Up in smoke? Australian researcher studies bushfire impact on vineyards

SOURCE: AFP Photo/William West
After the fires: Can Australia's wine industry survive the bushfires?

By U2B Staff 

Read all stories

How much damage has the Australian bushfire crisis done to the country’s vineyards? La Trobe University’s top experts have set out to find out.

Professor Ian Porter, an expert on smoke effects on grape and wine, is working with grape growers and winemakers in key wine regions across the country to study the impact of the fires on this year’s vintage.

According to the university, Porter is leading a team working on developing better tools to help with early detection to ensure smoke taint cannot get into the wines, and to help growers decide whether to harvest vineyards affected by smoke.

In a gathering of winemakers and growers in North East, Victoria, this week, the academic said air quality data already show significant levels of smoke damage. Some vines, he added, may already be too badly affected to be harvested this year.

“Smoke doses are extremely high and similar to earlier seasons where large bushfires occurred in 2003 and 2007. All our data suggests it will be difficult to produce wine in some of the regions this year,” Professor Porter said in a media release


To get a clearer picture of the impact, however, Porter says further testing will be done.

His team is using smoke detection devices to compare airborne smoky “phenol” compounds with those in smoke-affected grapes and wine to gauge the impact of fires on the final product.

“Rain may stop the smoke, but we won’t know whether the harvest will be useable until further smoke data is analysed and grapes are tested by industry and our own research,” he said.

Porter’s team is also offering continual assistance to wine-producing regions across Australia, as needed. Other university researchers in the country are also lending their expertise in different ways, such as developing techniques to reduce smoke impact on vintages.

“The fact that we are now able to provide industry with a way of testing for smoke taint earlier, means we are able to save them huge amounts of time and money, and help them plan future vintages with more certainty,” Porter said.

Australian bushfire crisis
Aerial view of a Hunter Valley vineyard in Australia. Source: Shutterstock

Australia is facing its worst bushfire crisis in national history. As of January 14, 2020, estimates suggest that the fires that began spreading from September 2019 have destroyed over 18.9 million hectares of land, 5,900 buildings (including 2,683 homes) and killed more than a billion animals, on top of at least 29 people.

The crisis has also taken its toll on the local wine industry. According to the Australian Wine Research Institute, exposure to smoke can result in wines with undesirable sensory characteristics, such as smoky, burnt, ashy or medicinal. 

Wine Australia CEO Andreas Clark said although it will take some weeks yet to put a dollar value to the destruction, many individual wineries and vineyards in some regions of South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland have already suffered damage that would “take years to recover”.

Initial analysis by the trade organisation says a maximum 1,500 hectares of vineyards lie within the fire-affected regions, which accounts for about 1 percent of Australia’s total vineyard area. Although this is a relatively small figure, the organisation said that “the toll on individuals cannot be underestimated and should not be downplayed”. 

Porter’s research is being funded by the Federal Department of Agriculture, Wine Australia, Agriculture Victoria, the Australian Wine Research Institute and La Trobe University.