By Rebecca Huntley for Future Tense
Family-owned winemaker Brown Brothers has been growing grapes in Victoria since the 1880s.
The company was founded by John Francis Brown, but established its reputation and success under his son John Charles Brown.
When John returned to Milawa in regional Victoria after finishing boarding school in 1958, he harvested his first vintage of grapes in the early days of April.
Fifty years later, the grapes are off the vines by April, with picking often starting in February. Within a generation, the harvest start date has shifted along with the climate in the valley.
It’s a dramatic indication of how climate change is affecting the way we make wine in Australia.
“It’s probably more apparent in terms of earlier ripening, more rapid ripening and more compact vintages,” said Brett McClen, Brown Brothers’ chief viticulturist, responsible for six vineyards in Victoria and Tasmania.
“We are working with shorter time frames. Once upon a time a vintage would have taken 100 days but we do the bulk of it within 60 days,” he said.
This earlier and compressed vintage poses a real challenge right through the chain of production.
“It puts enormous pressure on the processing logistics, the winery infrastructure,” said Mr McClen.
“You can only put a certain number of grapes through processing at a time. These days we do a lot of white varieties and they require refrigeration as well.”
A condensed harvest means the clock is ticking for growers, who have to get the fruit off the vine before it is over-ripe. Riper fruit makes for higher alcohol wines, which is great if you’re 18 and looking to get smashed, but hurts winemakers.
“Quality can be impacted by higher alcohol levels and it impacts export markets,” explained Mr McClen.
“There is a consumer preference for lighter, lower alcohol wines. Some of the big overseas retailers actually don’t want alcohol levels over a certain per cent.”
As a response to the changing climate in Victoria, Brown Brothers have invested in vineyards in Tasmania. In 2010 they purchased land in Tamar Ridge and on the island’s east coast.
According to Mr McClen, this was a response to both climate change and consumer interest in wines Tasmania excels at such as pinot noir.
While he sees a strong future for wine in Victoria, the Tasmanian investment is about adapting and risk mitigation.