Family-owned winemaker Brown Brothers has been growing grapes in Victoria since the 1880s.
The company was founded by John Francis Brown, but established its reputation and success under his son John Charles Brown.
When John returned to Milawa in regional Victoria after finishing boarding school in 1958, he harvested his first vintage of grapes in the early days of April.
Fifty years later, the grapes are off the vines by April, with picking often starting in February. Within a generation, the harvest start date has shifted along with the climate in the valley.
It’s a dramatic indication of how climate change is affecting the way we make wine in Australia.
“It’s probably more apparent in terms of earlier ripening, more rapid ripening and more compact vintages,” said Brett McClen, Brown Brothers’ chief viticulturist, responsible for six vineyards in Victoria and Tasmania.
“We are working with shorter time frames. Once upon a time a vintage would have taken 100 days but we do the bulk of it within 60 days,” he said.
This earlier and compressed vintage poses a real challenge right through the chain of production.
“It puts enormous pressure on the processing logistics, the winery infrastructure,” said Mr McClen.
“You can only put a certain number of grapes through processing at a time. These days we do a lot of white varieties and they require refrigeration as well.”
A condensed harvest means the clock is ticking for growers, who have to get the fruit off the vine before it is over-ripe. Riper fruit makes for higher alcohol wines, which is great if you’re 18 and looking to get smashed, but hurts winemakers.
“Quality can be impacted by higher alcohol levels and it impacts export markets,” explained Mr McClen.
“There is a consumer preference for lighter, lower alcohol wines. Some of the big overseas retailers actually don’t want alcohol levels over a certain per cent.”
As a response to the changing climate in Victoria, Brown Brothers have invested in vineyards in Tasmania. In 2010 they purchased land in Tamar Ridge and on the island’s east coast.
According to Mr McClen, this was a response to both climate change and consumer interest in wines Tasmania excels at such as pinot noir.
While he sees a strong future for wine in Victoria, the Tasmanian investment is about adapting and risk mitigation.
“Brown Brothers is a multi-generational business,” he said. “They are willing to take a 50-year approach to things.”
Some in the Tasmanian wine industry, like Jeremy Dinnen, the head of Josef Chromy Wines in Relbia, near Launceston, see the upside to climate change.
“Climate change means Tasmania is becoming a pretty attractive place to grow grapes,” said Mr Dinnen, who is also a Board of Wine Tasmania director.
“Given where we are, the impact will be not as great as the mainland. There are effects but they are milder.
“It also opens up opportunity for new parts of the island to grow that previously wouldn’t have been suitable.”
But even in Tasmania they are experiencing an earlier and more condensed harvest.
“Our latest harvest was the earliest on record, almost a week earlier than it was 20 years ago,” said Mr Dinnen.
It’s not just Australian wine growers that are affected by climate change. Production is taking a hit globally. The International Organisation of Vine and Wine found that 2016’s estimated wine output will be down 5 per cent on 2015, the lowest level in 20 years.
El Niño is impacting Latin American growers, particularly in Chile and Argentina.
A 2014 study found that rising temperatures and sea levels could render traditional grape-growing areas unsuitable, with famous wine territories like the Napa Valley and Santa Barbara in California potentially losing up to 50 per cent of their acreage in the next 50 years.
It’s possible that climate change was, in fact, responsible for record wine production over the last half century, especially countries like France, Italy, Spain and Australia, where warmer temperatures helped wine production and quality.
“Ten or 15 years ago you got to the peak of maximum production and we are now on the downward slide,” said Dr Sigfredo Fuentes, a senior lecturer in wine science at the University of Melbourne and international coordinator of The Vineyard of The Future Initiative.
Dr Fuentes believes as these trends continue, the industry will have more bad vintages like 2011, which will undermine industry profits and damage brands.
“That was a terrible year, a really wet year. No one will buy wine from that year,” he said.
According to Dr Fuentes, winemakers are surveying cooler climes, not only in Australia but globally.
“Britain is now producing good sparkling wine in the south. They haven’t done that since Roman times,” he said.
“Chilean winemakers are planting wines at the same latitude as New Zealand.”
Despite all this, Dr Fuentes believes Australia is well prepared to offset some of the worst effects of climate change on the industry.
He has been using unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor vineyards, using remote sensing techniques to obtain crop information such as plant water status, canopy structure and vigour and plant nutritional status.
Liz Riley, an independent viticulturist who works with around 20 clients in NSW’s Hunter Valley and Orange regions, also believes the Australian wine industry will be able to adapt to climate change.
“Every season you learn more, try more, and experiment more,” she said.
“This has made farmers a lot more proactive. We are playing around with things like sun screens and various diverse risk management strategies.
“I’m encouraging my clients to try out different grapes. I’ll get them to plant three vines of something, not a harvestable volume, just to see how it goes.”
But if the Australian wine industry is to successfully adapt to climate change, the Australian wine consumer will have to change too.
“It’s really hard to change the perspective and taste of the buyer,” said Chelsea Joy Jarvis, a University of Melbourne doctoral student studying the impact of El Niño on grape growing seasons in Australia.
“In California, they have been trying to promote new wines for some time, yet consumers still opt for cabernet and chardonnay. You need a strong media push behind you, behind whatever variety you are trying to grow.
“The consumer needs to be educated about these new varieties. Currently, there are so many choices available that consumers experience decision fatigue.”
Regardless of where Australian wine makers are growing — from the Hunter Valley to the Tamar Valley — climate change is making its presence felt. It’s creating big challenges for an industry already dealing with so much, including a more competitive market here and overseas.
The excitement the Tasmanian industry might feel is outweighed by a greater concern that winemaking on the mainland will be harder and harder on growers and makers.
Winemakers are adapting, and consumers need to be open to changing their wine drinking habits. There is no doubt that higher temperatures will mean higher alcohol content, compressed vintages and higher risks for our winemakers.