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How climate change is changing our wine

In 2012, a leading Coonawarra viticulturist looked out upon a vineyard in the northern part of the region, a place of shallow soils, home to 25-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon vines. It was a good site, had been a strong performer for his employer Wynns Coonawarra Estate, but now, viticulturist Allen Jenkins decided to see just how robust it really was.

He divided the block in half. For one set of vines it was business as usual. For the other, a harsher new reality was about to set in as he deliberately reduced the amount of irrigated water it would receive for the next three years, just 10 per cent of its normal allowance. When the results were collated, there was nothing but sad news for those parched Cabernet vines.

“Yield dropped for each of those three years by 40 per cent, on average,” says Allen.

“The berry number also dropped, berries were much smaller, there was an increase in colour and tannin, but the problem was you lost some of that Cabernet varietal character.”

Recovery for the vines once water was returned was another big hurdle, it was far from immediate and they continue to struggle to this day.

Cabernet Sauvignon is the flagship grape for Coonawarra, a symbol of its national and international standing in the world of wine, and here it was being stripped of its noble character by a deliberate man-managed climate intended to mimic global warming in all of its nastiness.

Allen had made his point. Climate change was capable of treating even the most celebrated of grapes with disdain.

Now, he’s learning to adapt.

He’s not the only one in the Australian wine industry.

A harsh reality

Between now and the year 2030 the annual average temperature is expected to rise between 0.2ºC and 1.1ºC in many of Australia’s grape growing regions.

By 2050, the projected increase is 0.4ºC to 2.6ºC. A warmer future will go hand in hand with a drier one and one, it is believed, that will be increasingly erratic, throwing up unpredictable extreme weather conditions.

Under this scenario, the annual Australian wine grape harvest will be earlier; grapes coming into full ripeness during the hottest parts of summer, stressing vines.

Some suggest it’s already here.

“Vintage 2015 was our 35th in the region,” says Jeffrey Grosset of Jeffrey Grosset Wines in the Clare Valley.

“We commenced harvest for our two Rieslings (Polish Hill and Springvale) 35 days, almost to the day in both cases, earlier than we did 35 years ago. The suggestion of a (earlier vintage) trend to around roughly one day earlier each year, seems compelling.”

His Clare colleagues at Jim Barry Wines, to the north of his vineyard, had already picked and were fermenting their 2015 Riesling, Shiraz and Cabernet by mid February, a first for them.

What does climate change mean for my wine?

In a warmer climate, vintage will probably be shorter and more compact, which might suit earlier ripeners like Chardonnay, but won’t go down well with late season starters such as Cabernet. The heat that drives sugars up will also force acids down.

A drier season scenario similar to what Allen Jenkins found  with smaller yields and lack of varietal flavour may become a widespread problem. The effect will be more noticeable in inland regions that are expected to be hotter than coastal areas. Australian research suggests grape quality will be reduced nationally by seven to 23 per cent by 2030, and 12 to 57 per cent by 2050.

The fact that climate change is real and not some annoying trend that will eventually cycle off and bring certainty back into our lives, would appear to now be acknowledged by Australian winemakers. And it’s not exclusively about heat.

“Climate change to me is both heat and rain,” says Peter Barry at Jim Barry Wines. “Yes, it’s the unpredictability of the weather, all that is puzzling and a little terrifying.”

Dr Leanne Webb, Climate Projections Liaison Manager at the CSIRO and an academic with more than a decade’s research into the subject, chooses her language carefully when describing the causes behind our changing climate.

“Increasing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are altering the composition of the atmosphere,” she wrote in her seminal paper, Modelled Impact of Future Climate Change on the Phenology of Winegrapes in Australia (2007). 

“It is very likely that most of the global warming since the mid-20th Century is due to increases in greenhouse gases from human activities.”

For the first time in recorded history, the earth’s temperature is clearly more than 1.0ºC above the 1850-1900 average. Since 1997, which at the time was the warmest year on record, 16 of the subsequent 18 years have been warmer still.

What to do?

Dr Webb suggests Australian wine producers do three things to address its impact on their vineyards: 1. Look to grapevine management techniques, 2. Shift vineyard sites and 3. Think about different grape varieties.

In the Yarra Valley, winemaker Dan Buckle at Domaine Chandon, one of Australia’s leading sparkling winemakers may be locked into the classic Champagne trio – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier – but he is still free to look at different sites.

“I think that by focusing on altitude in vineyard selection we can avoid risks of climate change,” he says. “Certainly the results we see from our Whitlands vineyard are exciting.”

