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Bushfires ravage Oz vineyards

Published:  23 July, 2008

By Tina Gellie

Following frosts that ruined 55 per cent of Victoria's grape harvest, bushfires and winds now threaten to decimate what is left.

The Great Divide fire, sweeping across Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, has already consumed 1 million hectares of land as strong winds carry embers more than 15km amid temperatures nearing 40C. Lightning storms and deliberately lit blazes have created further headaches for firefighters.

Jan Minnas, a grape grower in Renmark, in South Australia's Riverland, lost 90 per cent of her crop as 90kmh winds levelled vineyards. The only option I have is to bulldoze the lot,' she said. To bulldoze 34 acres (14ha) of vines and replace all the pipelines, I'm looking at AUS$250,000 (100,000), and I haven't got that. We've had crap prices for our grapes because of this downturn. The price isn't fantastic, but it had given us all hope, and now all my hope is gone.'

Between Kangarilla and Echunga in the Adelaide Hills, a bushfire has claimed 2,000ha, including valuable vine land. Nearby wineries include Annvers, Cawdor and Jupiter Springs.

Frosts, which savaged Victorian vineyards in late September and October, have left a damage bill of AUS$60 million (24m), says Joanne Butterworth-Gray, the chief executive of Australia's Wine Industry Association.

She said this was a conservative estimate, as the flow-on effects will increase growers' woes.

(Vines) take about two years to recover, so in 2007 and 2008 we'll be looking at a 30-40 per cent drop in tonnage,' she said.

Another issue is how and when smoke taint from bushfires affects fruit quality, as was seen in the 2003 harvest. Janelle Boynton of Boynton's Winery in Victoria's north east, said grapes were being tested throughout the Alpine, Gippsland and Dandenong regions - first hit by summer snow and now being ravaged by bushfires - to determine if there has been any changes to flavour.

With temperatures set to soar above 40C, Western Australia is also bracing for bushfires between Kalbarri, 600km north of Perth, to Esperance on the southeast coast - an area covering all the state's wine regions.

Mark McKenzie of Wine Grape Growers Australia said: We've had drought, frost, fire and, in WA, there are now locusts. This will go down as one of the most extraordinary of wine seasons.'