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Tough vintage for eastern Victoria's winemakers battling bushfires, drought, birds and bats

Isabella Pittaway, Tuesday April 16, 2019 - 06:42 EST
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Jinks Creek Winery owner Andrew Clarke lost his home, cellar door, winery and vines to the Bunyip State Park bushfire. - ABC

Bushfires, drought, birds and bats — this year's vintage has been a tough one for eastern Victoria's winemakers.

destroyed the Jinks Creek Winery in West Gippsland and saw other wineries lose much of their crop to smoke taint.

It was a vintage Jinks Creek owner Andrew Clarke would rather forget.

Last month on a Sunday, Mr Clarke was due to start picking his grapes when a bushfire swept through his Tonimbuk property destroying his home, winery, and cellar door, as well as burning vines that had been planted in 1979.

"We lost our business, our livelihood, and our home," Mr Clarke said.

"I think one of the things I'm realising is how ferocious this fire was; it really was incredibly intense.

"I'm contemplating the future and it's a lot to get your head around."

Smoke-tainted vintage

Adding to Mr Clarke's pain, the grapes on the vines that were not burnt cannot be used because of smoke taint.

Instead, the grapes will be left on the vine for birds and bees to feast on.

"[The grapes] were looking fantastic, but I lost the whole year's production," Mr Clarke said.

"The smoke taint just ruins them and the wines end up smelling like an ashtray, so there's not much point processing them."

The fire also destroyed barrels of shiraz and chardonnay from last year's vintage.

Mr Clarke estimated that alone would have cost about half a million dollars.

Community lends a picking hand

In East Gippsland, winemakers were rushing to harvest their crop to avoid smoke taint from various fires in the region.

Glenmaggie Wines put a call out on social media to try to get help with picking at short notice.

Marketing manager Fleur Dawkins said they were inundated with offers.

"It was incredible. We had hundreds of people respond on Facebook; it was a wonderful response from our community," Ms Dawkins said.

"We were in a really tough situation, we had to get the crop off really quickly and we couldn't find backpackers who usually pick our crop.

"So in the end we did get the crop off in half the time we usually do, which was fantastic."

The ongoing drought has also forced wineries in East Gippsland to crush earlier — if they were fortunate enough to have irrigation. Those without won't harvest a drop.

"This year the drought has been very tricky for most of the East Gippsland wineries," said Glenmaggie Wines' Tony Dawkins.

"Generally those with water have got through, but anyone with a dry vineyard essentially got no fruit at all."

Birds play havoc

Birds also created problems with many winemakers reporting large groups on the hunt for water and food.

"Bird pressure this year was unbelievable. We've had more birds than I've ever seen before," Mr Dawkins said.

One East Gippsland winery has also reported bats targeting their fruit, something they had not experienced before.

Despite being thrown a few hurdles, Mr Dawkins said there was a positive — drought years often meant more intense wine.

"On the bright side, when you have a drought you usually get very intense fruit and that's exactly what we got this year," Mr Dawkins said.

"Bunch size and berry size are small but the flavours are fantastic, and so far they're translating into the wines.

"It was tricky towards the end, but we got through."


© ABC 2019

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