While the haze blanketing Canberra has finally lifted, local wineries are only just beginning to feel the effects of months of smoky air.
At its worst, Canberra’s air quality reading during the bushfire period topped 7,000 — anything over 200 is considered hazardous — and there were 49 days locals were encouraged to stay inside because the air was too smoky.
But for local winemakers, the smoke has had a devastating effect, penetrating their grapes and, for several wineries, destroying their 2020 vintage.
“It’s been pretty devastating actually,” Tim Kirk from Clonakilla Wines, based in Murrumbateman, said.
“We’ve had bushfires before, but this was something else. The fires all around us, we just seemed to cop all of smoke and it hung around for weeks and weeks.
“What happens is it sits on the skins of the grapes and gets sucked into the grapes as they start to ripen. Once you crush the grapes and begin to ferment them, those smoke compounds are released into the wine.
“It is not what you want with a great Canberra district wine.”
As a result, Mr Kirk and his team, who usually produce between 15,000 and 20,000 cases of wine each year, made the “painful” decision not to have a 2020 vintage.
“The impact is going to be significant, there’s no doubt about that, and it will be quite a heavy financial blow for us,” Mr Kirk said, estimating a loss in the millions of dollars.
“At Clonakilla we have 35 acres of vines just on our estate vineyard. That’s over 100 tonnes of grapes right there, that will end up carpeting the vineyard floor.
“We’re not going to make any wine from this vineyard at Murrumbateman, or indeed any of our vineyards from suppliers that we have in the Hilltop district or the Canberra district.
“We’ve been in this game a long time, it’s 50 years next year. We’ve never actually written off a whole vintage before.”
It is a similar story five minutes down the road at Shaw Wines, where owner Graeme Shaw has also decided to discard his 2020 vintage and feed the grapes to his sheep.
“For our vineyard, it’s through every single variety. There’s not a variety we’re able to pick, unfortunately,” he said.
“The Cabernet absolutely stank and it’s just like licking an ashtray.
“The Riesling wasn’t as bad, but it wasn’t good. It had quite a harsh taste on it, you could definitely get the smoke, and for a fragrant wine you can’t have that in it.”
Mr Shaw is bracing himself for a twofold financial loss from not producing a vintage, and from the decrease in cellar door visitors because of the smoke.
“There was a definite decrease in foot traffic, probably half of what we would have had this time last year,” he said.
“Then we’ll lose over 200 tonnes of grapes, and 11,000 cases. For the wine itself, it’s way over $1 million worth of product lost.
“It’s a bugger, having 12 months of hard work to produce top quality fruit and then having to drop it all; that’s hard. But it’s expected now and then.”
Indeed, while growers are no stranger to weather extremes — Shaw Wines lost their entire 2007 vintage to frost — the variety of weather events throughout December and January have undoubtedly taken their toll.
“It hasn’t been a great year in farming,” Sarah McDougall from the Canberra District Wine Industry Association said.
“This year not only did we have the worst drought we’ve ever had, there was also hail, then water, then smoke taint.
“Some wineries are already calling the harvest, but others are still doing some testing, as we’re all in different stages of ripening. So all is not lost.”
That is a sentiment Mark Bourne from the New South Wales Wine Industry Association agrees with.
“It is clear that there will be a significant amount of product from 2020 not on the market from New South Wales wineries,” he said, which includes Canberra district wineries in Murrumbateman and around Lake George.
“But wineries still have great vintages coming along — 2018 and 2019 vintages, which were some of the best in New South Wales, are about to be released this spring.
“I’d encourage all wine lovers to go along, and support their wineries.”
Ms McDougall, who herself is a winemaker at Lake George Winery, is quick to point out that indeed, most makers do have “contingency plans” — and cellar doors are still open.
“At Lake George we have some great 2018 reds that we’ll be releasing in the next week, and of course we have some 2019 whites and reds that we’ll be releasing in the next few months,” she said.
“We’re all open, our cellar doors are open, we still produce quality wines.”
Adds Tim Kirk: “To lose a whole crop to smoke taint, that’s a first for us. But we’re farmers. So we’ll live through this and thrive through it I’m sure.”