Australia Assesses Fire Damage

This article first appeared in Spectator, 2009
Tyson Stelzer

Months after a record heat wave in February helped spark a wave of devastating wildfires across Australia’s southern state of Victoria, the country’s wine industry is beginning to come to grips with the extent of damage to vineyards, wineries and lives. It was the deadliest bushfire disaster in Australia’s history, killing more than 200 people, devastating more than 1.1 million acres of land and leaving 7,500 people homeless.

The forested mountain areas north of the Yarra Valley were the hardest hit in terms of lost property and lives. Bushfire damage to vineyards was most severe in the northwest of the Yarra Valley. “We estimate that about 350 acres of vineyards have been affected,” says Yarra Valley Wine Growers’ Association vice president Graham Van der Meulen. That’s about 5 percent of the area under vine across the valley. “Regrettably, the Yarra Yarra and Roundstone wineries were destroyed,” Van der Meulen adds. The association reports that 29 wineries suffered damage to buildings or equipment.

Contrary to early fears that vines would not survive, it appears vineyards will recover within the next couple of years. “I don’t think the vines are dead, they’ve just been burnt,” says Steve Webber, chief winemaker at De Bortoli, who had fires tear through 5 acres of vineyard. “It’s only burnt the weeds, a few posts and the vine leaves. We’ve been irrigating and it wouldn’t surprise me if the vines start shooting green shoots again soon.”

Fruit from vineyards directly hit by the fires has been unsalvageable. “Tests on juice samples show that there is smoke character in grapes from fire-damaged vineyards,” says Dr. Tony Jordan, president of the Yarra Valley Wine Growers’ Association. “These grapes won’t be harvested. Similar sampling from a number of vineyards across the valley that were not fire damaged showed no smoke taint.”

The fires coincided with the start of harvest in the Yarra Valley. Even though most fruit escaped the smoke, record heat wave conditions diminished the crop through leaf burn and grape shrivel. Van der Meulen estimates that between 20 and 30 percent of the crop was lost due to heat across the whole valley.

For those less fortunate, gestures of assistance have poured in from around Australia and the world. The Australian Red Cross has raised more tens of millions of dollars for fire victims. Wineries have lent assistance of their own, offering barrels, fermentation space, fruit and even staff to affected wineries. Wine shops in Australia, California and other regions held fundraisers to help the industry, and the Australian people, get back on their feet.