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Black frost devastates South East Australian vines

Published:  20 November, 2013

Australia's 2014 vintage is likely to be significantly affected by a severe "black" frost that has caused devastating damage to a number of regions in the south east of the country.

Large swathes of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia succumbed to sub-zero temperatures last month. Amongst the worst hit were with the Clare Valley, Rutherglen and Mansfield in Victoria, and the Riverina bulk-producing area around Griffith, in New South Wales. Even parts of the Hunter and Barossa Valleys suffered.

Black frost, which arises because humidity is too low for white crystals to form, leads to internal freezing of vines, which blacken and can die.

Brian Simpson, chief executive of the Riverina Wine Grapes Marketing Board, estimated losses there could be 20% of the crop, or 60 million bottles. "Growers who have been farming for fifty years haven't seen it this bad," he said. "Vines were about 10-14 days more advanced than normal due to the warm spring, and were more vulnerable as a result."

Campbells, one of the most prestigious producers in Rutherglen, reported that 60% of their vines had been lost to the frost, which Colin Campbell, its winemaker, described as the most damaging he had seen in his 45 years at the winery. "Frost is not uncommon here, but we normally would lose no more than 5% of our vines to it," he said. "But this was black frost, and the 2015 vintage will also be affected as a result."

"One vineyard of ours had never really frosted before, but every single shoot in it was killed off," Tim Gniel, Campbells' winery operations manager, revealed. "It got cold very early, hitting -4ºC at 1a.m., having a much bigger effect than if it got there at, say, 4a.m. A third of our Muscat and much of our Sixties Block of Shiraz and other varietals was taken out, but the Muscadelle was OK. It's fortunate that we're in a strong position after 2013, which was such a good vintage. If we get nothing else out of this forthcoming vintage, we can make some Grand and Rare fortifieds."

While the frost damage will certainly have an effect on balance sheets, Rutherglen is celebrating an event of much longer term financial significance for the area as a whole. Two of its wineries, Rutherglen Estates and Vintara, have been bought by Chinese investors, guaranteeing what were very uncertain futures.

Rutherglen Estates has 220ha under vine - more than any other winery in the area, With a long history of exporting to the UK, it was struggling to stay afloat due to the strength of the Australian dollar until a fertiliser and chemical company from near Beijing stepped in.

"The Chinese have certainly kept us alive, as well as injecting life into the Rutherglen region," said Phil Chamberlain, Rutherglen Estate's chief executive. "Not many people are buying Australian vineyards at present, so this is great news for the town and community. Table wine is our speciality, and 90% of what we produce will go to China, where our owners want to make us the second biggest brand to Penfolds."

Campbells, meanwhile, has decided that the way forward for its brand is to introduce a new label. Gone is the picture of an old vine, which according to cellar door manager, Jane Campbell, some people mistook for a set of antlers. Instead, drinkers will find an attractive new crest with a pair of gold picks, entwined with a vine leaf and embossed with '1870', the year the winery was founded.

Another leading Rutherglen producer, Stanton & Killeen, has also redesigned its label to add sharpness and clarity. Wendy Killeen, the chief executive, is seeking to raise the bar even higher for S&K's array of outstanding fortified and table wines with her recruitment of the highly regarded Victorian viticulturalist, Ruston Prescott.

When Prescott starts his new job next month, he will find two-thirds of his vines frost-affected, including the ultra low-yielding 1920s ones, but Killeen reports promising secondary bud growth, which may provide a secondary crop.