Whitlands is one of the highest vineyards in Victoria, around 800 metres on a high point in the King Valley, and was planted by Brown Brothers in 1982. In 2010, Brown Brothers went in search of parts potentially cooler, buying the extensive Tasmanian vineyards of troubled forestery giant, Gunns Ltd. for $32.5 million. It was an expensive commitment to a changing climate, ironically, coming at a cost: the forced sale of Whitlands.

But not everyone can change vineyard location. It’s far easier and cheaper to change the grape variety.

McLaren Vale boasts a sunny, Mediterranean-style climate. With that in mind, Coriole winemaker Mark Lloyd thought it obvious to look to Italian varieties. Some didn’t work. Nebbiolo and Barbera are real sooks in the heat, as he discovered during the January heat wave of 2009. Fruit all but disappeared on the vine.

However, grape varieties sourced from Southern Italy are a different story. Fiano has become possibly his greatest success story, an inspiration to others. It is already being hailed as making the region’s best white wine. Nero d’Avola, a late maturing red variety, is also performing well. And this year, he has Apulia’s dark-hearted Negroamaro planted.

In the Clare Valley, one of the most surprising alternative grape stars is an unpronounceable Greek variety that originally hails from the fabulous volcanic soils of Santorini. Assyrtiko was brought into Australia by Jim Barry Wines and from its first vintage in 2014, its crisp acid personality was a delight. The grape absolutely thrives in the dry and the hot.

Still, new grape varieties, many with difficult-to-pronounce names, may be trending, but there are others who simply look to adapt what they’ve got. Maybe they’ve read the controversial new book from pioneering Western Australian viticultural scientist, John Gladstones, Wine, Terroir and Climate Change (Wakefield Press) which doesn’t want to be too doom and gloomy about the future. His message? Terroir is resilient.

Others may see hope in new varieties being developed by the CSIRO. Brown Brothers had moderate success with Cienna some years back and are now backing Project Enigma, another first in the wine world, a totally new grape variety that laps up the heat.

Climate change means change. But, if handled with thought and positive action, it could signal an exciting future for winemakers and drinkers alike.

