Australian winemakers are being driven to adapt to climate change due to the high economic cost of trying to block the effects of drought and bushfires.
Damage caused by increased incidents of bushfires, where smoke taints the flavour of the grapes, was highlighted during the Black Summer Bushfires, that raged for five months across parts of Australia 18 months ago.
Mudgee-based winemaker David Lowe told Central News attempts to restrict damage scientifically were too costly.
“What they’re doing is amassing information, none of their research is solutions-based,” he said. “It’s mostly about removing [smoke taint].
“We’re taking a different tack, we’re saying; how do we overlay this problem? How do we live with it?”
After being forced to pour an entire year’s vintage down the drain, Lowe has grown frustrated with Wine Australia’s focus on mitigating the damage done by climate change.
Traditional thinking has sought to mitigate the problem and new ‘Smokescreen’ technology developed by Dr Kerry Wilkinson at the University of Adelaide proposes a simple solution to the problem: cover grapes in carbon pouches to shield them from smoke damage.
In preliminary tests, the smokescreen technology has reduced smoke taint to almost zero, a much-needed breakthrough at a time when Australian crop-growers are scratching their heads about how to adapt to the mounting challenges of climate change.
The Black Summer bushfires blanketed the south-east coast with smoke, and most of the country’s 60 wine regions were affected, but only 3 per cent of the wine crop was actually burnt. The true devastation is only now clear, a year after harvest, as an entire year’s vintage is lost to smoke taint.
For winemakers, the effects of the bushfires are just the latest in a long line of extreme climate events like drought, frost and plague which have brought the industry to its knees in recent years.
Speaking at the National Bushfire Wine Conference earlier this year, Andreas Clark, chief executive of Wine Australia, confirmed what many in the industry already knew.
“All the science is pointing to the fact that we are sadly going to face these situations again and more often in the future,” he said.
“The [Black Summer bushfires] rang an alarm bell for many of us. Fire is part of the Australian landscape but what we saw last year was different due to the timing and duration of smoke exposure that regions had.”
Lowe is betting on Clark being right; accepting the smoke and incorporating its flavour into the essence of the wine – drastically changing what is known as the ‘terroir’.
His winery is also working with local Indigenous leaders to introduce native ingredients like eucalyptus, which may eliminate the worst of the taint effect in future vintages.
Redefining the flavour profile of your wine isn’t a risk many producers are willing to take, but the high cost in labour, production and maintenance renders technologies like activated-carbon hoods untenable for anyone looking to make a profit, at least for now.
Main image of David Lowe by Chloe Collard.