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Climate change cranks up pressure on wine industry


The changing climate is ramping up dangerous pressure on the wine industry to find grape types that not only thrive, but satisfy demands for the next big thing, warns wine writer Philip White.

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Who’d be a farmer? Just as the last grapes from Australia’s very strange 2017 harvest are eaten by yeast, France, whose enormous vignobles were sprouting beautifully, was last week hit by killer frosts.

In Bordeaux alone, losses have been put as high as two billion euros.

While some vines may re-sprout, the dead shoots vary in intensity from vineyard-to-vineyard, with damage as low as 15 percent in some spots, but complete in others.

Across-the-board, experts are initially suggesting a 50 per cent loss with a reduction in volume of around 350 million bottles of Bordeaux.

That’s a lot of wine. More bad news is emerging from other regions, like the Loire and Burgundy.

This loss comes when the wine world was already reporting a shortage of premium fruit, a trend which has grown internationally over the last few years. This was not helped by the previous year’s inclement weather in France, which reduced the nation’s 2016 crop by at least 20 percent.

The wine world is totally confused by the changing climate, and knowing the agonising extended time-scales of its cycles and propensity to make bad errors of judgement when times are tough, this writer worries about its capacity to respond in a scientific way which is best for all.

Take Cabernet, just for example – the major grape of Bordeaux, beloved in Australia for its tough nature and ease of growing. Of all the profitable premiums, Cabernet is perhaps the most accommodating to grow. Like Chardonnay, it grows like a weed. This year has been fairly cool in many places around Australia, and the Cabernets are really very good in the best spots; perhaps the most fragrant in years.

Scary thing is such a movement, minor though it may be in the bigger picture, may well result in desperate new Cabernet plantings everywhere, despite the fact that increasingly warm or wild seasons may render the grape inappropriate for much of Australia within a few more years.

A few centuries back, when Bordeaux grew cooler, it was forced to make adjustments to its varietal composition. The focus moved to early-ripening varieties, like Merlot, the grape that the merle, or blackbird – eats first. Later-ripening varieties like Petit verdot and Carmenere fell from favour and disappeared from vineyards. Cabernet sauvignon not only survived, but became much more leaned upon as a staple.

There’s dangerous endogenous pressure on winemakers to find, not just the next flavour, but one which will stay alive here in the world’s driest continent.

Now temperatures are climbing, Merlot’s getting too ripe and jammy and there’s fast interest being shown those forgotten late-ripening higher-acid varieties.

While Australia buys the tiny volumes of Carmenere it drinks from Chile, I know of nobody trialing the variety here should our temperature inch up a couple more notches to be a touch too hot for the old CabSav. I understand Carmenere’s more tricky to grow than Cabernet – it’s not alone there – but the Carmenere offerings I find on the Chile shelf at Vintage Cellars, for example, are most alluring drinks at their modest prices. Frequently, I already find myself preferring their quality over Australian Cabernets of the same price – around $20.

As for that other Cabernet alternative for warmer climes, Petit verdot? Not many take that seriously, either. Tim Geddes makes beauties in McLaren Vale – he made a Bushing King winner from it for Wayne Thomas in 2003 – and at Basket Range, Phil Broderick is learning it quickly without descending to the murky alchemic techniques made infamous by his hippy neighbours up in them thar smoky gullies.

Instead, perhaps sensibly given the climates, Australian winemakers are currently obsessed with the varieties of the Mediterranean, of Spain, Provence, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and Italy. Even Greece, and further east. As you may have noticed, many of these varieties end in O, which is not much help when you’re trying to learn their typical attributes, while the local attempts at them have been grown by farmers who know little about them, and turned to wine by winemakers who know not much more.

There’s dangerous endogenous pressure on winemakers to find, not just the next flavour, but one which will stay alive here in the world’s driest continent.

Which leads me to Phylloxera, the dreaded root louse which a century back wrought more damage to the vineyards of France than the weather has ever done.

As the pressure-cooker of climate winds tighter, I hear more and more winemakers of all ages and reputations voicing new frustration at Australia’s finicky quarantine regulations for vine importation and vine material transportation.

The number of growers and winemakers who are aware of the Phylloxera scourge and are concerned that the industry has deliberately moved to loosen the restrictions in place to control it seems to have shrunk: I hear hardly a bleat from that side, while there’s audible frustration from the other mob, which seems increasingly to want the latest Old World flavour of the month and they want it now, especially if it ends in O.

None of this waiting for years to see whether your imported cuttings bear any scary viruses or really nasty stuff like Phylloxera. That’s just an unfair impediment to business, they say. It’s holding us back.

Maybe it’s time to tread much more carefully. Phylloxera is on the march in the Yarra Valley. To accommodate the disease’s spread, the Phylloxera Infested Zone boundary there has just been extended north to the Healesville-Kinglake Road.

“Phylloxera doesn’t respect vineyard boundaries or state borders,” said Inca Pearce, Vinehealth Australia’s chief executive officer.

“Vinehealth Australia recognises the need to act with urgency to respond to a constantly evolving biosecurity environment, with trends in trade, tourism, climate change and business ownership increasing the extent and nature of biosecurity risks. These new detections underscore the urgency.

“Vineyard owners, wineries, contractors and carriers must understand the regulations and documentation required for the movement of grapes and grape materials, machinery and equipment, diagnostic samples, soil, cuttings, rootlings and potted vines, within and between states. And ensure all people who visit your property clean and disinfest their footwear on entry and exit, in accordance with the Footwear and Small Hand Tool Disinfestation Protocol.”

Anybody seen anything like this going down recently?

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