Wine: Australian vineyard recovery

14 February 2020

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MANY Australian wine-lovers may be worried about what effect the bushfires in the country will have on future supplies and the quality of the wines from that country. As I write this, the fires are still burning; so I may well be overtaken by events. I have, however, seen one estimate that just one per cent of the vineyards have suffered.

First of all, the largest producing regions are in the irrigated areas of the valley of the Murray River, an area of vinous monoculture where fires are unlikely to occur and there is little encouragement for them to spread. Second, there is a vast difference in the damage caused by smoke and by fire itself.

As the winemaker Sam Plunkett has said, the grapes at this stage are small and hard; so smoke cannot penetrate the skin and affect the flavour. Smoke damage close to harvest time can be a greater problem, however, though even then there are ways to minimise the harm.

With white wines, you press the grapes and quickly take the skins away from the juice. With red wines, where the colour is obtained from the skins, a smoky flavour is sometimes seen as a positive, and can be softened by longer ageing in oak barrels. (Notwithstanding this, I read in a trade magazine that several Californian winemakers from the Napa Valley are claiming $19 million for smoke damage at harvest time during the 2019 vintage.)

In the run-up to Christmas, bushfires devastated the Adelaide Hills region in South Australia, which has orchards and cattle as well as vineyards. These last produce some of the greatest Chardonnays in the country. It is estimated that one third of the vineyards in the region have suffered: a total of 1100 hectares of vines. The fires were worst in the north of the region, destroying Tilbrook Estate winery and vineyards and the vineyard of Golding Wines. Perhaps the most famous name to suffer was that of Henschke; they lost their Lenswood Vineyard, producer of an outstanding Chardonnay, which they had bought and converted from a pear orchard in 1981.

Overall, it seems that the bushfires will have a minimal effect on the sale and prices of Australian wines in this country. Nevertheless, we could all do our bit by drinking Chardonnays from the Adelaide Hills. Waitrose has a broad range of seven on offer; Majestic has Bird in Hand, Two in the Bush (£14.99, or £12.99 in a six-bottle purchase); and Marks & Spencer offers Craft 3, 2018 vintage, for £10. If you wish to move upmarket, A. G. Wines is offering Shaw & Smith M3 Vineyard for £25.99.

Bushfires are not the only ecological threat to the vineyards of Australia. Their government’s plans for the largest coalmine in the world, in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, are treading on the margins of the many great wineries there. The Prime Minister’s love for fossil fuels poses longer-term damage than one year’s bushfires.

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