smoke test kits. Labs that do the detailed work are working overtime and expect to be busy into March. The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Australia is also pretty advanced with technology in vineyards and a piece by Wine Australia gives some details on new spectrometry techniques for diagnosing smoke taint.

A word from David Lowe in Mudgee

We spent time in Mudgee before the conference visiting for an afternoon with David Lowe of Lowe Wines where he is growing bio-dynamically and making some superb Zinfandel. Yes…I said Zinfandel, yes…in Australia. David was kind enough to send us a few words on how they were coping.

The drought has proved challenging and we know we will have about ½ normal yield.

Additional challenges re the dust storms and constant smoke, which we are working through on an ongoing basis.

It’s a national problem and the fires close to houses and vineyards like California means we are sharing experiences that are tough on everybody.

Fred Peterson made contact with me recently it seems the whole world knows about our problems and there is great camaraderie offers of help and sympathy. The wine industry is a close one.

Immediate impacts are tourism and visitation, which are such a part of the experience we are offering.

Our solution is to increase our range of hospitality experiences, increase local visitation and keep the farm watered and viable particularly so we can maintain our ecosystem.

David Lowe, Lowe Wines January 30th, 2020

From Mudgee back to the Hunter via the Golden Highway

On the return trip, we headed to the Golden Highway to the north of the region. Here roads were wider and the landscape went on forever over dry brown hills dotted with trees, that didn’t look so good. The dry brown grass, sometimes gave way to burned patches and often to dark brown expanses where there was not enough water for even the grass to grow. There were cattle farms here with cattle bunched together with little to eat. Mind you, this was spring, when you should see some green somewhere. It was desolate and eerily beautiful, in a post apocalyptic way. Some cattle were lying on their sides…as we weren’t close, I decided to believe that they were still breathing.

Cattle and sheep farmers are struggling. Deny climate change if you will, but these folks are witnessing it first hand.

Now come the rains

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service announced that the fires were contained on February 12th, 2020. We will hope that this continues. But now we are on to the rains. These rains assisted with putting out many of the fires. I’m sure there is gratitude for the rain, but being from California where we have our annual fire season, followed by our annual mudslide season, I am well aware of the devastation that torrential rains cause on areas already devastated by fire. The ground cover is gone and there is little to hold the soil down as creeks become rivers rushing downhill.

The region along the Golden Highway that were so dry? Well hopefully this rain will be helpful. For other regions like the Shoalhaven Coast, this could cause difficulties with roads for visitors to arrive and depending on where they are with harvest, they could have additional complications. We will continue to follow these regions.

The takeaway

Australians are nothing if not resilient. They will rebuild and find a better way to do things. For many this means the loss of a harvest. That is extremely difficult, watching an entire year of work disappear. The cellar doors are still open, they still have wine. Much of the reds from last years harvest are still waiting to be bottled and whites just bottled this spring are ready to be poured. Support the industry and these people. Visit if you are able and if not search out their wines.

For more…

You can read more on our visit to Australia and our #ouraussiewineadventure here on Crushed Grape Chronicles.

You can also find out more about Mudgee, New South Wales and Australian Wine regions in general at these sites.

You can look forward to more in depth pieces on with winemakers we spoke with as well as our visit to the Orange & Hunter Valley Regions of New South Wales.

As always be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to keep up to date on all of our posts.

pinit fg en rect red 28

Robin Renken
[email protected]
1 Comment
  • advinetures
    Posted at 14:50h, 01 March Reply

    Such an important story to tell. We were in Sonoma 2 weeks after the 2017 fires and we were in Australia a year before the recent fires. Every summer here in BC there is now a “fire season”. It’s sadly becoming an issue in several regions but what happened this year in Australia really seemed to bring the issue to a global level. I work for an Australian company and yes, they are resilient and yes they will rebuild. Cheers to drinking lots of aussie wine!

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