And then it finally rained. 150mm in four days. The grass turned green and the damns got full, and the dry dirt became moist soil once more. It hasn't always been this way, of course. Up until recently, the vines of Hunter Valley Wine Country were in desperate need of a proper drink direct from the sky.
Historically, rain comes standard at this time of year; it's the spur of the old Hunter wine-growing joke - if you can make great wine in the Hunter, you can make it anywhere. The drought, however, has really taken its toll on the winegrowers and their vineyards in Wine Country. Four consecutive vintages without any significant rainfall, made worse by persistent high temperatures and recurrent extreme-heat events; vines blistering by day and baking by night.
"This year, the sub-soil moisture has been completely depleted. Even with irrigation, the vines just struggle to ripen when day time temperatures get above 40C," viticulturist Liz Riley says. "The drought alone has seen average yields decrease anywhere between 40 per cent and 60 per cent."
Thankfully, the vineyard wasn't burnt out, and our house and the fences weren't damaged, either. All we lost was this year's vintage.Rod Windrim, Krinklewood Estate
Sadly, a drought is not as immediately dramatic as a bushfire. Fires get all the headlines.
"The fires came right down both sides of the valley, you could hardly see or breathe. The smoke was so thick it stung your eyes and made your throat sore. It went on for weeks and weeks," recounts winegrower Rod Windrim of Krinklewood Vineyard, near Broke.
The Broke-Fordwich sub-region was the worst affected by the bushfires burning nearby in the Yengo National Park and Corrabare State Forest.
"Thankfully, the vineyard wasn't burnt out, and our house and the fences weren't damaged, either. All we lost was this year's vintage," Windrim says, stoically.
Smoke haze had been visible in the air above the Hunter Valley since late October 2019, when out-of-control bushfires burned to the north, near Port Macquarie. This was only the beginning. As the summer season approached, large fires began burning all around the region, to the north, south, and west of Wine Country.
The subsequent smoke haze got thicker and thicker, heavier and heavier, drifting dangerously and aimlessly on the wind, draining down the slopes of the Brokenback range and encompassing vineyards right throughout the valley.
Still, the winegrowers didn't panic, because the vines hadn't hit veraison, yet. Veraison is the onset of ripening, when the colour of the grape bunch changes. A visual indication that the fruit is almost ready to harvest.
Early enquiries were made about the effect the smoke would have, but it was too soon to tell. The effects of smoke exposure to grapevines varies depending on its stages of growth and development. The most critical stage for potential smoke ingress in grapevines is during and after veraison, when sugars increase and grapes get riper.
"Smoke-taint compounds are made up of volatile phenols that permeate the skin of the grapes and bind to the sugars where they stay and accumulate. The more smoke the grapes are exposed to, the more phenols can bind to the sugars and accumulate in the grapes," says La Trobe University professor and smoke-taint researcher, Dr Ian Porter. "You need to get above a certain threshold of phenol compounds in the grapes to end up with a noticeable sensory taint in wine."
Smoke-taint can manifest itself anywhere between the pleasant smell of bacon to the filthy taste of a used ashtray. It all depends. The science of smoke-taint is still so new. What researchers, like Porter, do know is that the constitution of the smoke particulates - the composition and various levels of specific phenols in the smoke in the air - determines the severity of smoke-taint.
Dr Porter makes it very clear: "It's not wise to dumb it down to just smoke presence equals smoke-taint, because it's not that simple."
"Grape variety, moisture levels, UV radiation, wind direction, geography, topography and distance can all have a variable effect. People think it's just a matter of measuring smoke and assuming that any levels above 100 [g/kg, micrograms per kilogram] will be detrimental. It's just not that simple," Porter explains.
While the smog of millions of hectares of burnt out bush from beyond the Brokenback hung menacingly in the air, nervous winemakers sent off grape samples to the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) as the start of harvest drew near. Under 100g/kg was OK, but, obviously, 30 is better than 90.
Winemakers performed micro-ferments - micro-batch winemaking - to verify the presence or absence of smoke-taint in their grapes. Red wine ferments should show higher signs of taint than white wine ferments, because of the grape skin contact and maceration required to extract colour, which can also extract any volatile phenols.
"It can take months for the smoke to appear in the wine, after you've made it. So, the problem you run into, when conducting these micro-ferments is that you just don't know whether or not you'll see smoke later on down the track," winemaker Rod Kempe of Lake's Folly explains. "You can do everything the boffins recommend (to ameliorate the smoke derived phenols), in terms of processing the fruit; hand picking, chilling and whole bunch pressing, minimising skin contact as much as possible... You can do a micro-ferment and see that it smells and tastes beautiful and think, 'fantastic, we've got no trouble at all'. But, as soon as post-fermentation comes and the wine settles out, you'll go back to it and think 'oh, shit, there it is'."
