AGRICULTURE:

Australian winemakers in bruising battle with climate change

Winemakers in Australia are getting a taste of what extreme weather can do to their crops, sending them scrambling to prepare for the tougher years ahead.

Vineyards in grape-growing regions of the country could soon see an increase in pests as well as a dramatic shift in ripening patterns and flavor profiles, scientists say. But farmers who want to break from tradition by planting hardier, more drought-resistant grapevines risk getting shut out of the market, creating a climate change Catch-22.

"We know that certain varieties work better, but the reality is we're still beholden to the market as to what we plant and what we can sell," said Ashley Keegan, the operations CEO of Fabal, a management company that oversees about 3,700 acres of grapes.

Growers must cater to large wineries that meet domestic and international demand for specific, regional brands that companies have spent decades advertising. Thus, farmers are still likely to plant the customary varieties even if it doesn't make sense when looking at future climate predictions, Keegan added.

"We're operating in a very challenging commercial environment," he said. "We need to literally manage those situations to be in a position to manage the longer term."

That's enough to upend an entire $5.5 billion industry that employs tens of thousands of farmers. In a normal environment, the average vineyard uses about 300,000 gallons of water per acre, making rising temperatures a serious problem, said Chris Day, a CEO for Fabal.

When high temperatures and lower-than-normal rainfall compromised major water sources in years past, Keegan supervised the development of a $10 million, 26-mile pipeline that funneled water to growers. The company has also invested in desalination plants and dam infrastructure to meet increasing water demands.

Crop-destroying conditions

Despite such planning, Fabal wasn't prepared for the extreme rains that submerged Australian vineyards last year, putting their plants at risk for diseases like "wet feet," a colloquial term for root rot. For the past two years, farmland under Day's watch has flooded, a "disaster" for the company. Overall, production capacity has dropped about 20 percent, he said.

"The extremes that we've experienced in the past decade have forced us into a position where we've had to be climate change ready," Keegan said. "Our business has been very heavily focused on managing the immediate climate change conditions that are in front of it."

Long droughts followed by harsh rains could mean bankruptcy for small farmers. Without access to funding, there's little for them to do but hope for the best and take comfort in the fact that they're not alone. The same problems ail wine regions in Northern California, where Stanford University scientists predict a 50 percent reduction in land suitable for growing premium wine grapes by 2040.

Like in Australia, rising temperatures have increased the risk of crop-destroying molds in Californian grapes. For example, if a fungus such as Aspergillus, also known as "black rot," infects the leaves of a plant, it disrupts the growing cycle and prevents grapes from ripening, said Leanne Webb, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New South Wales.

In wetter, more humid climates, fungi such as Botrytis are more likely to be a problem. This rot cracks open individual berries, allowing yeast to infiltrate the fruit and multiply, producing a vinegarlike taste within the grape. It's an issue that requires immediate management and can significantly reduce yields if left unchecked.

Trapped between Mother Nature and fussy consumers

But drought, rain and mold constitute just the tip of the iceberg. What really concerns viticulturists is flavor. Shifts in taste could prompt a backlash from consumers who are very particular about the smell and balance of the end product.

"One would think, 'Well, it's warmer, and the grapes are going to ripen more, so simply pick them earlier. What's the problem?'" said California's Tim Hanni, who carries the title master of wine. "Well, it changes the whole basis for the [chemical] composition of the grapes that ultimately define the flavors."

Farmers are at the mercy of Mother Nature, but agriculture's leading lady isn't all doom and gloom. Climate change will make millionaires out of farmers who are business-savvy, Day said.

Some forecasts predict that Tasmania, an island south of Australia, will be prime wine-growing real estate in just a few decades. Though the region is currently unsuitable for high-quality grape production, companies are looking at land in the area, with the idea that it will pay off handsomely in the future, he added.

However, such long-term investments are often a luxury that farmers can't afford. Instead, many Australians focus on immediate problems, with the intent of addressing future climate issues later.

"Most people are worried about their businesses surviving and sustaining themselves for one, two, three years," Keegan said. "It's difficult to get focused on 40- to 50-year timelines at this point."

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