Food Wine Produce
26/02/2020
Winemakers confront the challenges of climate change

Terryn and Andrew Hickinbotham have pioneered viticulture and winemaking at Hickinbotham of Dromana since the early 1980s, and their commitment to organic principles and sustainability is as ingrained as their ability to consistently produce award-winning, top-class wines. Now they are being forced to adapt to the challenges of climate change. Andrew explains how they are meeting those challenges and what governments could do to help ensure the future viability of viticulture and agriculture on the Mornington Peninsula. 

We are blessed with water on three sides of our ‘Italian boot’, thereby moderating the climate so heat peaks are mellowed, promising a longer ripening season and leading to more balanced flavour profiles in the grapes. Unlike northern climates which propel the grapes straight to high sugar content and unbalanced acidity, our wines become more moderated between the components of flavour. 

Enter vintage 2019. Two hundred tonnes of grapes of 14 different varieties all ripening at the same time and around four weeks earlier than normal; 31 days straight of picking grapes that should have been picked over three months. This inordinate picking was the same in all regions of Australia, which may be why people consider the grape-growing industry the ‘canary in the coal mine’ indicator of climate change. 

Then comes vintage 2020 and the bushfires. No winter rain to speak of, leading to super-dry subsoil conditions, which bode bad tidings for the growing season, and just as the season changed in December, we hit flowering. A bit like September spring break, but in early December. Cold, wet conditions led to aborted flower fertilisation, resulting in some varieties not being able to conjugate the grape. Consequently, we have small bunches of infertile grapes — as much as 80 per cent less than expected bunch weight, which will deliver crippling picking costs and mediocre returns for those growing grapes. 

Will this mean high quality in the winery? Well, that’s up to the smoke taint testing. We are told to not lose hope. Continue the harvest as if everything is normal. Then send samples of all varieties off to the laboratory to determine if the ‘smoke event days’ have affected the grapes above the threshold level of making the wine, or whether we just leave the grapes on the vine for the birds to feast. 

As far as ripening goes for this 2020 vintage, by mid-February the grapes hadn’t yet changed colour. A complete reversal of last year’s scenario. The grapes are as much as four weeks behind last year, and picking won’t start until mid-March — which was when we finished last year. Global warming is the overarching issue, but it’s further mitigated by this climate chaos! 

To alleviate this challenging phenomenon, we have removed some old grapevines and replaced them with southern European varieties such as tempranillo and lagrein. Both varieties are showing amazing promise and resilience to the heat. The wines are intriguing and delicious. 

The way we prepare for the extreme heat days is to pour as much water on the vines through our irrigation system as possible. This gives the vines essential reserves to allow for excessive transpiration caused by exposure to extreme temperatures. The Eastern Treatment Plant in Bangholme produces 330 million litres of water a day. Much of this is released into the ocean at Gunnamatta from an outfall pipeline that traverses the Peninsula. 

The Peninsula’s agricultural industry is very keen to encourage the State Government and Melbourne Water to consider further improvements in water treatment so that this water can be used on various crops and grazing lands. Surely this must be the single most important thing on any government agenda to improve our region’s productivity. 

One treatment plant at the start of the Peninsula could provide as much water as we need to improve our lives.

ANDREW HICKINBOTHAM

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