Wildfires last straw for parched Australian wineries

Wildfires last straw for parched Australian wineries

16 February 2009

published by www.google.com

Australia — For Australia’s Yarra Valley winegrowers, the region’s recent devastating wildfires were the last straw.

Best known for its pinots and chardonnays, the once-picturesque wine region is now dotted with scorched paddocks and vines. Burnt-out cars on the roadside are a grim testament to those who left their escape much too late.

Some 80 wineries were hard-hit, losing vines, sheds, warehouses, machinery and accommodation, yet only three percent of the valley’s 3,000 hectares of vineyards were damaged or destroyed.

“It was like a traffic jam in the middle of Yarra Glen” as people tried to escape, said Matt Struthers, cellar door manager of the Roundhouse Winery which burned to the ground.

“There were all these wedding guests, all dressed up, all standing around the main street at the pub, stranded,” he said.

Beverages giant Fosters said it had lost lost 40 hectares (100 acres) of pinot noir, shiraz and merlot vines.

“Our viticultural and winemaking staff continue to assess the impact of the fires and a full picture is not likely until the conclusion of vintage,” the brewer said.

De Bortoli vintner Stephen Webber lost just five acres to the flames, thanks to a quick response with hoses and buckets by a dedicated team of his staff. They watched as the blaze jumped the hilltop, razing surrounding sheds and homes.

But Webber said the biggest killer for his grapes had been a summer heatwave and an ongoing drought.

“It’s not just fires, there’s a lot of shrivelled berries. We’ve lost 50 percent of our fruit,” he told AFP on a tour of his scorched vineyards.

“We have been through three 46 C (115 F) days. The fire’s the least of our problems.”

A once-in-a-century heatwave baked the region in the weeks before the wildfires, turning the countryside into a lethal tinderbox. On the day of the inferno the mercury topped 48 C.

Thirsty cool-climate grapes perished, compromising the quality of whole bunches, Webber said.

Dedicated crews of staff now had to pick over the fruit by hand, removing dead and useless pieces, and it would be impossible to assess the impact on the vintage for some time.

Webber, the chief winemaker at the region’s best-known and largest winery, said the damage would have long-term consequences.

“You can’t go out and buy a mature vine,” he said, explaining that it took at least six years to bring a vine to quality yield.

“A lot of these things are irreplaceable.”

Initial industry assessments have put the region’s harvest reduction due to the heat and fires at up to 20 percent, with smaller grapes already shrinking tonnage.

A strong Australian dollar and low-yield harvests placed enormous pressure on the country’s winegrowers last year, driving down the value of exports for the first time in 15 years.

Late February marks the beginning of Australia’s grape harvesting season, and the Yarra Valley celebrates with an annual “grape grazing” music and wine-tasting festival scheduled for mid-February.

The event, which brings more than 20,000 people into the region, was cancelled.

“Given the tragic circumstances the decision was unavoidable,” the Valley’s Wine Growers’ Association said.

Australia’s 2,000 wine companies have about 169,000 hectares of vines, and wine is the country’s third-largest agricultural export after meat and wheat.

It earns more than wool, dairy produce or barley, and Australia is the world’s fourth-largest wine exporter after France, Italy and Spain.

Its wine exports were worth 2.5 billion dollars in 2008. Britain, the United States and Canada are its largest markets.

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