The Grapes Of Warmth: Famous Wine Area Wilts In 47 Degree Heat

The good news is the grapes are OK for now. The bad news is there's a severe risk of grape sunburn. Yes, that's a thing.

The eastern Australian heatwave continues, and nowhere is copping it worse than the Riverina region in southern NSW.

That's where you'll find towns like Griffith, Leeton and Narrandera which are irrigated by waters from the Murrumbidgee River, and are synonymous with fine food and wine.

Temperatures in this area have been off the charts all year, and especially this week.

For example:

  • Griffith (population 25,000) had its hottest day ever of 46.4 degrees on Wednesday, eclipsing the old record of 46.
  • The average maximum in Griffith so far this year is 39, almost six degrees over the usual 33.1 January average max.
  • Griffith's last six days (including Thursday) have maxed out at: 42, 42, 46, 46, 46, 45.
  • Narrandera (population 3,700) also had its hottest day ever on Wednesday, the 46.3 maximum easily topping the old record of 45.8.
  • Narrandera's average maximum so far this year has been 40.6, a whopping 7.2 degrees higher than the usual 33.4 for January.

By any measure, this is the hottest spell the region has ever known. So how are the grapes coping?

10 daily contacted a couple of the well-known wine brands based in the Riverina.

We spoke to Darren De Bortoli, managing director of the De Bortoli winery at Bilbul, just outside Griffith, which is famous for its Noble One Botrytis Semillon dessert wine.

And we spoke to Robert Bruno of Toorak Wines at Leeton, who said it was 47 degrees outside, and whose best-known tipple is the Toorak Road durif.

"The grapevines are under a lot more stress, so there’s potential for the vines to die or for the grapes to shrivel prematurely," Bruno told us.

"Sunburn also can be more prevalent."

That's right, grapes can actually get sunburn. Fortunately, Bruno has developed a version of viticulture slip-slop-slap.

It's all about growing a good leaf canopy to shade the grapes, but of course not too much shade that the grapes receive no sunlight. It's also about applying the right amount of fertiliser and water at the start of the growing season.

Bruno says he's been growing grapes for 20 years and he's still learning the tricks. He says the climate definitely seems to be getting hotter each year. But for now, the crop is still coping, even -- so far -- in this year's unprecedented heat.

"We've still got a good crop and we'll harvest in a few weeks," he said.

"We've had to do things like maintain high moisture levels in the soil to keep the vines healthy. There's been some talk about some premature shrivel, but we're yet to see it.

READ MORE: Australia's Coldest Place Just Had Its Hottest Day Ever

But what about the all-important flavour of the fruit? Does the character of wine change if grapes have suffered through extreme heat?

"The character of a wine is affected by all sorts of things," Bruno explained.

"Sometimes the heat improves it. But it's not predictable. I’d prefer it to be about 30 degrees."

Wouldn't we all.

Meanwhile 40 minutes up the highway at Bilbul, Darren De Bortoli says the harvest may be reduced, but the grapes are also doing fine for now.

We look forward to trying the 2019 vintage, gentlemen. And no, that's not a request. We're much more ethical than that.