Vignerons sue over smoke tainted grapes

Vignerons sue over smoke tainted grapes

01 April 2010

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Australia —    Unexpected hail storms, frosts at the wrong time of the year, not enough water at others or low prices as the market is flooded with produce are all situations faced at one time or another by vignerons.

But, add to that problems caused by bushfires and prescribed burns that result in smoke-tainted wine grapes led to some growers saying they had had enough.

The grapes can’t be sold or used in wine production.

Southern Properties and the Old Vasse and Barwick Estate Vineyards near Pemberton took the former Department of Conservation and Land Management to the WA Supreme Court after prescribed burns affected their vines.

CALM conducted the burns in the Warren National Park and State Forest adjacent to the vineyards on the 31st of March and the 1st of April 2004.

For the first time in WA, a court of law was asked to determine whether a Government authority responsible for fire management owes a duty of care to growers to limit the smoke damage to their grapes.

The wine growers argued CALM was negligent in allowing the burns to occur and the Department should have deferred the burning until the harvest was over.

However, Justice Graeme Murphy found the Department was not negligent because it did not owe the grape growers a duty of care and it would have been unreasonable for CALM to have deferred the burn.


The President of the Wine Industry Association of Western Australia, John Griffiths, says chemicals from the smoke can seep into vines and grapes.

“Should those smoky periods occur around the period when the grapes are ripening, then there is a strong chance that those grapes may become tainted.”

Curtin University Associate Professor, Mark Gibberd, says there could be a rise in the incidents of smoke taint in the future.

“As the wine industry expands in Western Australia, we are seeing more and more vineyards located in close proximity to forests and landscape and that would lead potentially to higher incidents of smoke and smoke effect in grapes.”

He says the changing climate could also see an increase in bushfires.

“The likelihood is that if CO2 emissions continue to increase, we expect to see changes in the earth’s climatic conditions and one of those sets of changes will relate to an increase in temperature but also changes to humidity.

“Both are driving factors in the incidents of wildfire. We would expect more and more fires in the landscape as time goes on”.

Research is continuing into smoke taint including how smoke is taken up by grape vines and how it affects different grape varieties.

It is also looking at ways to manage the problem including the capacity to control the taint in the grapes after exposure has occurred and the use of smoke detectors to help vignerons protect their crops from damage.

Conflicting interests

The difficulty in finding a solution is the need to protect the community from bushfires versus the potential damage to vineyards.

The Department of Environment, the Wine Industry Association of WA and growers have been meeting regularly in an attempt to strike a balance.

Warren Regional Manager for the Department of Environment, Peter Keppel, says finding the middle ground can be difficult in the South West.

“The reality is that in the Pemberton and Manjimup areas there is a clash between when grapes are ripening and when we can carry out prescribed burning of the Karri forest.

“One of the techniques that has been used is deferring our burning as much as possible to autumn but we have to be realistic.

“With the Karri forest, once it rains in the autumn period it will not burn and it will also not burn in the spring and the early summer period in January.”

Mr Keppel says negotiations are continuing.

“One of the things that we are doing that has improved recently is sharing information on harvest scheduling, knowing what the status of the crop is in the vineyards and how they are relative to our prescribed burning opportunities. We look at the localised situation of the wind direction, the number of days it takes to carry out the burn and we do as much as we can to push the smoke away from the vineyards”.

Wine grapes are usually harvested between March and May and the Department is considering deferring some burns until late autumn to allow the harvest to be completed.

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