Kempe decided to pick most of the fruit off the Lake's Folly estate, which included Chardonnay and Shiraz. His results were at the lower end of the smoke-taint spectrum, sitting somewhere between 30-70g/kg across whites and reds.
"To be honest, at the end of the day, if the wine's not up to the standard of the Folly, then we won't sell it. Simple as that... But, we've got levels well under 100, so we're having a go. I've been impressed by what I've seen so far," Kempe says. "But, I go up and down like a bloody yo-yo, because it does, it messes with you."
Andrew Thomas is another Hunter winemaker willing to have a go to try and make the most of a difficult vintage.
"We're having a crack," he says. "We picked all of Braemore (Semillion), because it's got relatively low levels of smoke compounds. Obviously not zero, but much lower than most of the vineyards closer to the mountain. My thought process has been that we pick it, ferment it, and see how it looks. If it's not up to the standard I expect of Braemore, then we won't release it."
Tyrrell's, Brokenwood, Meerea Park, and Agnew Wines, which includes wine brands Audrey Wilkinson, and Pooles Rock have all declared significant crop loss due, in part, to elevated smoke-taint levels.
"We were quite clear in our statement to our members that we weren't speaking on behalf of the whole Valley. There'll be some great wines made this vintage, I have no doubt," Bruce Tyrrell says. "But, as I said to the team before Christmas, 'Everything you do and every thought you have about this vintage has to be predicated with the question, 'what will this do to the value of our brand?'. If the answer is at all negative, then don't do it. Because we've all worked too bloody hard to drag ourselves up to where we are, and one dumb decision will blow that all away."
Following a similar philosophy, Mount Pleasant announced to their members that they won't be making any wine, at all, this vintage.
"We had a hailstorm come through the estate in December and the Old Hill got smashed," says Mount Pleasant winemaker, Adrian Sparks. "So, we wouldn't have made anything from that site anyway. We did micro-ferments for every variety off all the vineyards we have and there wasn't one block that that we were happy with, because of smoke. It was a difficult decision to make, but we just couldn't risk our reputation by making wine that's not up to the standard of Mount Pleasant."
As Sparks notes, even without the smoke from the fires, vintage 2020 would still have been a great challenge for many Hunter winegrowers.
"Yeah, there's smoke, but the biggest issue for me is the drought," says Usher Tinkler of Tinklers and Usher Tinkler Wines. "We've lost at least 40% of our regular crop, this year. It's been so hot and dry... the vines are getting belted by the heat and are too stressed to fully ripen whatever fruit they have."
Despite the mitigating benefits of the irrigation network, which draws water from the Hunter River and distributes it over 500km2 to vineyard properties throughout Wine Country, the ongoing lack of rainfall over the last few years has severely impacted vineyard yields.
"Last year we were down about 30 per cent. This year we're down another 20 per cent. So, our crop is down by at least 50 per cent compared to 2018," Broke-Fordwich winegrower Andrew Margan says. "We have irrigation, which helps a lot, and the vines are relatively healthy. The problem is that the vines set their buds for the next vintage in November, and we've just had one of the driest November's on record. I can't see a lot of fruit being set for next year, unless we get some really decent rain between now and then."
The majority of sites notwithstanding, there are some areas of the Hunter that have kicked against the drought-fuelled trend of lower yields, such as Krinklewood, in Broke.
"Lower yields have not been our experience at all," Rod Windrim says. "We're actually up, on average, by as much as 10%. I put that down to the way we manage our vineyards using biodynamics, which actively encourages soil health and fertility, and also increases our water holding capacity... To be honest, I'd never seen our vines in such perfect balance before. We were anticipating an outstanding vintage, but the fires obviously shattered that for us."
The Hunter Valley has always had a reputation for being an extremely difficult region to grow grapes and make wine. The elements have always been against the region's winegrowers. Rain and hail are typically to blame, and fires have burned before. Most recently in '03, and before that, back in '68, when bushfires ravaged parts of Pokolbin, destroying vineyards, wineries, and other infrastructure.
"I remember there was a ring of fire around the ridge of the mountain, all the way around," Bruce Tyrrell recalls. "I was just a boy, but I remember everything was black... the fire just burnt everything that stood in its way. Of course, in those days, no one knew what smoke-taint was, so it was never discussed."
While it's clear that something has changed, in many ways the challenge of a vintage like 2020 is nothing new. As the oldest continually producing wine region in Australia, the people of the Hunter have a strong culture of cooperation, and a long history supporting and assisting one another through difficult times, such as this. Like all of us, they have an obligation to endure. To struggle against the elements, and any other challenges that beset them as wine producers of one of the world's greatest wine regions.
As Max Lake of Lake's Folly once wrote... 'where wine is easy to grow, it is seldom superb'.