Many winemakers across Australia have a strong opinion on 2008: They call it a "bastard of a year." Mother Nature reached deep into her bag of nasty tricks, pulling out record-smashing heat, frost, snow, drought, floods and even bushfires.
But they may have a bigger worry—what if conditions are only going to get worse? The last few years of drought and hectic weather are threatening to impair the growth of the industry at a time when wine exports are already down. The Aussies are having to learn very quickly how to deal with challenging vintages.
If 2008 is the new norm, it's not going to be easy. Southern Australia—particularly the appellations surrounding Adelaide—was scorched by 15 consecutive days above 95° F at the height of harvest. Fruit shriveled on the vines, losing as much as five percent of its volume daily. The rush to pick created production havoc and traffic gridlock as trucks sometimes waited hours to unload fruit into wineries that ran short of fermentation space.
High sugar levels from superripe fruit produced stuck ferments as yeasts shut down. Crushers seized up under the strain of dry, raisined fruit. One winery had a pump run dry and overheat, destroying an entire tank of wine with burnt rubber taint.
But for those winemakers able to get their fruit safely into tanks before the heat wave, the vintage should be very solid. And cooler regions like Coonawarra and Tasmania reported a very good season. Further north, the Orange region in the New South Wales Central Highlands set an altogether different record with one of the coolest April days on record. Winemaker Philip Shaw reported Chardonnay arrived at his Philip Shaw winery at just 40° Farenehit. "We have had an unusually cool summer," he said. "And it's very strange to see snow in April!"
The Hunter Valley managed to escape the heatwave and the cold snap but faced even bigger challenges. Record-breaking rainfall and flash flooding in early February wreaked havoc for red grapes. Swollen, split berries brought the onset of disease in the vineyards. "This year we picked less than 15 percent of our usual volume of Hunter reds," bemoaned Tyrrell's chief winemaker, Bruce Tyrrell.
But it is drought, more than extreme temperatures or floods, that has had the most serious impact on winemaking in Australia, especially in the longterm. With irrigation water supplies at their lowest in history, growers in South Australia's Langhorne Creek watched crops shrivel before their eyes. Cabernet Sauvignon production was cut by three-quarters due to evaporation losses in the heatwave. The region has felt the full force of the worst drought in Australia's history—the mouth of the Murray River has been dry for several years now.
Langhorne Creek has traditionally relied on its artesian groundwater for irrigation, but when reserves were strained two decades ago, most growers switched to Murray River supplies. Now they are forced to switch again—but to what? Nearby Lake Alexandrina is drying up and its salinity levels are sky-rocketing.
Proposals for a pipeline stretching to further upriver where salinity is low have been rejected as unsustainable. Perhaps more plausible is an 80 kilometer pipeline to bring recycled water from Adelaide. "But this would be very expensive and would require federal funding, so it's unlikely to go ahead," said deputy chair of the local water management committee, John Pargeter.
Desalination plants seem the most viable option, though these, too, are costly and power-hungry. Pargeter acknowledges that the best long-term solution will be a combination of initiatives, including storage of runoff from winter rains. The region has been a leader in the development of innovative means of using rainwater. "When our rainwater tanks fill up, we pump the overflow into empty tanks in the winery," said Rebecca Willson, winemaker at Bremerton.
For two decades, Langhorne Creek growers have been topping up the artesian water basin for long-term water storage. During winter rains last year, more overflow was syphoned underground than in any year since 1992. The region has been recognized as a test case for the entire Murray River system, which has historically supplied water to many Australian winegrowing regions from Queensland, through New South Wales and Victoria and across South Australia.
"Up the Murray everyone is looking for the big solution that a politician can cut the ribbon on but ignoring the little things that can be done to make a difference," said Pargeter. "I wish we could say that there is a magic bullet of a sustainable and permanent water supply, but it doesn't exist."
The need to quickly establish long-term solutions is becoming increasingly apparent as the La Niña weather pattern fails to deliver the rainfall hoped for. "It is closing out without breaking the drought," said winemaker Dan Buckle, whose water supply has almost run dry at his Mount Langi Ghiran winery in Victoria's Grampians region. Like many Australian growers, he is drawing up plans to install a desalination plant.
This is a big expense, and it comes at a challenging time for Australia. After a small 2007 vintage, Australian exports are down in its biggest markets of Britain and the US, dropping 8.5 percent overall. But growers remain optimistic, buoyed by 2008 harvest predictions announced this week, which exceed all expectations—up 19 percent on 2007.
This "bastard" of a year may yet prove to be but a small knock for an industry accustomed to working a harsh land down under.
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