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Between the gale and the hail


Philip White ponders the terrible chaos nature’s been hurling at winemakers everywhere.

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It’s a rare thing for hail to be so vicious and relentless that it strips vines of their bark. In a lifetime of travelling vineyards, I’ve seen such damage once in France and twice in exposed upland vineyards in Australia.

In each case the ice had left great swathes of horror through the vineyards: bands of raw wood on the slopes. It looked like somebody’d used a brush a kilometre wide to paint stripes of bleach across the countryside.

Unlucky Murray Valley farmers are taking their first look at such brutality right now. You know the way farmers look at that stuff. They don’t say much.

Not only did Friday’s 10-minute superstorm remove canopies of leaf and shoot and peel trunk bark, but in some vineyards it damaged the tiny nascent buds forming in the wood for the 2018 vintage.

As for the 2017 vintage that was so lustily blooming? Some poor growers have lost everything. Between the gale and the hail, whole rows of vines were blown over in places; all this year’s canopy vegetation was ice-blasted in others. Some got both. Fortunately, other parts survived quite well.

“It’s very spotty, patchy damage from what I saw this morning,” Agriculture Minister Leon Bignell told me.

“It varies widely from place to place. It was obviously very wild and unpredictable.

“You’d like to think some of these vineyards that were pushed over flat may survive if the trunks aren’t broken and they can get new posts in and lift the trellises back up. But that’s a huge job.

“Tim Whetstone, the local MP, reckons it could be up to a $100 million loss if you include cereal, stone fruit, citrus, almonds and grapes, but it’ll take days to properly assess.

“Where it hit, the hail was even more destructive than the wind. It seems it was sharp glassy shards, not rounded like golf balls, and they reckon it was horizontal …

“Your heart goes out to those people.”

Riverland wine industry spokesman Chris Byrne said many vines had been shredded.

“Sharp ice coming at very high speed can inflict some really serious damage on the fruit that is just forming,” he said. “Of course damage of this sort, on this scale, must have some sort of impact on the market.”

Bignell’s had more than the usual regional disasters to sort in recent months, dealing with the victims of the very big, fast and deadly Pinery Fire, for example, then the state’s worst storm in 50 years, when the giant power pylons were broken like today’s vine rows.

He’s also meeting with the Virginia market gardeners who lost everything to floods, severely disrupting Adelaide’s supply of its best fresh vegetables.

“All these communities need tailored assistance,” Bignell said. “The needs and wants are different in each instance.

“The important thing is to hit the ground running and get in there early and set up an office and a hotline so we can listen to what people want.

“People need different types of help. The very best solutions government gets always come from local suggestions. It’s not politics. This is beyond party politics: it’s all in together with the community.”

As for this loss of 2017 fruit in the big scheme of things?

A casual drive-by of many of the more industrial vineyards up and down the Mount Lofty Ranges indicates that those record winter rains guaranteed a big crop, perhaps at the expense of finesse. Unless there’s another cataclysm, I suspect there’ll be plenty of grapes for the bulk market, the bladder packs and the cheaper bottles. It’ll be the top end that’s touchy.

But at the bargain end, this means one of two things. Or both of them. Depending on weather yet to come and the eventual size of the Murray Valley shortfall, a big crop may see prices drop in those posh vignobles along the Mount Lofty Ranges from Cape Jervis to Clare, where they’re used to getting a better dollar.

Second thing? The quality of some of the cheaper wines may marginally improve with input from those regions. Not to mention any names.

Lately, international crops have slumped in volume and, very generally speaking, overall quality.

The entire wine world is struggling to cope with whatever’s happening to the weather and climate. Drought in the south of France, and hail, moulds and frosts further north, cut the French harvest 6 per cent lower than the average of the last five years, pushing the ministry of agriculture to suggest that while 2016 was “not as bad as had been forecast”, it was “one of the weakest for 30 years”.

In the southern hemisphere, some Chilean winemakers are moving south to Patagonia, where the rainfall has diminished sufficiently – down 30 per cent over a decade – while the amount of sunshine is increasing: average temperatures have gone up two degrees Celsius. That wet old freezing desert on the verge of the Antarctic can now ripen quality grapes.

Closer to the Equator, the vast vineyards of central Chile, Argentina and Brazil have had to struggle with new vagaries and extremes of weather, doing their fair share of assisting with the world production climb down to a 20-year low in 2016.

Our poor old cobbers over the ditch in New Zealand, meanwhile, are only beginning to properly estimate the damage caused by yesterday’s mighty 7.5 magnitude earthquake. It’s still rockin’ and rollin’ there.

As I write, expert faultline geologists and seismologists are reporting new active faultines and a slip of around 10 metres on the Kekerengu Fault, which strikes north-east into the Pacific through the coast about 90 kays south of Blenheim in Marlborough.

“We’re all fine but there is apparently quite a bit of winery damage around the place,” said Marlborough star Kevin Judd, Greywacke winemaker/proprietor and co-founder of Cloudy Bay. He’s over the range to the north of the epicentre.

“There’s nothing bad where we’re based, thankfully, and all our people are safe and sound … but it was a hell of a shake Whitey and it went on for ages … very scary stuff to say the least.”

Depending, of course, on their location, some east coast vineyards have trellis damage from the wires stretching and twanging during extended shockwaves, sometimes flicking out the strainer posts. There’s a whole railway line that’s twanged like a diant death-metal guitar string across a buried highway on the Kaikoura coast.

Vineyards also have severe cracking, slips and flood damage, like those reported by Yealands boss Michael Wentworth, who has also said there’s structural damage in some wineries and tank farms.

That viral vid of the bottles wobbling off their shelves in a liquor store could probably be outdone by CCT footage of barrel stacks collapsing, and big tanks rocking ’til they split and spill. Just as they did in the quake that killed 800 in Chile in 2010. It’s a wondrous thing that the New Zealand casualties are so few.

Like the terrible Riverland storm magnified to an impossible extent, the full extent of the quake will take days to properly evaluate: engineers and winemakers are scouring New Zealand tankfarms, gantries, catwalks and buildings as I write. Viticulturers are coming to grips with their new terrain.

But that’s tiny. Entire public transport systems, like essential highways and railways, must be redesigned and re-engineered in very tricky places.

So just for now, everybody touch wood. Hug your very favourite barrel. Just ensure the stack’s not gonna fall on you.

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