Rising Temperatures Uncork New Challenges and Opportunities For Australia’s Wine Industry

how climate change affects wine in australia

Wine is one of life’s greatest gift (in my opinion). Truly. Romans believed wine was a daily necessity, so they made it available to slaves, peasants, women and aristocrats alike. In classical Greek culture, wine was the staple around which philosophy, art, poetry, religion, music and political life revolved.

Wise men drank wine to expand their minds and praise the gods. Proof that the more wine I drink, the smarter I get? Maybe not, but a girl can hope. In Medieval England, wine was a symbol of status. Drinking it placed you a cut above the general population. Need I mention the Bible? By now, you can probably conclude that wine, something so old that no one knows how it started or who invented it, is the lifeblood of culture. Sorry, non-alcoholics, but thankfully, you have zero-alc wines now.

Throughout the centuries yes, wine has been around for many centuries. Again, need I mention the Bible? Wine has survived plagues, natural disasters, wars, and everything else history has thrown at it. And yet, climate change, a symptom of the 21st century, poses a significant threat to the global wine industry. What will a world without wine look like? Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.

Ironically, wine is one of the most sensitive agricultural products. The geology, terrain, soil composition, and, notably, temperature all play crucial roles in dictating which grape varieties thrive and influence the resulting quality and quantity of the harvest. When shifts in climate, such as frost in spring or warmer winters, start occurring frequently, a whole host of issues could arise, from pest infestations to the destruction of an entire vineyard. Wine might be life’s greatest gift, but it’s also temperamental, like a teenager. You never know how it’s going to react.

how climate change affects wine in australia
Photo: Destination NSW

Lying on the slopes of the Great Dividing Range is Mudgee, an emerging wine region in New South Wales, home to some of Australia’s highest vineyards. The climate is temperate, characterised by warm days, cool nights and lots of sunshine with clay-rich soils, perfect for producing a variety of red wines, from which the region gets its nickname “red country.”

It’s here where distinguished Australian winemaker David Lowe decided to make his mark, to change all we thought we knew about wine in Australia with Lowe Wines — look at it as a new world way of thinking.

“Australia had a culture of wine that came from what the English said we should grow and make… We didn’t consider what our region, climate, and resources might do for our land,” says Lowe.

The vines Lowe refers to are the ‘noble varieties,’ such as Syrah, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. These varieties are old-world wines from all over Europe, particularly France and Italy, the winemaking experts.

how climate change affects wine in australia
Photo: Destination NSW

“The Europeans knew more, and we adapted our landscape to bring the Frenchness into our emerging wine industry,” says Lowe.

Although determined to try something different, Lowe ventured down the organic and biodynamic path to produce minimal intervention wines, starting Mudgee’s only certified organic and biodynamic winery. If you ask Lowe, there were a lot of ups and downs, mistakes, and general mishaps starting the winery, “but that’s not uncommon in this business.”

So, what is minimal intervention wine? Well, according to Lowe, first of all, it’s called ‘Lowe-intervention wines’. Secondly, it’s about balancing how and when to intervene to achieve quality and sustainability.

“There’s no way to make wine without any intervention, but we aim not to overstep nature too much, letting the health and quality of the grapes lead our decision-making from the ground up,” he says.

how climate change affects wine in australia
Photo: Destination NSW

David has come to understand that these methods demand patience and dedication before reaping the benefits. What he initially thought could be accomplished within a span of 5-10 years, following his acquisition of a dilapidated vineyard and a farm infested with weeds, has extended to 22 years, and he has only achieved 60% of his intended objective.

Although, in those 22 years, Lowe has seen change.

“I’m not the only winemaker noticing the effects of climate change. In fact, there are people across the industry who are already planning in advance for changing climates in certain wine regions,” he says. “So, what I’m saying is not new.”

What Lowe is saying is that researching the varietals that are going to be better suited to the future climate is happening now across Australia’s wine regions. He refers to a ‘Climate Atlas,’ a free online resource of climate information with projections and detailed information about how the climate may change in the near, mid, and long-term future.

how climate change affects wine in australia

“Reading this document, as a farmer, a producer, I can see what the next 30, 50, even 100 years could look like and what varieties in other parts of the world are experiencing this climate now. I can use this as a precedent to do the things I want to reform.”

According to the Climate Atlas, the average growing season temperature from 1997-2017 was 19.5oC, and the projected temperature will reach 22.8oC by 2081. The Climate Atlas also predicts increasing rainfall and extreme heat days, which will no doubt affect the usual growing season in Mudgee.

To adapt to the future climate, Lowe has planted varieties from Southern Italy—Aglianico, Falanghina, Nero D’Avola, and Gargenega. He jokes he wanted to name the range “the unpronounceable,” but the team was less than amused.

Despite the major impact of climate change across all facets of life, not just the alcohol industry, Lowe sees a silver lining in adapting and changing. As he points out, there is a stark contrast between Italian and Australian wines, emphasising that savouring a local Italian wine is a unique experience distinct from anything found in Australia. This disparity, he explained, arises from cultural distinctions between Italian and Australian winemakers, rooted in their respective traditions, histories, and culinary cultures.

how climate change affects wine in australia

Lowe believes that instead of outright imitation, we could draw inspiration from Italian winemaking practices, infusing an Australian twist to create something distinctive, particularly with the new varietals. He spent time in Italy trying the wines before remaking them in Australia, and he could draw one common thread.

“These wines have weight and flavour, but they’re not heavy. There’s almost a briny saltness to them,” he says. “They’re more food compatible.”

One of the first vintages to be released from the new varietals Lowe planted in what he calls Latin Quarter — an area of the Lowe Wines estate dedicated to varietals with Latin origins conducive to Australia’s changing climate, is a white derived from Sicily.

“We chose Ansonica as it is a late ripener, which makes it a smart choice for the climate challenges we are facing at the moment and for the changes forecast for the next 30 years. It is also compatible with the changing tastes of Australian drinkers enjoying refreshing Mediterranean styles.”

climate change wine
Photo: Luke John Photography

In McLaren Vale, award-winning winemaker Michael Fragos of Chapel Hill is trusting the existing varieties and focussing on continual improvement of soil health and vine health to build resilience in the vineyards in the face of climate change.

“This resilience will help the vines withstand the extreme weather events that we are experiencing,” he says. “We are also exploring ecological restoration at our vineyard to provide the habitat for beneficial fauna as this is also one of the practices that can combat the impact of climate change.”

According to Fragos, McLaren Vale has a Mediterranean climate with low levels of spring and summer rainfall. Although to combat the potential for drier and warmer conditions during the growing season, some growers are exploring Southern European white grape varieties, which are more drought and heat-resistant.

climate change wine
Photo: Chapel Hill Winery

“These grapes also have thicker skins to protect the grapes from sunburn and protect the flavours and characteristics of the grapes,” says Fragos.

Although Fragos and Lowe both agree that no wine region from around the world will be immune from the impacts of climate change. “We are still unsure about the extent of the impact, but the industry is definitely expecting some degree of impact,” Fragos says.

“This could be quite confronting for wine regions because some of these local grape varieties have been grown there for many, many years, and they contribute to the culture and identity of these regions.”

Related: Mudgee Has Many Wineries, But Visiting These 5 Will Make You Seem In-the-Know

Related: These 8 Sustainable Wineries In McLaren Vale Are Straight Out of a Fairy Tale

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