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Discover our Top 12 Reds of 2017
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Howard Park Flint Rock Shiraz 2015 , Great Southern In the glass: Deep purple.  On the nose: Black plum, blackberry, pepper and vanillin oak.  On the palate: Black, blue and purple fruits, subtle peppery depth and great balance of tannins and acidity. Rich, flavoursome and intense yet elegant. RRP $26 or $22.10 per bottle in any dozen.   Kaesler Stonehorse Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre 2014 , Barossa Valley In the glass: Medium density red.  On the nose: Complex lift of dark berry, plum, cedar and earth.  On the palate: Medium to full bodied with a core of black fruit and layers of cassis and vanilla. Silken with balanced tannins giving a rich, velvety texture.  RRP $22 or $18.70 per bottle in any dozen.  Lou Miranda Leone Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 , Barossa Valley In the glass: Full red garnet.  On the nose: Bright plum, currant, cassis, mint and cedar.  On the palate: Full bodied with a core of black and blue fruit, firm yet ripe tannins and vibrant acidity. Savoury with hints of liquorice, spice and dried herb.  RRP $22.95 or $19.51 per bottle in any dozen.  Erin Eyes Gallic Connection Cabernet Malbec 2015 , Clare Valley In the glass: Deep red.       On the nose: Blackberry, mulberry, bay leaf and vanillin oak.  On the palate: Powerful yet poised with saturated black fruits, well-judged supporting oak, fine and persistent tannin drive and balancing acidity.  RRP $30 or $25.50 per bottle in any dozen.  Leconfield Merlot 2016 , Coonawarra In the glass: Bright red black.  On the nose: Powerful aromas of black cherry concentrate with flashes of spearmint and eucalypt.   On the palate: Generous kirsch, mulberry and cassis with dense inky power, a velvety core and deluxe  oak harmony.   RRP $26 or $22.10 per bottle in any dozen.  Helen & Joey Inara Pinot Noir 2016 , Yarra Valley In the glass: Pale to mid ruby.  On the nose: Pure, fresh red berry, floral perfume.  On the palate: Vibrant and silken with delicious strawberry and blueberry depth, tea-like notes, fine tannins and a complete finish. Packs so much flavour into a lighter-bodied wine. Gorgeous.  RRP $23 or $19.55 per bottle in any dozen. 
Tyrrell's Wines Special Release Shiraz 2014 , Hunter Valley In the glass: Brilliant deep purple. On the nose: Violet, plum, blackberry and black pepper.  On the palate: Shows power and finesse. Loaded with spicy black fruit depth with on-point acidity and savoury tannins driving the long finish.  RRP $40 or $34 per bottle in any dozen. Dandelion Vineyards Red Queen of the Eden Valley Shiraz 2013 , Eden Valley In the glass: Deep purple.  On the nose: Plum, blackberry, graphite, pepper and clove.  On the palate: Layered and complex, it opens with savoury black fruits, an alluring spice complexity and fine yet deep tannins. RRP $100 or $85.00 per bottle in any dozen David Hook Reserve Barbera 2016 , Hunter Valley In the glass: Medium density red.  On the nose: Plum, bramble, black olive and tobacco aromas. On the palate: Medium weight with typical varietal freshness showing vibrant plummy fruit, savoury tannins and a touch of cigar box on the finish. A lovely young Barbera with plenty potential.  RRP $30 or $25.50 per bottle in any dozen.  Kimbolton Fig Tree Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 , Langhorne Creek In the glass: Full dark red.  On the nsoe: Classic Cabernet red berry, currant, cassis and cedar lift.  On the palate: Beautifully textured and deep yet only medium weight with a varietal core of black fruit, cassis and crushed leaf.  RRP $25 or $21.25 per bottle in any dozen.  Hay Shed Hill Malbec 2015 , Margaret River In the glass: Intense red black scarlet. On the nose: Hugely concentrated black cherry with interwoven complex notes of black pepper, currant and spicy oak.  On the palate: A gentle giant with super-ripe, glossy black cherry fruit power, beautiful velvety texture and deluxe spicy oak support. Classy!  RRP $30 or $25.50 per bottle in any dozen.  Riorret Lusatia Park Pinot Noir 2016 , Yarra Valley In the glass: Vibrant mid-red.  On the nose: Sweet cherry and raspberry fruit with notes of stalk and spice.  On the palate: Vibrant and fresh, supple and juicy with ripe cherry and plum, subtle stalky complexity, warm earthy notes and integrated vanillin oak.  RRP $50 or $42.50 per bottle in any dozen.
Who makes my wine?
Words by Tyson Stelzer on 28 Apr 2016
Walk the aisles of your local Dan Murphy’s or First Choice store and you won’t find a wine labelled “Dan Murphy’s Select” or “First Choice Home Brand”. But lurking on those shelves are more than 100 brands owned by the supermarket chains with no disclosure on the label. In an age in which we are more interested than ever in the origins of our products, how can we distinguish a small family estate from a supermarket brand? The growth in supermarket “Buyer’s Own Brand” wines in Australia has been substantial, estimated to have mushroomed from five percent a decade ago to between 16 and 25 percent of the market today. The wine industry is concerned that this growing category of major retailers could mislead consumers. In February 2016, a Senate Inquiry report into the Australian Wine Industry put forward a proposal from the Winemaker’s Federation of Australia (WFA) “that the Government amend labelling requirements so wine labels must declare whether wine is produced by an entity owned or controlled by a major retailer.” “What we would like to see is that home brands are identified so consumers can make their choice,” WFA Chief Executive Paul Evans told the Inquiry. The enquiry’s report is not binding, but the government is expected to respond within six months. It can choose to accept or reject the recommendations. Not so simple The question of whether it should be the government’s place to legislate on this issue has been widely debated, but even if it is, the dilemma of how it could be defined and regulated is perhaps more pertinent. Buyer’s Own Brand wines have a fully valid and important place in the market, and the major retail chains own perfectly legitimate wineries under which some of their labels are branded. Some retailers’ own brands are even made by small, private estates. Further, many high profile winemakers, including Giaconda, Clonakilla, Oakridge and St Hallett, make exclusive labels for particular retailers under the winemaker’s own brands. Such relationships are of value for all levels of the wine industry. And if retailers are required to declare brand ownership, what of companies like Treasury Wine Estates, Accolade Wines and Pernod Ricard, who together own many more brands and a much greater market share than the supermarket groups? And, for that matter, what of the hundreds of private little “virtual” wine brands who own no vineyards, buy fruit and have it contract made in someone else’s facility? The big issue behind this discussion is the market dominance of Woolworths (who owns BWS, Dan Murphy’s, Cellarmasters and Langton’s) and Wesfarmers (Liquorland, First Choice and Vintage Cellars) and the increasing presence of Metcash (Cellarbrations, IGA Liquor and Bottle-O), Costco, and ALDI stores in the wine market. It is estimated that Woolworths and Wesfarmers together share just under 60 percent of the domestic wine retail market, with some estimates putting this at 70 percent. There is a bigger picture at play here, of which wine is just one small category. Controversy surrounds the supermarket duopoly and its increasing dominance across many categories. Legislative change for wine would not only be fraught with complications surrounding definitions and implementation, but such a precedent would have enormous ramifications for groceries, fuel, hardware, office supplies, insurance, etc.
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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