Leading The Bushfire Recovery for Australian Winemakers

The 2019/2020 summer bushfires significantly impacted many of the growers we work with at Cassegrain. Those whose vineyards were not completely razed were left with damaged fruit rendered unusable for winemaking. We’re thrilled to be part of a major research project dedicated to mitigating the effects of smoke taint for future vintages and getting Australian winemakers back on their feet. Here’s something good that has eventuated.

The 2019/2020 Bushfires had a devastating impact on wineries across much of Australia. At Cassegrain, we source our grapes from eight diverse regions across NSW to create distinctive regional wines, from Tumbarumba in the south near Canberra to New England in the north. The 2019/2020 summer bushfires significantly impacted many of the growers we work with and has meant that much of the wine we’d normally produce from the 2020 vintage was unable to be picked. Those whose vineyards were not completely razed by the flames were left with blocks of fruit damaged by smoke taint and therefore rendered unusable for winemaking.

In total, it is estimated that 40,000 tonnes of wine grapes were lost across Australia in last year’s bushfires, and after a season where so many vineyards were affected by smoke taint, we are excited to be part of a major research project dedicated to mitigating the effects of smoke taint.

What is smoke taint?

Both science and art are involved in winemaking. ‘Terroir’ refers to the specific environmental factors and conditions that give a wine its unique characteristics. The landscape can positively impact the quality of the wine – elements such as soil quality, the flavour of the wind, and the balance of rain and sunshine. However environmental phenomena such as drought and bushfires can also have an adverse impact on winemaking.

There’s one factor that has long been hard to predict and is near impossible to control: bushfire smoke. Smoke causes ‘smoke taint’, which causes grapes to taste bitter, smoky and ashy, effectively destroying entire harvests and spelling disaster for growers, winemakers and businesses that rely on the wine trade. In some cases, you can see, taste and smell the damage to the fruit on the vine, however in other cases, the ‘tainted’ fruit can look perfectly good and you can’t taste or smell the smoke taint until after you’ve processed the grapes during winemaking. This poses a huge problem for vignerons who not only lose entire harvests overnight, but who can also unknowingly ruin an entire vintage. At Cassegrain we have joined a new research project that aims to help with some of this uncertainty and protect Australian winemaking into the future.

Helping Australian winemakers bounce back from bushfires

Cassegrain wines have joined an innovative national research project backed by the Federal government to investigate the effects of smoke taint. We are pioneering new techniques that will help protect jobs and livelihoods in the face of future fires. Our winery is leading the $2.3 million Cooperative Research Centres project to commercially develop new methodologies and strategies for the Australian wine industry to manage tainted fruit. This work will help Australian winemakers and growers rise from the ashes of the devastating 2019/2020 bushfires.

“I am very pleased to be working with Australia’s leading wine scientists and using the latest, ground-breaking technologies to develop new ways of mitigating the impacts of smoke taint,” says Alex Cassegrain, our Senior winemaker at Cassegrain Wines, who is leading the industry research component of the project.

“We work with grape growers from eight regions across NSW and have witnessed the devastating effect of the 2019/2020 bushfires on the region and our industry. Cassegrain Wines has a proud winemaking tradition but appreciate the importance of new technology in ensuring we produce nothing but the best quality wine, to maintain the future sustainability of the industry.”

The research will be focused on understanding, trialling and testing how new and existing technologies can help grape growers and winemakers remove or mitigate smoke taint from premium wines. Professor Kerry Wilkinson, a world leader in smoke taint research, is leading concurrent research at the University of Adelaide. The aim: delivering real-word solutions that can be rolled out across Australia and other wine-making parts of the world that are affected by bushfires, such as California. The project is also supported by a number of other industry and research partners including international technology company Ligar, which is at the forefront of molecular imprinted polymer technology – a very promising smoke taint treatment process. Other project partners include The Australian Wine Research Institute, VA Filtration, Dr Megan O’Connor from De Beaurepaire Wines.

Vines destroyed by bushfires

“I’m glad that we will be at the forefront of research and development, to get some more understanding and to put our finger on what to do if it happens again, and know what our options are,” says Alex.

Bushfires and smoke taint pose an ongoing threat to the long-term economic viability of the Australian wine industry. It’s an industry worth $45.5 billion that employs around 165,000 people, many in the country’s regional areas. So, it’s vital work for a homegrown industry that will deliver clear economic and social benefits for years to come.

Dealing with the challenges that Mother Nature throws at us are just part of the challenges of making wine. However, hopefully the findings of this work will help in future vintages to ensure that we can continue to produce the exceptional wines that our customers know and love.

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