Climate change forces wine industry to adapt

Don’t for one moment doubt that climate change is real.
The proof is all around us; just check the shelves
at your local bottle shop, writes Jessica Holmes.

See that nero d’avola? It’s a Mediterranean variety that copes well with extremely hot summers. And there are plenty more new names to wonder at. As for all that Tassie pinot noir? Pinot prefers a gentler climate without extremes – so Tasmania is perfect for it.

Some people may insist on wearing blinkers, but the wine industry is not among them – it is now at the forefront of Australia’s preparations to adapt to the inevitable.

This year has been a good year for Joel Tilbrook. Despite being a quite early and compact vintage for him as chief winemaker at Brown Brothers, this year’s harvest has had “very good quality [fruit] and very good yields” especially in the company’s Tasmanian vineyards – a relatively recent expansion.

“We moved to Tasmania in 2010 because it was a region with enormous potential,” Mr Tilbrook told Hatch.

“Climate change was one of the key considerations we took when we moved to Tasmania, turning Brown Brothers from a one-branded to a multi-branded business.”

Global warming has brought climate conditions that are increasingly difficult for Australian winemakers to cope with. As the climate constantly warms, grapes are maturing earlier than had been usual and ripening out of phase (e.g. grapes for red wine usually mature a few weeks after grapes used for white wine) compressing the timeframe for harvest.

“As [the different varieties] come in together, wineries face difficult decisions because you’ve only got so much space in the fermenters and you’ve either got to move them out quickly or leave the grapes in the vineyard longer than you’d like them to be there,” said Dr Snow Barlow, professor in viticulture at the University of Melbourne. To get around that, he told Hatch, wineries need to start investing in more fermenters or another system to cope with the earlier grape harvests or outsource fermentation of excess grapes to other vineyards with spare capacity.

Changes under way

The simultaneous maturing of different varieties is just one of the reasons so many wineries are now moving into Tasmania, where the cooler environment is much kinder to grapes as they mature and lessens vintage compression. The 2016 report of Wine Tasmania shows there are now 1800 hectares under vine in the state.

Moving interstate is not the only weapon in the armoury of viticulturists as they adapt to counter global warming. Many vineyard routines have been changed, Dr Barlow said, including the type of trellis used.

Traditionally, trellises lift the leaves to expose grapes to sunlight. But now “it’s become quite common not to do that on the western side of the vineyard as it gets the brunt of the sun. We try to protect the grapes with the canopies by making sure that the leaves have enough nutrients so they don’t wilt and that they can provide shade as well as provide enough nutrients to the grapes themselves.”

A bottle of Australian nero d'avola wine - part of the industry's response to climate change. 26 april 2017
A bottle of Aussie nero d’avola – part of the industry response to climate change.

Unprotected grapes can become sunburnt which affects red wines in particular. Because the skins are vital to producing the colour of red wine during the crush and fermentation process, burnt skins have time to impart their flavour to the wine – something winemakers must avoid at all costs.

“White grapes can escape this to an extent due to the skin not being entirely essential to making white wine,” Dr Barlow said.

Another change is more intensive irrigation around vineyards to ensure vines are watered in the event of the hot, dry extremes that are becoming all the more frequent.

Joel Tilbrook recognises that not every year will be the same, “so we need to gear up the winery for that [climate change] in terms of staffing, logistics, etc”.

His determination to prepare and adapt, along with the efforts of the many skilled winemakers and viticulturists Brown Brothers employs, has been largely responsible for the company’s continuing success. One of the greatest success stories has been Brown Brothers’ Tasmanian pinot noir wines, made with grapes from two regions – the Tamar Valley, and Freycinet on the east coast.

The Tasmanian climate is particularly well suited to producing pinot noir, Mr Tilbrook said, but there are other grape varieties that perform extremely well in the face of climate change. “We need to be prepared in order to produce the best fruit for our wines.”

Dr Barlow lists shiraz and chardonnay, mainstays of Australian winemaking, as quite tough but said Mediterranean varieties are being trialled to see how they do here in Australia. One increasingly seen on shelves at bottle shops is nero d’avola, a red grape native to Sicily that maintains its colour under high temperatures.

But it’s not all smooth going. Much of the market consists of people who want to buy what they’ve always bought and reluctant to try new styles. One of the many challenges facing winemakers over the next 10 years, he said,  would be finding a balance between those larger sections of the market and the “boutique markets” open to experimentation.

Back at Brown Brothers, Joel Tilbrook remains hopeful and sees a bright future despite the significant obstacle of climate change.

“It’s a dynamic business but there’s plenty of growth. Tasmania is an exciting region and I think in the next 10 years it will be more significant on a world stage.” – Jessica Holmes