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2003 vintage report for Alpine Valleys (Victoria)

Following an extremely dry winter and spring, the growing season saw a continuation of low rainfall. Throughout the region, these conditions resulted in smaller than average berry and bunch sizes and an early cessation of shoot growth, leaving even, well-balanced crops that promised to deliver some excellent quality. With this dry start to the season, disease pressure was minimal and growers were able to concentrate their energies on getting their irrigation scheduling right.

Conditions were looking idyllic until 26 November when a large hailstorm tore its way through the district leaving a number of vineyards devastated (some with up to 90% crop losses). December brought very hot conditions with a number of days around the 45°C mark, requiring irrigation every 2–3 days. Despite this, vineyards through early summer looked extremely promising, with many of the hail-damaged vineyards also recovering well (although crop levels remained down.)

Bushfires started in the alpine region in early January after a freak electrical storm which generated more than 80 lightning strikes over Victoria in one day. A heavy blanket of smoke subsequently engulfed the area. At first this was thought to be beneficial to vineyards by moderating the hot January temperatures, but as the fire developed in intensity and covered an increasingly large area of land, many vineyards adjoining bushlands were lucky to escape being incinerated. The smoke concentration gradually increased and kept the region smoke-bound for more than 40 days.

With the harvest of the first grapes, the true extent of the bushfire phenomenon was realised, as wineries progressively discovered a widespread smoky character in the fruit, which was released with crushing. At this stage, the Alpine Valleys Winemakers & Grapegrowers Association commissioned Vignoble Monitoring Services to carry out trial work on the smoke-affected fruit in the vineyard, in conjunction with The Australian Wine Research Institute. Despite experimentation with a range of pre-harvest treatments, it was found that little could be done to alleviate the problem.  Samples of many vineyards were taken as part of a regional benchmarking project with varying levels of smoke character recorded throughout the four valleys. Logically, those vineyard sites closest to the fire fronts registered higher concentrations of the smoke-related compounds, guaiacol and 4-methyl guaiacol.

As a result of the smoke damage, many growers were forced to sell their fruit at below production costs. Despite the undeniable smoke taint, all of the wineries to process fruit from the region were impressed with the underlying quality of the fruit, and the concentration of colour and flavours.  Almost unanimously, companies from outside the region commented on the consistency of quality and yield from the Alpine Valleys over the past few years. Wineries continue to trial processing options aimed at reducing guaiacol levels in the finished wines.