When a second wave of bushfires raged across Kangaroo Island in South Australia on 10 January, the pioneering vineyard planted by Bordeaux winemaker Jacques Lurton stood isolated and helpless in the face of such fury.
Fortunately, precautions taken by his staff at The Islander Estate winery and vineyard, due to the catastrophic fire danger forecast, had seen 2019 vintage wines in barrel moved to a safe storage site in the eastern part of Kangaroo Island. But they couldn’t save the vines.
By the time Lurton arrived from France in late January, cleanup of the decimated 12ha vineyard had begun, with damaged wire and irrigation systems removed with help from an extraordinary collection of volunteers, including winery customers from the UK, Europe and US – along with volunteer assistance organisation BlazeAid.
‘Without them, our plans for the future would be very different,’ said Yale Norris, general manager and Lurton’s co-owner in The Islander Estate. ‘We’ve a lot invested here in Kangaroo Island. We’re not about to give that up easily.’
The Islander Estate’s 70-tonne winery survived but fire swept over all the Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Sangiovese, Shiraz, Grenache, Viognier and Semillon vines planted since 2000 at Kohinoor Hills in the centre of the island.
Norris says they are now playing a waiting game, to see how vines respond through the remainder of the growing season and identifying areas of the vineyard with the best potential for rehabilitation.
‘We are willing the vines back to see what can be salvaged. We don’t know if the roots have been burned or not,’ said Norris.
‘Now we have to pray for rain to stimulate growth, as our irrigation system has been destroyed.’
Advice from viticulture experts Toby Bekkers (of Bekkers Wines in McLaren Vale, who helped plant the Islander Estate vineyard in 2000) and the team at Shaw and Smith in the Adelaide Hills has Norris and Lurton confident of reviving the vineyard.
‘The vines are tough, and we are putting the work in to try to repair and restore the vineyard,’ said Norris.
The winery’s tasting room – located at Cygnet River, about 25km east of the vineyard – was untouched by the fires and remains open for business, selling existing stock.
The 2018 wines had been stored in an Adelaide warehouse, and bottling of the 2019 vintage will occur in Adelaide during March, to ensure continued supply to the market.
‘We will not have a 2020 vintage but we fully expect to have plans in place for vintage 2021 and beyond,’ said Norris.
Adelaide Hills: A waiting game
A similar wait-and-see approach to vineyard revival is being applied by Henschke, which had flames sweep through its entire 27ha Lenswood vineyard.
All wines from the property – including the renowned Giles Pinot Noir and Croft Chardonnay – will cease this vintage, although Justine Henschke says the state of vines won’t be clear until this year’s growing season concludes in May.
Golding Wines, near Lobethal in the Adelaide Hills, was hit brutally by a fierce fire front, scorching most vines – although its stone-walled winery, cellar door and hospitality centre was saved.
Darren and Lucy Golding have been quick to take action, cutting down torched vines, but making efforts to stimulate growth in some singed vines by splitting canes and training them to new wires and encouraging water shoots to flourish.
Geoff Weaver, who was trapped as flames swept over his Lenswood vineyard and had to jump in the property’s dam with several kangaroos to avoid being burned, is determined bid to revive his 33-year-old vineyard.
New sheds have been erected on his property and new growth has appeared on cut-back Chardonnay vines. He hopes to be harvesting grapes from them in 2022.
Other Adelaide Hills wines severely affected are Tilbrook Estate, Vinteloper, New Era Vineyards, Barristers Block and Tomich Wines.
Effects are widespread across Australia’s south-eastern wine regions. New South Wales has had 12 of its 16 wine grape-growing regions affected by smoke, with many leading brands making early declarations they will not pick fruit this year, such as Hunter Valley wineries Tyrrell’s and McWilliams’ Mount Pleasant, and Clonakilla and Shaw Wines in the Australian Capital Territory.
The Australian Wine Research Institute has been offering free testing of grape samples for smoke taint, and managing director Dr Mark Krstic says about 2,800 samples have had analytical testing across all Australian states.
More than 1,500 have been done in the past fortnight as viticulturists make tough decision on whether ripe fruit should be harvested or not.
Wine Australia estimates that at least 4% of the annual crush will be eliminated due to burnt vines and smoke taint, amounting to about 60,000 tonnes, although there has not been total loss in any single region.