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The Australia Frost: What Does It Mean?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 6, 2006 1:01pm ET

Devastating spring frosts are expected to reduce Australia's wine production for 2007 by as much as 50 million cases. Given Australia's looming surplus of 100 million cases of wine, that might seem fortuitous. Don't tell the growers who might be wiped out.

Mother Nature dealt the grape growers a serious blow in October with a series of spring frosts that played havoc with just-forming grape bunches across South Australia and Victoria, which produce the lion's share of Australia's wine. Yarra Valley, outside Melbourne, Victoria, sustained the most serious damage. Growers there fear as much as 80 percent loss. South Australia's Limestone Coast, which comprises Coonawarra, Padthaway and Wrattonbully, also reported serious losses. Of the major regions, only McLaren Vale seems to have escaped serious problems.

"Who said there was a surplus in Australia? Mother Nature wins again," vintner Brian Croser wrote in an email. Croser, whose Tappanappa red wine comes from Whalebone Vineyard, the oldest in Wrattonbully, said the vineyard lost about 40 percent of its crop. His Tiers Vineyard at Petaluma, in Adelaide Hills, will be down as much as 20 percent.

Croser considers himself lucky. Other vineyards have been left with no crop at all. Besides, the damage in Tiers was limited to vines he was planning to pull out anyway. "I am going to replace the vines in the Tiers low areas this year with (Dijon) clones on rootstock and on 5-by-5-foot spacing," he added.

And that neatly encapsulates just how capricious a weather event like this can be. It sounds good to wave it off with, "Well, we needed to do something about the surplus anyway," but a widespread frost is a ham-handed way to do it. Some growers, not necessarily the worst ones, will have nothing in 2007. Others, not necessarily the best, will have the big wine companies lining up for whatever they can get. Frost indiscriminately zaps the good along with the bad.

A persistent drought, which has affected virtually all agricultural crops this year in South Eastern Australia, has magnified the problem by leaving the growers no way to use sprinklers as anti-frost treatments, as is done in California. Heathcote, a prime Shiraz region in Victoria, has reported less than 4 inches of rain in 2007. Moreover, the "big dry" may have caused the frosts in the first place.

"Frosts are a part of dry seasons," says Lawrie Stanford, an analyst for the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, a trade organization. "The dryness means lack of cloud cover and therefore cold nights (as the heat is not retained by a 'blanket' of cloud) and at this time of the year with some moisture around, frost."

Sometimes, vines prove more resilient than anyone expects. News stories from Australia cautiously note that growers will be watching for, and encouraging, new growth on their vines.

Also, growers aiming for high quality typically go through their vineyards during the growing season to clip away excess bunches and reduce yields. For some, Mother Nature simply may have preempted that work.

Matt Wenk, the winemaker at Two Hands, recently visited the six regions in South Australia and Victoria where he buys grapes. He reported that while there was localized frost in Heathcote, an area that has only received between three and four inches of rain this year, the overall damage was not immense. The Two Hands grower in Heathcote suffered no damage, although his yields are low.  

In Padthaway, Wenk says that there is frost damage in the low-lying and hills face zones, although it varies quite a bit from property to property. According to Wenk, "People have lost between 0 percent and 100 percent. The Two Hands grower has lost nearly all of his Chardonnay and a bit of Shiraz...while one of his neighbours has lost everything." Wenk speculates that, overall, 20 percent of the region's yield has been lost, adding, "Thankfully, the underground water availability is good in the southeast. A second big frost wiped a lot of the secondary regrowth recently."

Wenk found the majority of the Barossa Valley unscathed, with the exception of lower-lying areas in the valley floor, where he has seen very little re-growth. He says that in Clare Valley, frost damage is localized but quite extensive, that McLaren Vale seems to have escaped serious damage, and that there is some localized damage in Adelaide Hills.

Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  November 8, 2006 3:22am ET
Keep these vintage updates coming. I love the insider scoop, but really feel for the AU growers that are affected.

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