Australia

Australia's wine industry under threat after record summer heatwaves

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As the hot weather impacts harvests, wine producers are working night and day to bring in their grapes.

Australia’s $6 billion dollar wine industry is under pressure and struggling to adjust following record summer heatwaves across the country. 

Some winemakers were forced to harvest around the clock during summer, when both red and white grapes ripened at once.

The Hunter Valley in NSW is one affected region, with winemaker Andrew Margan running on little sleep during the hottest summer on record, in order to bring in his white vintage.

“It’s all about coffee and adrenaline, believe me,” he tells SBS as he stands by rows of juicy grapes in his vineyard in Broke. 

Winemaker Andrew Margan harvesting day and night.
Winemaker Andrew Margan harvesting day and night.
SBS

Machines rumble constantly, stripping the vines of ripe grapes, which are then sent back to the winery in trailers to be processed.

A run of extreme heat sent the mercury above 40 degrees over many days and the wine industry says rising temperatures are the biggest challenge facing growers.

“The difference this year is that the grapes are ripening quicker, so we’re harvesting earlier," Mr Margan says.

"There’s a compression of vintage so that historically, the white varieties would ripen at different times and now they’re all ripening together.”

The varieties would ripen at different times and now they’re all ripening together.

- Andrew Margan, Winemaker

“So we’re looking at picking reds two weeks earlier than we normally would as well, and Shiraz in particular.”

 

Red wine grapes ripened weeks earlier this summer.
Red wine grapes ripened weeks earlier this summer.

“Winemaking has a very high intensive capital cost, and those big stainless steel tanks are expensive. So having enough of them to store the wine coming in, causes a real problem,” says Tony Battaglene, CEO of the Winemakers Federation of Australia.

“But one thing in our favour, Australian growers are very good at managing challenges. And there’s a lot of good work you can do in the vineyard with mulching and water efficiency, to become more resilient.”

Mr Margan says: “If we don’t farm sustainably, then what have we done? We’ve failed, cos there’ll be nothing growing on our land.” 

Scientists studying long term trends in the Hunter Valley say over 20 years, the valley has become much drier and around one degree hotter.

Bruce Tyrrell
Winemaker Bruce Tyrrell.
SBS

At one of Australia’s oldest family vineyards, Bruce Tyrrell is using a new method to limit the sun’s impact.

“We’ve been spraying our vines, both red and white, with sunscreen. In fact around 70% of our vines were sprayed this year,” he says. 

We’ve been spraying our vines, both red and white, with sunscreen.

- Bruce Tyrrell, Winemaker 

The non-toxic white clay-based sunscreen helps reduce the temperature under the leafy canopy by up to 10 degrees.   

A vine sprayed with sunscreen
A vine sprayed with sunscreen.
SBS

Wine growers are also experimenting with planting rows north to south and managing the canopy to reduce the sun’s heat.

“In these hot years we’re letting the western side of the vine sprawl to give it more shade,” Bruce Tyrrell explains.

Many Australian growers are also planting heat-tolerant varieties from Southern Europe.

At Margan Wines, a vineyard of an Italian variety called Barbera is bearing fruit as its vines are hardy.

Consumers are responding well to the new style, so it’s not all bad news.

Grapes are harvested at night when temperatures are cooler.
Grapes are harvested at night when temperatures are cooler.
Supplied

“Because we’re picking most of our grapes in January, we are actually making better wine. So it’s been a positive thing for us,” Mr Margan says.

But other climate threats are emerging.

“It’s not just about the heat, the other thing we’re seeing is more storms, we’re seeing more hail, and hail, of course, is devastating to vineyards,” Mr Battaglene says.

And the issue stretches far beyond Australia. In Europe, rising temperatures are forcing changes to production in many wine regions.  

“Europe is also struggling with compressed vintages and it’s impacting on their harvests, so they’re under a lot of pressure to adjust,” Mr Battaglene says. 

The threats to global wine regions will be discussed at a conference in Portugal in March.

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