One-third of grape production in the Adelaide Hills, one of Australia’s leading wine regions, has been lost or damaged in catastrophic Christmas bushfires, and the damage bill is set to exceed A$100m ($69m).
On December 20, when temperatures reached 43.9C, the fast-moving Cudlee Creek bushfire destroyed or damaged 1100ha of vineyards in the Hills region and wiped out 86 houses, along with wineries and equipment.
The oldest Pinot Noir vines, planted in the area in 1983, were among those lost.
The densely-farmed Adelaide Hills, just east of the city of Adelaide in South Australia, produces some of Australia’s best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines.
Some of the region’s biggest names have lost vineyards including Henschke which saw its Lenswood vineyard, with the region’s oldest Pinot Noir vines planted in 1983, destroyed. Also affected are Tilbrook Estate, New Era Vineyards, Golding Estate, Riposte, Barristers Block, Tomich Wines and Vinteloper.
Vinteloper’s David Bowley lost his entire vineyard – planted to Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc – as well as his house. His winery, located on a separate property, survived. Vinteloper was established in 2008 and was producing up to 10,000 cases of wine a year. Mr Bowley told The Guardian he will rebuild. “I don’t want to understate the gravity of what has happened. A vineyard – to re-grow a vineyard, it’s not just next year. This wipes out our crop for seven years, at least,” he said. “I’m going to rebuild. I’m not giving up. That’s not how we roll,” he told journalist Royce Kurmelovs.
Some vineyards affected by radiant heat are expected to recover. However, those burnt will need to be ripped out and re-planted.
It is estimated that it will cost wine producers around A$60,000 to $80,000 per hectare to replace vines.
In the meantime, with the 2020 vintage just months away competition for available grapes on the open market will send prices skywards. One winemaker told the media, “Any fruit out there will be incredibly precious.”
The Australian Wine and Research Institute (AWRI) will remain open during the Christmas/New Year break to provide support services to the wine industry, including testing for smoke taint. Smoke from bushfires has affected – or is expected to affect – parts of the Hunter Valley, Gippsland and the Adelaide Hills and nearby areas.
“We have plenty of staff volunteering their time,” said Con Simos, AWRI Group Manager- Industry Development and Support, “and I’m not planning to be too far away from the office. We have contingency plans prepared and talking to the industry every day.”
Bushfires have been a constant across three Australian states – South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria – in recent weeks, focusing attention on the climate change and the lack of action by the country’s politicians and industry leaders. Australia remains heavily dependent on coal (which it exports) and other greenhouse gas-intensive energy sources. Since 2014, Australia’s greenhouse emissions have increased.
Lenswood-based producer Geoff Weaver, former chief winemaker for the Hardy group of companies who left in 1992 to make wines under his own label, Geoff Weaver Wines in the Adelaide Hills, took to social media on December 21 to tell of his heartbreak: “Terrible day at Lenswood with the fires. Our lovely corner of the hills became a furnace. Lost our sheds, tractor, car and all my paintings. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”
The Henschke family of Henschke Wines shared photos and thoughts on its Instagram account: “We have now assessed the damage, which is significant and sadly will require a long-term planting plan. Riesling, Chardonnay, Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraiminer all lost.”
The post went on: “Sadly, this includes some of the oldest Pinot Noir in the Adelaide Hills, planted by Tim Knappstein in 1983.”
Tilbrook Estate at Lobethal, planted to 4ha of vines lost its vineyard, winery and sheds holding wine stock. James Tilbrook shared videos and photos on Instagram. “We have no business left,” Tilbrook said on December 22. “Total devastation. I have had a lot of people say what can we do to help. Best thing at the moment is to come up to our place, bring some beers, talk and come up with a plan. At the moment I am thinking sometime next week.”
Tony Battaglene, Chief Executive of Australian Grape and Wine (AGW), said it had been a tough year “all round” for bushfires in Australia. “We are working with governments to see if we can get any assistance,” he said.
Philip Gregan, CEO of New Zealand Winegrowers had also been in contact with Mr Battaglene with an offer of support.
In McLaren Vale, which borders the Adelaide Hills, the McLaren Vale Biodiversity Project is picking up vineyard posts from producers in the Vales and transporting them to the Adelaide Hills to help rebuild vineyards.
The South Australian Premier, Steven Marshall, has established an emergency relief fund to help those affected by the Adelaide Hills fire.
Wine drinkers have also been encouraged to buy Adelaide Hills wines over the coming months.
The Adelaide Hills Wine Region Inc. has an official fundraising account on GoFundMe and on Christmas Day had received A$25,000. The target is A$100,000.