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Australia Bush Fires

February’s bushfires devasted wineries in the Yarra Valley. Robin Barton hears some of their stories and finds out what the future holds

A ten-minute drive south of Yarra Track, Kate Kirkhope was waiting for the bushfire to reach her biodynamic vineyard Kiltynane. ‘At 4pm we saw a front head through Steels Creek. There had been warnings of unprecedented fire risk for the Saturday so we had done final clear ups.’ When the fire raced across their parched paddocks, Kate and partner Sean donned goggles and wet towels and used 40,000 litres of water to fight it. They didn’t see anyone for three days. By then, all Kiltynane’s grapes had been cooked to a cinder.

To the southwest, Punt Road suffered AUS$2m (£1m) of damage – its avenue of cypresses went up like torches. ‘We were unscathed in comparison to other people because we had no loss of life,’ says Cameron Mackenzie. ‘We will have a very limited supply of wine from 2009 but 2008 was australia 2009a cracking vintage and will hopefully see us through.’ It’s a sentiment shared across the valley. Despite apparent devastation, just 5% of the Yarra’s vineyards were directly affected, though smoke taint is a problem. Seminars on removing it have been held, although some say the best place for smoky grapes is on the ground.

In the aftermath, the Australian wine industry provided enormous support. TarraWarra sent workers to Kiltynane. Foster’s donated 10,000 vineyard posts, and wine regions from the Mornington Peninsula to South Australia offered assistance. At a ‘working bee’ at Yarra Track, a donor brought new kennels for Coffee and Bodi the kelpies.

Where one vineyard was destroyed, its neighbour was untouched. ‘That’s the capricious nature of fire,’ says Leanne De Bortoli of De Bortoli, where a wedding party watched the forest around the winery burn as the band played on.

After June’s rainfall the valley is green again. Shoots are being pruned. Charred stumps cleared and trellises replaced. At the De Bortoli family home, friends, family and winemakers gather for the autumnal salami-making day; the community is stronger than ever. But for some the recovery hasn’t yet begun. Will grapes be picked at Yarra Track again? ‘We’re still thinking about it,’ says Viggers.

The road to recovery

By Rebecca Gibb

While February’s bushfires had devastating effects for those hit by the blazes, most of the Yarra’s vineyards were largely unscathed, burning through just 154ha of the region’s vineland.

The 30 vineyards hit by the blaze mainly suffered grass fires, which scorched the leaves and fruit, but the Yarra Valley Wine Growers Association claims that most vines will recover within two years. Dr Tony Jordan, association president, believes 85% of the vines affected should be fine. ‘They won’t get a crop next year but will the following season.’ At Giant Steps, vines ravaged by fire have since sprouted green shoots. Steve Flamsteed, senior winemaker there and at Innocent Bystander, is confident of total recovery.

While the fires’ impact was limited, 2009 Yarra Valley yields were 30% below average due to a heatwave in the last week of January, when temperatures hit 45°C. Leaves and grapes were sunburned, with some vineyards experiencing up to 80% crop loss. Those escaping severe damage had enough moisture in their soil to provide a healthy canopy, giving bunches sufficient shade. The orientation of the vineyard was important, says Steve Webber, winemaker at De Bortoli: ‘We lost up to 50% of the crop on north-south vineyards. The grapes just fried.’

Smoke taint is a concern, but not a certainty. The fires broke out on 7 February, now known as Black Saturday, and luckily winds blew smoke away from the vineyards. On 13 February the wind changed, blowing smoke back into the valley. Most whites are not showing smoke taint problems, as the grapes were mostly harvested before the smoke haze hit. Pinot Noir is largely clear of smoke taint but late-ripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon may have problems. Shiraz, notoriously susceptible to smoke taint, has been badly affected. Webber said: ‘We have written off our Shiraz but there are probably others who didn’t have the same kind of smoke as us.’ Winemaking techniques such as reverse osmosis remove any smoke taint but this is a costly process. It is more likely smoke-affected wine will be discarded.

Looking forward, growers don’t expect a hangover from 2009. Just 4% of the vineyards were damaged by fire and they should be back on form by 2011.

Producers are now working to improve their vineyards’ drought resistance and canopy management so fruit doesn’t get cooked again. The government’s environmental department is looking at controlled forest burns but there isn’t much forest left to burn and grass fires are the greatest risk to vineyards. ‘There’s not a lot you can do except take out a decent insurance policy,’ rues Webber

Written by Robin Barton, Rebecca Gibb

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