It’s not often that you wake up in wine country to the smell of smoke and ash mixed with the morning dew. Except it’s not in the recently charred Napa Valley, this is the Granite Belt of Australia.
The Granite Belt is an emerging wine region located less than a three hour drive from Brisbane on the East coast of Australia.
As the highest altitude wine growing region in Australia, they are known for cool climate and unusual varietals of wines.
However, when I visited in October 2019, the weather was unseasonably hot and dry. What would normally be a lush, green spring is brown, dry, and ashen.
Fires exacerbated by Drought
Brush fires are not unusual in the Granite Belt region. However, the 2 year long drought is exacerbating the flames.
It is so bad that the city of Stanthorpe has imposed emergency water restrictions of 100 litres per day. They expect to run out of water by the end of 2019 and will have to start trucking it in.
According to local official Jackie Trad, “There is no doubt that with an increasing temperature with climate change, then what the scientists tell us is that events such as these will be more frequent and they will be much more ferocious.”
When I visited wineries in the region on an excursion with the Wine Media Conference, many winemakers echoed similar sentiments of the detrimental effects climate change is having on their vineyards.
The Drought of Wine Tourism
Granite Belt wineries are coping with the record high temperatures and lack of water via various methods of crop management.
However, the burning fires have decimated the one thing they can’t live without which is tourism.
The Granite Belt is home to boutique wineries that do not specialize in selling wine to restaurants or stores or exporting to other countries.
Instead, they are in the business of wine tourism and selling the wine out of their cellar door, the Australian term for a wine tasting room.
The region is so committed to this concept that there is even a school for it. The Queensland College of Wine Tourism was built so youth could study the trade without having to leave the region.
News of drought and fires, however, have unfortunately scared away their usually steady stream of visitors from nearby city dwellers from Brisbane.
It is so bad that the regional tourism board has set up a webpage to debunk the myths of traveling to the region at this fiery time.
Long Term Solutions
While rain is expected in 2020, and the region will undoubtedly recover from this particular drought, more work needs to be done for the future.
Mike Hayes, winemaker of Sirromet Wines, is leading the charge for innovation and the effect of climate change on the region’s wines.
He is conducting research now to set up the Queensland wine industry for the next 10 and 50 years. One of those methods is developing drought resistant strains and hearty varieties of grapes.
While this research is expensive, as he states, “It is too expensive not to do something.”
Smoke Taint and Losing $300K of Wine
Brush fires may not burn down vineyards, but they may unfortunately taint some grapes with smoke.
Brad Hutchings of Savina Lane Wines had this unfortunate experience with his 2018 crop.
He had the grapes tested prior to harvest, and they passed with an acceptable level of smokey phenolic compounds.
Consequently, he went through the painstaking job of handpicking the grapes, crushing, and fermenting them into wine.
Unfortunately, one month later, the entire batch of wine wreaked of smoke. Since the lot is worth $300K Australian dollars, he is understandably reluctant to let it go.
Alternate uses for the wine such as soap making, watering the grapes, and salvaging via reverse osmosis are not feasible since the ashen aroma is so unpleasant.
The Flame Still Burns
While wine may be lost to smoke taint, tourists may come and go, and water may be extremely limited, the heart of the region still remains.
Granite Belt wineries have shown innovation and proven resilience. Their passion for the region and their wines will no doubt prevail despite the unfortunate effects of climate change.
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