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Australian wine industry setbacks could see many small players go out of business

By Michael Condon and Lucy Thackray, Thursday September 10, 2020 - 14:15 EST
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Mudgee wine maker Jacob Stein has changed the way he makes wine to overcome smoke taint. - ABC

The wine industry has dealt with multiple shocks this year, perhaps more than any other rural sector, and there are fears that some smaller businesses will go bust.

Lawyer Will Taylor, who has been advising wine companies for decades, said the industry was facing a terrible time in the coming year.

"This could be terminal for a number of small to medium players in the industry."

The Adelaide-based lawyer from legal firm Finlaysons said the industry would need to work hard to find markets for wine.

"We're going to have to redouble our efforts in terms of trying to bring back the American market, and we're going have to look seriously at some other alternative markets," he said.

"People have to remember that was only a few years ago that we just kind out of a decade-long recession in the wine industry.

"That recession lasted 12 years, depending upon the business and depending upon where you were in the country.

"Then we had a few good years and then and then we had the worst drought since Federation."

A horror vintage

Mr Taylor said he had never known a period when so many shots had been fired at one sector all at once.

"It was a short vintage. People suffered pretty serious frosts. We had a lot of wind flaring in a number of places and poor fruit set so in many areas they've had very low yields."

"Then the horrendous bushfires in a number of parts of the country particularly in the east, but also in the Adelaide Hills."

"A number of vineyards actually got burnt and then there was that the fallout from … the smoke which is pretty severe.

"Then, to top that off a virus which causes real difficulties during vintage, in terms of distancing and hygiene [creating] really difficult logistical problems.

"Finally a week or so ago we get a major export market in China coming out with investigations on subsidies and the anti-dumping investigation and the countervailing duties investigation and the threat of tariffs."

Mudgee wine makers making tough decisions

In the Mudgee wine-growing region in the central west of New South Wales, some vignerons had to completely abandon their vintage due to smoke taint.

David Lowe from Lowe Wines is one of many winemakers who decided not to harvest, but he said it was a necessary move because of the style of wine he produced and the long time he gave the wines to mature.

"We know the longer you leave the wine the more likely it could change form to a bad smell and a negative characteristic."

With no grapes, there will be no wine which will hurt him financially.

"It's the loss of income down the track, and the impact is felt over two to three years."

He said it was the hardest decision he has ever had to make, but it was necessary to protect his the quality of his wine.

"Reputation has taken me 40 years to build but it only takes one season to ruin.

'We've dodged a bullet'

David Lowe said he was optimistic about the season ahead. He said there were ways to protect the grapes from smoke taint.

"There are polymers to spray on fruit to reduce the absorption of carbon molecules on the skin or [you can] harvest earlier to avoid the accumulation of smoke taint."

He has looked at changing grape varieties so that they mature at different times as a way of spreading the risk of damage from fire or smoke, and he has experimented with techniques to obscure the smoke taint with native herbs flavours.

Meanwhile, Jacob Stein from Robert Stein wines decided to harvest his grapes.

"It was the hardest decision I've ever had to make, but I'm so happy we went through with it."

He has his own winery, so going ahead with the vintage was a way to keep staff on and the machinery operating.

He has made three successful wines, including two whites and a rose.

"They're slightly different to normal, but they've still got real character, and they've got no smoke taint."

So far, consumers have been positive.

"We haven't had one person bring up anything negative about those wines."

He is relieved that his decision to go ahead has paid off.

"We've dodged a bullet, but I'll never be able to nail just what we did."


© ABC 2020

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