Life, Vineyards and Dreams

Published on 09/15/2020 by Priscilla Hennekam

Fires in Australia destroy one third of the vineyards in the Adelaide Hills. 

The fire that started on December 20, 2019 in the Adelaide Hills, will be remembered by all those affected, as one of the greatest tragedies of recent yearsWeeks of above average temperatures, combined with extremely dry weather and strong winds, set Australia up for some unbelievably difficult times. The fear, despair and feeling of helplessness of the region's residents and entrepreneurs seeing all their dreams burned down in just hours.

Adelaide Hills is one of the best known cold climate regions in the country. With vineyards that can reach up to 650 meters in altitude, the region is famous for producing Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Shiraz. One third of these vineyards were hit by the bushfire, which directly affected the Brukunga, Charleston, Cudlee Creek, Gumeracha, Harrogate, Kenton Valley, Lenswood, Lobethal, Mount Torrens and Woodside regions.

Now winegrowers are evaluating the state of their vineyards and unfortunately some have even lost all their grapes, just a few months before the start of the harvest. Another problem is “smoke taint” - contamination generated by the smoke in the grapes. According to the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI), grapes that are exposed to smoke can develop undesirable sensory characteristics such as smoke, burn or ash that in turn pass into the wines. Bushfire smoke is composed of free volatile phenols; that are responsible for the contamination and are produced when the wood is partially burned. These phenols are absorbed by the grapes and combine with the grape’s sugars to produces "glycosides". These glycosides are not directly responsible for the smoke aromas in the wine, but can cause problems during fermentation, in barrel, or even in the bottle, where the glycosides can separate and release the volatile phenols into the must or wine, allowing the aromas or flavours of smoke to appear.

The vineyards in the Adelaide Hills were affected to varying degrees, depending on the intensity and time in contact with the fire, being classified as: Severe, Moderate, Slight or Undamaged. Heat can reach the systems that carry water and nutrients between the roots and leaves, and can kill the vine or partially damage it. The most important thing here is to understand the extent to which these systems have been damaged, then adopt the best measures to maximize the chances for recovery of the vineyards. The vines that were partially hit by the fire had to halt grape production immediately; eliminating any competition for water, carbohydrates and nutrients and giving the plant the best chance of survival. In addition, grapes may have smoke defect and be inadequate for wine production.

Some producers have had great losses from this tragedy, such as Tilbrook winery.  Owner James Tilbrook and his wife Annabelle lost everything when flames broke out in their vineyards. They lost the winery, 90% of its vineyards and all the bottles that were on site, leaving only a few old vintages in their residence that were auctioned, raising more than $10,000. "It's a bit like losing a family member, a mother or a father," says James Tilbrook.

Vinteloper winery owner David Bowley lost everything, including his home.

"The last time I saw my brother cry was in 1989, when he was in the hospital for a leg operation. He was 9 years old, the next time was today. He lost everything. His house, his business, his vines, his pride and joy. Years and years, working in a business he built from scratch - and now everything is gone"wrote his sister Monique on Instagram.