By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 15 February 2020
Less then 1% of Australia’s vineyards have been directly affected by the devastating bushfires sweeping across their country. This was the news at last month’s Australia Day tasting in Edinburgh, where winemakers seemed upbeat about the outcome of their forthcoming harvest next month.
The worst affected vineyard areas are Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island in south Australia, Gippsland in eastern Victoria, Canberra and Hunter Valley in New South Wales – but fortunately not all vineyards in these areas were fire damaged. Some lost everything, some had a few scorched vines and many others were unscathed.
In Adelaide Hills it has been reported that one third of their vineyards were affected, but according to leading Australian winemaker Brian Croser – the figure is actually nearer 20%. Those affected here were Tilbrook Estate, Vinterloper, Henschke, Petaluma, Geoff Weaver and Tomich amongst others.
Indeed, Croser believes that the 2020 vintage will actually suffer more from late September frost and poor flowering in a cool November, than from fire damage. He has also stated that climate change is not the ‘direct’ cause of what is happening in Australia – he believes it is the shift of Southern Ocean western winds towards the equator coupled with a lack of rainfall, higher temperatures and spring heatwaves in eastern Australia – which created the conditions.
Whatever the cause, assessing the physical damage of the fires is now complex. “Some vineyard blocks are affected, whilst others remain untouched”, says Laura Jewell MW of Wine Australia. “It will take at least two months for the full impact of fire damage on affected vineyards to become apparent – the first step is to get water onto affected vines and see how they respond”, she says.
The other niggling issue is possible smoke taint. Some vineyards near the fires may have been affected, depending on which way the wind was blowing. The Aussies are pioneer researchers of smoke taint, as bushfires are common, so they have systems in place to test for smoke effects.
“Our nearest fire was 20km away and we had 5-6 days of smoke cover”, says winemaker Julian Castagna from Beechworth in northeast Victoria. “However, it occurred at an early ripening stage when grapeskins were tough so we may well be saved – and there is only a very small possibility that grapes have been affected. We will not know this until grapes ripen to 9 -10 degrees Baume (1 degree Baume is equivalent to 18 g/l sugar), as smoke particles can bind to the sugars”, he says.
“The simplest test to see if skins have been affected is to seal a bunch in a plastic bag in a warm environment – and on opening see if you can detect smoky aromas”, says Castagna. “However, what we don’t know is if the juice has been affected. In 2020 handpicking will be essential, grapes will need to be processed at cool temperatures and we will do baby ferments to test the grapes”.
As to the volume of 2020 harvest – Australian wine lovers do not need to worry. Whilst it is too early to predict the size of the harvest, it is anticipated that the annual season-on-season variation is likely to be greater than the specific impact of bushfires. So there will be plenty of 2020 wines to enjoy from across the regions.
Whilst we wait for the verdict on 2020 harvest – we have a wonderful selection of previous vintages to enjoy. At the recent tasting, I was particularly impressed with whites and reds from the 2017 vintage. According to winemaker Johann Henschke, “2017 was an amazing vintage for us – with a combination of warm days, cool nights and plenty of good sunlight creating perfect conditions”.
See below for my favourite Aussie wine picks from across the regions:
Barossa Valley: LONG GULLY ROAD ANCIENT VINE SEMILLON 2017 (12%)
£29 Drinkmonger, Edinburgh & Pitlochry
From incredibly old vines – 130 years old – made by the legendary Peter Lehmann’s son David Franz. Superb unoaked, creamy leesy textural palate with rich ripe sweet fleshy peachy citrus flavours, beautiful fruit concentration and a long balanced dry finish. One of the best Barossa Semillons I have tasted recently.
Clare Valley: SIGURD CHENIN BLANC 2018 (12%)
£35 Drinkmonger, Edinburgh; Valhalla’s Goat, Glasgow
For me this was the most exciting white at the tasting and certainly the most interesting Aussie Chenin Blanc. Sadly Dan Graham only made 700 bottles of this wine, so if you find it, snap it up. 50 year old vines here (with apparently a few stray Gewurztraminer alongside) all fermented together and part oaked in new Russian casks. Honey and baked apple aroma, vibrant pure acidity, intense citric fruit, fabulous wine.
Langhorne Creek: VINTERLOPER TOURIGA NACIONAL 2017 (13.5%)
£24.50 Vino Wines, Edinburgh; Little Rascal, Edinburgh; Luvians, St Andrews; Corks Out
Vinterloper’s owner David Bowley describes the fire damage as a ‘total wipeout’ of his vineyard. So snap up his early vintages like this superb take on Portugal’s Douro and Dao region’s grape, Touriga Nacional, matured in a mix of French and American oak. It has a shockingly pungent damson and violet nose, hints of baked fruit and spice with smooth soft rounded tannins.
Barossa & Eden Valleys: HENSCHKE HENRY’S SEVEN 2017 (14.5%)
£25.75 Exel Wines, Perth; Luvians, St Andrews
The famous Henschke family lost their Lenswood vineyards in the Adelaide Hills fires. Their main winery and vineyards up in Eden Valley are unscathed, where they make this a clever mix of Barossa and Eden Valley fruit with 73% Shiraz co-fermented with 17% Grenache, 5% Mataro and 5% Viognier – a lovely blend with lifted peppery aromas, plummy spicy, leafy notes, fine tannins and elegant soft tannins from a superb Aussie vintage.
Beechworth: CASTAGNA GENESIS SHIRAZ VIOGNIER 2015 (13.5%)
£56 Buon Vino; Les Caves de Pyrene
Beechworth in north east Victoria is one of the few high quality wine regions in Australia yet to be discovered by wine lovers. Julian Castagna’s first wine in 1996 when he started was this Shiraz which has a wonderful lightness of touch from sandy granite – giving pretty juicy open lifted aromas from a hint of Viognier, very attractive black fruits, peppery, long and complex.
Join Rose’s Classic Australia Wine Tasting at The Scores Hotel, St Andrews on Friday 26 June £36 www.rosemurraybrown.com