Feb 20, 2009
BUSHFIRE smoke has tainted the fruit of entire vineyards in the Upper Goulburn Valley and is posing a threat to the Yarra Valley, Victoria's premium wine-growing region.Vineyard manager James Cuthbertson fears this year's entire vintage from the Yarra Valley may be affected by the smoke.
Standing among vines in Murrindindi while Rural Fire Service firefighters from NSW lit backburns in nearby hills yesterday, Mr Cuthbertson said the four Upper Goulburn vineyards managed by his business Grapeshot Pty Ltd would be forced to discard $1 million worth of fruit.
"It's a complete disaster," Mr Cuthbertson said. "It makes the wine taste like a pub ashtray. Two days of smoke is enough to do it. We've been in thick smoke from the Saturday of the fires, this is the first clear day we've had."
The vineyards under his management, Slattery's, Black Range and Penbro Park, and his parents' vines at Murrindindi Vineyards, were among 400 acres of vineyards he believed had been affected around Murrindindi.
He said nearby vineyards in the Yarra Valley, including Coldstream Hills, De Bortoli and Domaine Chandon, may be in the same boat.
"Yarra Valley, even though there are people thinking they'll be right, I don't think they will be."
Australian Wine Industry Association chief executive Joanne Butterworth-Gray said the extent of smoke tainting would not be known until fruit had been tested in South Australia.
De Bortoli chief winemaker Stephen Webber said all growers in the Yarra Valley were concerned, but had not given up on their vines. He said southerly winds had cleared some of the smoke after Black Saturday.
"If I thought it was going to be a disaster I wouldn't have 80 pickers in here and a team of hand sorters. We haven't done any testing ourselves, all we've done is taken fruit, and we can't see any problem at this stage."
He said there was concern about machine-picking because the smoke taint was absorbed by the leaf and transferred to the fruit through the vine.
"We are hand picking so that we are not soaking the leaves with juice and then collecting the juice.
"If the smoke sticks around for another three or four days and we start to get some flavours of smoke then we've either got to pick it on to the ground, or we've got to try to deal with it, doing some big blends."
De Bortoli's premium pinot noir and chardonnay grapes had already been picked, leaving shiraz and cabernet sauvignon the greatest concern, he said.
Mark Krystic, program innovation manager for the Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation, said smoke concentrations had not been as severe as those seen after the King Valley fires in late 2006.
"We are trying to be a little bit optimistic and putting a positive spin on it at the moment," Mr Krystic said.
"There is potential the lighter styles may really struggle, but the heavier styles like cabernet sauvignon may not exhibit problems because it won't show through unless there are high levels."
Mr Cuthbertson said some fruit from his vineyards had been rejected in 2007 after being tainted by smoke from King Valley fires 300km away.
"We had fruit that went from $2250 a tonne to $600 a tonne and we were lucky to get paid," he said.
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