Heat wave, fires scorch wineries in Australia

WINEMAKERS in Victoria’s Yarra Valley and Heathcote regions are assessing the damage from bushfires just weeks before harvest.

The fires followed days of intense heat that has shrivelled fruit in some areas, reducing potential wine quality as well as yield for the 2009 vintage, which is just getting under way.

Foster’s, which owns the Coldstream Hills and St Hubert’s wineries in the Yarra Valley, confirmed it had lost two vineyards covering a combined 40 hectares to the fires.

“We are still assessing the damage in and around the Yarra Valley and throughout Victoria as we have not been able to get into all regions because of the continued fire threat,” spokesman Troy Hey said.

Casella Wines managing director John Casella said about 3 per cent of his company’s grape intake was expected to be affected by the bushfires.

The company would still accept smoke-affected fruit in order to support growers, with the resulting wine to be blended and processed to remove any smoke taint.

John Derwin, owner of boutique winery Roundstone at Yarra Glen, said he had only managed to save a tractor, a grader, 20 sheep and a hayshed — losing his home, winery and restaurant along with 8ha of grapes that were almost ready for processing.

“We’re still alive — there’s lots of our friends that aren’t,” he said.

The Yarra Valley Winegrowers’ Association has cancelled its annual Grape Grazing food and wine festival on advice from emergency services.

Gordon Gebbie, commercial director with Yering Station winery, said one vineyard of about 8ha — less than 10 per cent of the winery’s plantings — had been burnt, but the vines may be able to be saved for future crops.

“The fire came right up to the edge of the Melba Highway, which is right opposite the winery, but the road acted as a firebreak, which probably saved both ourselves and the Chateau Yearing hotel next door,” he said.

Moet Hennessey regional vice-president Rob Remnant said about a hectare of grapevines had been burnt at the company’s Domaine Chandon vineyard in the Yarra Valley, while fire had also caused some external damage to warehouses holding unfinished wine.

Further north at Heathcote, Barfold Estate had a narrow escape when the fire came within 300m on Saturday while owner Craig Aitken he was busy fighting another blaze as part of a CFA crew near Mt Lofty.

Just 5km away, Rupert’s Ridge winery and vineyard was destroyed by fire while owners John and Chris Gillies-Williams were on a skiing holiday in Colorado.

Other winemakers spared by the fire said their fruit had instead been scorched by last week’s blistering temperatures.

“Last week we had three days of more than 45-degree heat, so we’ve lost about 10 or 20 per cent of our fruit,” said Brett Winslow, vineyard manager at Heathcote Winery.

In Beechworth, Sorrenberg winery owner Barry Morey said the drought and the heat have were having more negative impact than the fires, as winds had blown the flames in the opposite direction.

“There is some smoke about but it’s only very light so we think we’ll be okay this year,” he said.

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