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Massive Floods Hit Australia's Hunter Valley Wine Region

Despite damage to a major wine region north of Sydney, vintners are happy to mark the end of a long drought

Tyson Stelzer
Posted: June 15, 2007

2007 has been a year of natural disasters for winemakers Down Under. Drought, frosts, bushfires, unseasonable rain and even locusts have wreaked havoc in Australian vineyards. And last weekend, Hunter Valley, the large wine region north of Sydney, was hit by the most significant flood it has experienced in more than 35 years.

Storms battered New South Wales and dumped approximately 1 foot of rainfall on the winegrowing region that already ranks as the wettest in the country. Nine lives were lost.

"We had more than 200mm [8 inches] on Friday night alone," said McWilliam's winemaker of 30 years, Phil Ryan. "I've never seen the rain gauge that full before."

On the bright side, the valley recently harvested a bumper vintage and endured a long-term drought, so the deluge couldn't have come at a better time. "The vines were in dormancy, with few or no leaves, so there was not a lot of damage," said Ken Bray, chairman of the Hunter Valley Vineyard Association viticultural committee.

Among the worst-hit vineyards was De Bortoli's 32-acre plot of Sémillon. "The entire vineyard was under [4 to 6 feet] of water," said site manager Scott Harrington. "In one section it carved a big rut some 3 or 4 feet deep. That's quite a significant hole."

Pepper Tree Wines reported no damage to its vineyards, but it faces a costly repair bill of a different kind. "We lost our big dam at our Talavera site," winemaker Jim Chatto said. "The wall blew out and took a lot of topsoil with it. It cost us 100,000 [Australian dollars] to build recently, so we're hoping insurance will cover it." Pepper Tree's claim will also include damage to the winery, after a foot and a half of water swept through equipment and wine storage. "The bottom layer of pallets will all have to be scraped and relabeled," said Chatto. "We might have to have a flood sale," he added with a laugh.

In spite of isolated damage, the mood remains upbeat in the valley. "It's wonderful--the best thing that's happened here in years," said Tyrrell's CEO Bruce Tyrrell. "Our dams are all overflowing, and I can't remember the last time that happened."

Even Harrington, in the midst of rebuilding trellises and filling the rut in his vineyard, was quick to point out the positives. "We're just lucky, I guess. Let's hope the rest of the country gets some rain as well."

Ryan summed it up as the best winter that Hunter Valley has ever had. "Our dams are full, the vines have had a good soaking and we're all set for the next vintage."

Rainfall patterns in Hunter Valley have changed in recent years, with heavier falls between vintages and little rain during the growing season--which is the one of the best scenarios for overall wine quality. "If this trend continues, my goodness, you can't ask for more than that," said Gus Maher, who heads up the Wine Hunter Marketing group.

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