What Australia’s Wildfires Mean For Winemakers

By Émilie Steckenborn |

While the 2020 vintage might not be a top concern for most of those affected by the Australian bushfires, it’s crucial to remember that Australian wine doesn’t only hold benefit for those drinking it. Viticulture is an entire industry that supports thousands of producers and support workers as well as a demanding tourist sector.

So far, the Australian wildfires have burned more than 17.9 million acres across the country’s six states, and over 2,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed. New South Wales (NSW) has experienced the worst effects, with almost half a billion animals being impacted. Australian wine production is also being put under immense pressure.

How are the wildfires affecting the wine industry?

As it stands, roughly 1% of Australian vineyards have been directly affected by the fires, including some in key wine regions. In Adelaide Hills, home to premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay production, an estimate of one third of vineyards have been ravaged by wildfires. Kangaroo Island, a region seven times the size of Singapore and with 12 wineries and 200 hectares of vines, has faced uncontrollable fires and a serious loss to both vines and bottled wines. However, the fires have, so far, spared Australia’s flagship vineyards in the Barossa. 

The impacts of fire damage

The impact of fires on wine production ranges from the destruction of a vineyard all the way to changing the flavor of the wine due to smoke taint. In the worst case scenario, land is ravaged by fires, making it necessary to replant the crops. Given that newly planted vineyards require a minimum of three years before grapes can be used for winemaking, this is a costly overhead for wineries to absorb.

Even when the crops themselves are not destroyed, the wildfires have other far-reaching effects. Radiating heat from proximity of fires impacts surrounding vineyards for the long term: It dehydrates vines and scorches berries. The damage may not even be externally visible. Grapevine recovery takes roughly two to three years before the plants return to normal production levels.

Smoke Taint 

Grapes can be affected at any point in the growing cycle, but are at their most vulnerable to smoke taint roughly one month from harvest. The volatile compounds in smoke that taint the wine are primarily absorbed by the waxy outer layer of the grape. Grape leaves are also vulnerable to smoke. Even distance doesn’t provide much relief: Fires within a radius of nine miles have shown to affect wine and impart smoke taint character.

Smoke taint imparts a smoky, meaty and burnt character to wines. Some might think that doesn’t sound that bad, reminiscent of a Porter beer or an Islay Scotch perhaps? Not quite. Smoke taint imparts a one-dimensional profile, not to mention a particularly ashtray-like aftertaste.

The harsh reality is that smoke taint has a severe economic impact on farmers. Typically classified as a wine fault, high quality wine cannot be produced from smoke tainted grapes. Generally, the winemakers sell what can be salvaged as bulk production hoping to break even.

What can be done?

In the winery, choices are limited. Winemakers must process fruit at cooler temperatures, around 50°F. Smoke taint is particularly distinguishable in red wines as the winemaking process requires extraction from skins to attain color and tannin. Limiting grape skin contact is necessary to avoid extracting smoke induced compounds.

Some of the aromas can be camouflaged with oak vessels or chips. As a last resort, reverse osmosis, the same method used in water treatment, is an effective option – but it does strip the wine.

Time does not heal

Smoke-related aromas evolve with bottle age and become even more obvious with time. Research conducted in 2015 by the Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology Inc established that as the chemicals in the wine break down, guaiacol concentration (smoke taint compound) increased over three years. 

What you can do

There are a number of different causes receiving donations to provide relief to Australian communities and winemakers specifically. Adelaide Hills Wine Region Fire Appeal had opened a GoFundMe campaign to support growers and producers. For general disaster relief and animal support, you can donate to the Australian Red Cross or Wires Wildlife Emergency Appeal.

Émilie has cultivated her palate through gaining her Diploma and Certified Educator from WSET, Certified Sommelier from CMS, HEG Certificate from Cordon Bleu, and is currently a Master of Wine Candidate. As Head of Education Asia & MEIA, she develops programs for front line staff across China, where her team trains thousands of drink enthusiasts across Asia. She currently serves as China Eastern Airlines Official Wine Consultant for First and Business Class.

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