Hunter Valley grapes sent to be tested for smoke taint after bush fires

Hundreds of Hunter Valley wine enthusiasts are currently in the process of Vintage 2020 (V20).

A 'vintage' involves picking, crushing, fermenting and bottling thousands of tonnes of grapes to curate the perfect bottle of red, white or bubbles.

The majority of the Hunter Valley's most prestigious vineyards are located on the southern valley and foothills of the Brokenback Range (a section of the Great Dividing Range) in areas such as Broke.

The Broke Fordwich sub region includes the communities of Broke, Bulga, Fordwich and Milbrodale all located within Singleton LGA.

More than third-quarter of the vineyard land in this area is dedicated to Chardonnay, Semillon, Verdelho, Shiraz, Pinot Noir and Merlot.

In the last three months, bushfires have heavily affected these areas of the Upper Hunter, resulting in varying levels of damage to the Broke community, including some V20 crops.

Despite hazardous and uncontrolled bush fires terminating late last year, controlled back burning operations are still underway within these regions. Similar to any fire, there is still smoke from these operations consuming the regions air.

Fifth generation Chris Tyrrell from Tyrrell's wines spoke with the Singleton Argus last week regarding the effects these fires will have on V20. "We have picked Verdelho from the Upper Hunter near Denman, and we have done a tiny block of Chardonnay in the crush," he explained.

"We have sent grapes from every vineyard from North to South in the Hunter to be tested for smoke taint.

"We normally crush about 1500 tonnes of fruit each vintage so it will be interesting to see if we make those numbers this year."

Last week as a collective, the Hunter Valley Vineyard Association sent off roughly 110 fruit samples from thirty different Hunter Valley wineries to The Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) in Adelaide to be tested for smoke taint.

"The Hunter Valley Vineyard Association sent off a bunch of samples as a collective, of all different grape varieties and differing geographical locations," he continued.

"We have also been conducting some micro fermentation's, which is basically where you get a couple of kilos of grapes and crush them up yourself then ferment them on a small scale.

"A combination of wineries are doing these micro ferments and these testing results will hopefully give people a bit of an idea on where we sit for V20.

"There are a lot of people already picking and that are happy with their micro ferments so some wineries are on their way.

"It's going to be an interesting vintage, every vintage has their challenges but obviously with the smoke hanging over our heads so to speak is a new challenge for us."

Thankfully, there have been no physical vineyards burnt or lost in this time of crisis.

"We're lucky that no one here in the Hunter Valley has lost any of their vineyards however I know in both Adelaide Hills and in Tumbarumba south of NSW there has been some severe vineyard damage, literally vines burnt to the ground," he added.

Fourth generation Bruce Tyrrell (Chris's father) witnessed the 1968 fires which heavily affected the 1969 crop for vintage. "The whole Hunter was on fire in 68, we literally had fire on our front door steps," he said.

"The wine produced from that vintage had characters that were definitely not desirable."

Results from the AWRI and small scale fermentation's are expected to be in this week, until then it is 'business as usual' in the Hunter.

BROKE: Vineyards at the foothills of the Brokenback Mountains in Broke Fordwich. Picture taken late December 2019.

BROKE: Vineyards at the foothills of the Brokenback Mountains in Broke Fordwich. Picture taken late December 2019.