A blistering heat wave has swept through South Eastern Australia, scorching vineyards and decimating expected grape yields.
Adelaide's temperatures soared above 104° F for six successive days last week, topping at a sweltering 115° F, breaking the all-time heat record set in 1908. Melbourne also recorded its hottest spell in history, with three successive days over 111° F and more heat forecast for next week.
"We've never seen anything like it," said Geraldine McFaul, winemaker at Willow Creek on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula. "Any exposed fruit has been completely fried. It looks like someone's taken to it with a flame thrower."
Pinot Noir was the worst hit variety in the region, though it will be difficult to quantify the full extent of the damage before harvest this month. "It looks to me like something between 25 and 50 percent of the Mornington Pinot crop will be lost," said Tom Carson, winemaker and general manager at Yabby Lake Group. "It's absolutely devastating."
In the nearby Yarra Valley, the heat wave has claimed some growers' entire crop. "We've lost 50 percent of our fruit," said De Bortoli chief winemaker Steve Webber. "It's just shrivelled on the vines."
Meanwhile, McLaren Vale and the Adelaide Hills have been the hardest hit of South Australia's wine regions. "At this stage it looks likely that 70 percent of McLaren Vale's harvest has been destroyed," said Tim James, former managing director of Wirra Wirra.
Estimates are more optimistic in the Barossa Valley, though Shiraz fruit has been sunburnt and some white varieties have been completely wiped out, according to Sam Holmes, CEO of the Barossa Grape and Wine Association. "What has surprised us is that some vineyards have been completely unaffected," he said. "Careful vineyard management has made a huge difference."
The full extent of the impact on wine quality is yet to be determined. "I'm confident that we will make some good wines from the Yarra Valley fruit that's left," commented Webber. "It's all about stringent hand-sorting of the fruit."
For the world's fourth-largest wine exporter, the 2009 vintage had been forecast to be a record crop with a large surplus. Estimates have now been downsized by 20 percent. "We don't mind losing some fruit, as it brings supply and demand back into balance," said Webber.
Vine damage has been exacerbated by dehydration due to the ongoing drought across South Eastern Australia. Adelaide has experienced its driest January in 17 years, while Melbourne had its second-driest January on record, with a rainless spell now 33 days long and counting.
"Any vineyard that's water-stressed is going to have a very difficult run," said Stuart Sharman, president of the Coonawarra Grapegrowers Association.
After Australia's "once-in-3,000-years" heat wave of 15 consecutive days above 95° F last year, concerns are being raised regarding the long-term effects of climate change. Climate Change Minister Penny Wong told the Canberra Times that the scorching weather proved the accuracy of warnings by climate-change scientists. "Eleven of the hottest years in history have been in the last 12 years," she said.
Others are less convinced. "Harvest started on the same day in 2008 as it did in 1908," said Colin Kay, Kay Brothers Amery winemaker, who has climate records for his McLaren Vale vineyard for every year since 1891. "We had a similar heat wave in 1934."
Other winegrowing regions have been more fortunate and are expecting very good vintages. In Western Australia, Perth recorded its hottest start to January on record while Tasmania reached its all-time record of 108° F, but vineyards in those states escaped the heat wave. The Hunter Valley in New South Wales enjoyed a cooler season, reporting an exceptional sémillon harvest.
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