Nervous wait for winemakers fearing smoke taint from fires, but new tech on the way

Nervous wait for winemakers fearing smoke taint from fires, but new tech on the way

Updated

January 16, 2020 12:34:55


Photo:

Ian Porter and Agriculture Victoria’s Tim Plozza test out a smoke detector in Milawa. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Erin Somerville)

Winemakers across Australia are in for a nervous wait to determine the damage caused to their grapes from heavy bushfire smoke, but developing technology means they may soon know those effects sooner.

Key points:

New technology that measures the impact of smoke on wine is being trialled in VictoriaThe technology could save winemakers time and money by helping them make decisions about their produce earlierOne winemaker has highlighted the flow-on effects that smoke taint can have on the supply chain

About 180 people in the wine industry braved the thick smoke lingering in the region to attend a forum in Milawa, in north-east Victoria, to better understand smoke taint, which affects the quality of grapes and can even lead to entire vintages being lost.

According to Wine Australia, major fire events since 2003 have affected over $400 million worth of grapes and wine that were either rejected commercially or downgraded because of smoke taint.

Australia is now shaping up to become a world leader in helping to mitigate the cost, stress and labour associated with smoke taint, as the nation prepares to face longer and harsher bushfire seasons.

The workshop was hosted by the North East Catchment Management Authority as part of a new Australian Government climate change project to help industry identify and manage impacts caused by climate change.

Smoke detector for grapes

La Trobe University professor Ian Porter is eager to see sophisticated smoke detector technology soon become a standard for Australian grape growers.

Some 16 of these smoke detectors have been rolled out to vineyards across Victoria as part of its development period.

The technology uses cumulative smoke dose from bushfire events and aligns it with grape, wine and phenyl data to make a smoke taint prediction.


Photo:

About 180 people attended a smoke taint workshop at Milawa. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Erin Somerville)

Currently, grape growers have to wait until later in the season to test their grapes and wine for smoke taint.

No wine is made from smoke affected grapes, so the new technology, which could eventually alert winemakers about their smoke taint risks via an app, will mean no more waiting.

“They save labour costs, netting costs, harvest costs, and now if they know for certain if their crop is damaged by smoke they can manage it in an appropriate way,” Dr Porter said.

The technology is a global first, but Professor Porter explained that it is a difficult science to nail.

“It’s really important to get this right, it’s not easy to get it right because there’s a whole bunch of variables — grape varieties, smoke dose, distance from burns … a whole range of factors we’re taking into account,” Dr Porter said.

“We’re managing to get people who may have dropped grapes to produce really good wines.

“We’re not there yet because we haven’t seen the outcome from this year’s vintage, but I think you’ll find some very positive answers out of this year’s research and testing.”

Early data to prevent sour grapes

It is still too early for many in the business to fully understand how their grapes will be affected by smoke taint, but for winemakers like Feathertop Wine’s Nick Toy, having early data and indicators would have a positive effect on the business.

Like those who attend the Milawa conference, Mr Toy is worried about what the heavy smoke is doing to the local vineyards, and has described smoke taint as the biggest threat to viticulture in Victoria’s north-east.

“For us the most important thing is that research funding continues,” he said.

“That’s the reason we’re here to support some of the people with that, as well as to push for that, because it’s such an important part of what we do.”

Brown Brothers Chief Executive Dean Carroll agreed that early data would save a lot of money and stress during smoky times.

“The earlier we know of smoke impact the quicker we make decisions,” he said.

“And the quicker we make decisions, the better it is for us as a business.”

Winemakers are still in limbo about how the devastating bushfires will impact their harvest ahead, but they are aware that they could face similar seasons ahead and welcome new technology to help ease the anxiety.

“If you look at Beechworth we had fires in 2003, 2007, 2009, 2019-2020 — that’s four times in the last two decades,” Haldon Estate Wines’ Tracey Richards said.

“We need all the help we can get to deal with this situation.

“We’ve got the catastrophic scenario happening here, so it’s a good opportunity to learn what can be done.”


Photo:

Tracey Richards says there’s a mixed mood among winemakers with the region has been blanketed in smoke. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Erin Somerville)

Ms Richards said there is a range of emotions in the local industry as smoke taint threatens their harvest.

“It would wipe out a year’s income across the board if it was to occur,” she said.

“Obviously for me it’s bad, but you’ve got to consider the wider economic impact, because of the knock on effect to my supply chain … and then all the local businesses in the region are already suffering terribly.

“It’s not just us.”

Topics:

viticulture,

science-and-technology,

food-and-beverage,

industry,

bushfire,

fires,

milawa-3678,

beechworth-3747,

porepunkah-3740

First posted

January 16, 2020 12:22:06

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