It was late October when Adrian Sparks caught sight of the first smoke rising from the hilly horizon. Within days the haze evolved into drift smoke, which grew thicker as the mountain behind the Mount Pleasant winery in the Hunter Valley caught fire.
“It was full-on,” Adrian says. “There was smoke all through November and December. A clear day would still be hazy. At its worst, some days our eyes would sting. We’d be coughing. You’d have to stay inside with the doors shut and the air conditioning going. It was like an apocalypse…
Though the winery suffered no fire damage, the blanket of smoke that was its legacy has caused nightmares for it and the broader Hunter Valley wine industry, thanks to what is known as “smoke taint”.
Within the Hunter at least, the taint is forcing growers to confront the possibility that an entire year’s harvest will be dumped, with some vineyards choosing not to produce a 2020 vintage at all.
The phenomenon occurs when smoke binds to the skin of grapes, ruining the taste of wine made from the fruit. For an industry where perception equals success, the reputational damage caused by selling a vintage affected by smoke taint can be lethal.
Sparks had seen the effects of smoke on wine grapes before. Years earlier he encountered the problem while working as a winemaker in the Yarra Valley, around the time of the Black Saturday bushfires.
“It wasn’t as bad in 2009,” he says. “This is the first time ever I’ve seen a company pull the pin on a vintage. I’ve been with the company for 20-odd years and I’ve never pulled the pin on an entire vintage.”
On 14 January the winery that ordinarily produces 30,000 cases of wine in a year decided it wouldn’t take the risk and scrapped its 2020 vintage entirely.
Mount Pleasant wasn’t alone. While vineyards further away from the fires escaped the worst, among the first to speak publicly about the issue was Bruce Tyrrell.
Tyrrell’s Wines – the family has operated in the Hunter Valley since 1858 – ordinarily harvests 1,200 tonnes of grapes but this year lost 80% of its crop.