Tasmanian wine producers look to a warmer future

Saturday, 26. January 2019 - 4:30

Craigie Knowe by Jack Brogan

A few hundred meters from the Tasman highway, Glenn and Sandy Travers attend to their vineyard. Craigie Knowe is situated on Tasmania’s Freycinet coast near Wineglass Bay, a spectacular inlet secluded in the island’s eastern hills. Today, Sandy has been out working on the vines, as Poppy, the vineyard dog, lounges in the shade in the winery’s outdoor picnic area.

Everything feels settled in; Tasmanian harvest variation has been minimal, with the majority winemakers reporting good to excellent quality harvests throughout the last five seasons. Last year was particularly stellar, with the 16,280 tonne harvest being the largest ever on record.

Craigie Knowe is also expanding, having recently signed a long-term lease on a nearby vineyard, where the Travers now grow their “white label” Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir Rosé.

While Australia’s wine producing regions are often lauded as warm by international standards, Tasmania is an example of a genuine cool climate. Average temperatures in some regions of the island state are similar to those found in Northern France, or Oregon.

Craigie Knowe’s wines embody classic features of wine produced in temperate climates; the estate Pinot Noir is delicate and well balanced, without sacrificing structure. The good times are reflected in the tasting room, a cozy, renovated barn next to the vines. When quality and yields are at a high, it’s easy to feel relaxed.

This relaxation has a shelf-life.

A warmer future
A study published by the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture predicts that Northern Tasmania will warm to a climate similar to that of Coonawarra, South Australia by 2070. By 2100, the average temperature of Tasmania is projected to increase by a full 2.9°C as a result of global climate change. For comparison, this is as if Southern Burgundy warmed to the climate of Bordeaux, and eventually to that of Piedmont, Italy by 2100.

Winemakers are already feeling the effects of climate change on the cool southerly island state, located between Australia’s mainland and the Antarctic tundra. For example, Tasmanian researchers have noted that while the rate of frost events has been declining, the frosts that do occur are much more severe, and occur at different times. Tasmania recently experienced a severe frost event in late October after bunches had already developed, and another borderline event in November. In extreme site-specific frost events, Tasmanian winemakers in the past have lost upwards of 80% of their total yield.

“There’s an awareness that things are changing,” says Michael Frost, a Sydney-based wine merchant and manager of the Australian Wine Centre. While Australian winemakers have produced highly-rated vintages in recent years, some, including Frost, believe there’s cause for concern.

Tasmania, though small, is a force in the Australian wine industry. Though it produces less than 1% of the Australian wine output, it accounts for nearly 5% of the national wine grape value. When this success hinges on a classic cool-climate, this may prove to be dangerous territory for Tasmania.

The region, however, is poised to adapt.

Choice of vine
“Your biggest adaption opportunity is your plant,” says Dr. Fiona Kerslake, who is a research fellow of agriculture at the University of Tasmania, specialising in viticulture. She says that winemakers are able to plan ahead using climate modeling done by the university in conjunction with the Tasmanian government. “If a certain paddock is really well-suited to sparkling grapes now, your plan might be to produce sparkling wines for the next 20 years, but your business plan might incorporate switching that over to table wine production in the future,” she says. “But if it’s suitable for table wines now… well, do you really want to plant Pinot? Is that going to be your best option?”

Pinot Noir is currently the state’s most popular wine grape, accounting for just under half of all varieties grown in Tasmania in 2018, with Chardonnay coming a distant second, holding just over a quarter of the total harvest. While winemakers can continue to grow Pinot Noir in a continuously warming climate, it runs the risk of becoming “fat and overblown,” according to Dr Kerslake, losing much of its acidity and elegance.

Winemakers who are planting new vines have options. Depending on where on the island they plant, the variety breakdown can balance both those that can thrive now (and have set Tasmania apart from the rest of Australia), and those that are long-term investments. But what of established vineyards, where vines are already planted?

Craigie Knowe is lucky. When the vineyard was planted in 1979, founder John Austwick decided to produce a Bordeaux-blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. While this particular blend is suited to Tasmania’s cool-climate, Cabernet Sauvignon in particular—as evidenced by mainland Australia—can thrive in the warmth. “We’re quite excited because it’s going to get easier and easier,” says Sandy Travers. The Cabernet, already a centerpiece of the winery, is poised become one of Craigie Knowe’s more stable crops.

In 2018, Cabernet Sauvignon made up only 1% of the Tasmanian harvest, according to a vintage report published by the Tasmanian government. As temperatures rise, varieties like Cabernet and Shiraz (0.4%) could see an uptick in their production, although this would pit the state against other, more notable Cabernet producers around the world.

This raises a big question mark over Tasmania’s trademark Pinot: does the region’s most popular varietal have an expiry date?

“Not this century,” says Dr Kerslake.

Tasmania has yet to capitalise on much of the potential vineyard-suitable space in the region. In particular, there is a fair amount of cooler, higher-altitude real estate where little-to-no winemaking is happening yet. As average temperatures begin to rise, these spaces could prove vital to Pinot’s survival. “As long as we can get the irrigation water to these higher-altitude areas, we will be able to continue to produce elegant, finessed Pinots into the next century,” says Dr Kerslake.

For now, Craigie Knowe can continue to bask in its mild climate. Barring disaster, the next few vintages should continue to be exceptional. The winery’s diverse varieties may prove key to long-term sustainability.

While climate change has already begun to meddle with winemaking and will continue to present new agricultural pressures, Tasmanians are preparing for the future and won’t be caught off-guard.

“We have a lot of options, and a lot of different paths that we can go down to mitigate the changes we see coming through,” says Dr Kerslake.
Jack Brogan