Australian wineries seek to recover from bushfire ruin

The world has moved on from the crippling bushfires that decimated parts of Australian wine country last year. But have the affected wine growers been able to do the same?

Words by Adam Lechmere

Prue Henschke surveying damage at the Henschke Lenswood Vineyard_IMG_8976

There are some questions, perhaps, that you can only really put to an Australian.

It might seem the height of insensitivity to ask someone who has lost everything, whose life’s work has been reduced to a heap of ash and twisted metal, and moreover is now dealing with a global pandemic, “What’s your mood at the moment?”

But the news that is coming out of the Adelaide Hills is somehow so life-affirming that the question seems relevant.

Main image: Prue Henschke surveying damage at the Henschke Lenswood Vineyard.

David Bowley of Vinteloper, for example: “My current mood is surprisingly good. In times like this you realise that you’re doing the thing you love and that it’s not a job. It’s your passion.”

Bowley and his wife Sharon Hong lost almost all their 30ha property in December, including their house and 95 per cent of the vineyard. “We had 12ha of vines planted and now almost four months on we have been able to salvage just 0.5ha.”

He was frank about the effect of the devastation. “I was broken,” he told Club Oenologique. “I cried every day for two weeks. A little less each day, but there would be moments that would come and go in waves where I couldn’t contain the grief.”

Remains of Vinteloper vineyard, Adelaide Hills, December 2019
David Bowley
David Bowley

They had finally taken ownership of their property in April 2018. “Up to then, everything we had made we had reinvested in paying for the property. We had patted ourselves on the back for a job well done. We owned it for less than two years before it was destroyed.”

Bowley has now cut his vines down to the ground. “Our research tells us that our vines have a good chance to regrow from their root systems, so we are experimenting with cutting vines back to ground level as a first step to see if we can avoid pulling out the established 25-year-old root systems.” When the growing season starts they will know if this has worked, or if they need to start again.

Adelaide Hills was by far the worst affected wine region in the December 2019 fires.

Kangaroo Island, Tumbarumba and some vineyards in north-eastern Victoria were damaged, Wine Australia has reported, and Hunter Valley and Canberra are among the regions most significantly impacted by smoke as they were closer to vintage and the impact of smoke is greater as grapes ripen.

The damage in Adelaide Hills was concentrated towards the north and east (see map); while the devastation was contained, it was complete. The Henschke family lost 24.5 hectares, for example. “The whole lot was burnt,” Prue Henschke told Club Oenologique, “including three hectares of what seems to be only slightly scorched. These blocks have so much damage to their trunks that they too have had to be cut off at the base.”

Vineyards affected by fire, Adelaide Hills wine region, January 2020

But Australian winemakers and growers are a tough breed. They draw on their resilience as individuals and as a community, and also on the resilience of their ancient land. Controlled fires have been used for thousands of years in Australia as a means of clearing land and regenerating growth.  While the ferocity of the 2019 fires was unprecedented, research suggests vines whose root systems are intact will recover, as Bowling hopes.

Henschke said: “In some blocks, vine recovery is up to 95%, in other blocks only 70%,” while Geoff Weaver, at his eponymous vineyard in Lenswood, is seeing green shoots. “The vines that had their leaves scorched to a crisp should, with careful pruning, be back in action for the 2021 harvest.”

Geoff Weaver with a regenerating vine

The wine community also looks after its own. When Tim Kirk at Clonakilla in New South Wales reported that smoke taint across all their vineyards meant he could make no wine in 2020, Yalumba winemaker Louisa Rose offered Viognier and Shiraz fruit from Eden Valley, and Tom Carson at Yabby Lake Vineyard supplied Pinot Noir from Mornington Peninsula.

Henschke reports an army of helpers, from students to staff returning early from holidays (“a fantastic gang”). One day, “the Army Reserve helped pile up the burnt posts and ash left behind in the vineyard, to prevent contamination of the waterways”; many other producers have similar stories.

The crisis of coronavirus is another order of disaster, but there’s almost a sense among already punch-drunk winemakers that the pandemic is just one more thing to deal with

“We’re now facing a situation where we have lost 90% of our customers due to restaurants and hospitality venues being shut down, and exports grinding to a complete halt almost overnight,” Bowley said. Or, as Henschke put it, “an extra concern we didn’t need”.

Geoff Weaver east forest 1
Geoff Weaver East Forest

The bushfires have taken a terrible toll, but recovery is underway. For most, there is no question but that they will continue: “If I’d won $40m in the lottery last December, I’d still be making wine,” David Bowley said “You might lose everything but the mindset doesn’t change”.

There’s also a feeling that almost all that was lost can eventually be recovered. Even Geoff Weaver, who paints vibrant canvasses of his beloved hills, and who lost almost half of his paintings in the fire, sees the silver lining. “It’s brought home the truth of the old saying, ‘You only have what you give away’. The pictures I gave to my friends are the ones that survived.”