Wine’s bitter end: bushfire smoke ruins state vintage

Wine’s bitterend: bushfire smoke ruins state vintage

10 March 2007

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Australia — This time of year grapevines are pulsating with life, but what KingValley wine grower Arnie Pizzini saw and tasted two weeks ago was anything butlively.

The first of his white aromatic grape varieties were ready to be picked butthey tasted flat and stale. The fruit flavour was muted, as if the volume hadbeen turned down. The grapes’ aroma and aftertaste were, well, like an ashtraypiled with day-old dead ciggies.

Tests later confirmed his suspicion: smoke taint.

Smoke haze in December from one of the biggest bushfires in Victorian history had penetrated and undermined the transference of sweet, juicy flavours in his wine grapes and, at vintage, its effect was horribly clear.

Many winemakers in the King and Alpine valleys have decided not to make wine from the smoke-damaged fruit, with the final tally of discarded fruit possibly as high as 20,000 tonnes.

“We can’t put a product out from smoke-affected fruit, especially an aromatic white,” said Mr Pizzini, who runs Chrismont Wines at Cheshunt. “It would destroy our reputation.”

After battling killer spring frosts, drought and bushfires, the wine makers of the King and Alpine valleys could be forgiven for hoping for a happier ending to the 2007 vintage. It is not to be.

Owner of King Valley’s Chrismont Wines, Arnie Pizzini, harvests smoke-tainted grapes, which he has sold for a pittance. This year’s harvest will be used to make blended cheap wine. (Photo: John Woudstra)

Brown Brothers at Milawa spent an anxious spring protecting its fruit fromlate season frosts, paying for a helicopter to swing by on 12 separate occasionsto hover over its vines, moving the sub-zero air around. They won that battleonly to lose the lot — 2000 tonnes of grapes — to smoke taint.

Chief executive Ross Brown admits he was “highly sceptical” aboutthe connection between smoke and a flavour taint in wine until he actuallytasted it. Now, he’s a believer.

“I believe a major research project needs to be done. It’s now such ahuge issue for everybody,” he said.

This vintage has seen several wine regions across Australia affected by smokehaze — from Mount Barker to Adelaide Hills, Tasmania and parts of north-eastVictoria, Strathbogie Ranges, Yarra Valley and Gippsland.

The detection of smoke taint in wine is new. It was noticed widely followingthe bushfire-affected vintage of 2003. Wine growers in parts of the north-east,including the King Valley, picked up an unusual taste in their wines.

In that same vintage, growers in Western Australia noticed a similar taste intheir wines even though there had been no bushfires. Winemakers allegedly tracedthe problem back to Department of Agriculture burn-offs (with one company takinglegal action against the department).

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