Climate change: how is Australia facing up to the challenge

Top executives of the Australian Wine Research Institute share insight

Dan Johnson, Managing Director, Dr Mardi Longbottom, senior viticulturist and Dr Mark Krstic, business development manager of The Australian Wine Research Institute, give their collective insights into how the country and the wine industry specifically is tackling climate change in Australia. We asked them since when do they think wine authorities and the wine industry have taken the issue of climate change seriously?

Australia is the world’s driest continent (other than Antarctica). Climate and weather have, therefore, been part of the national discussion for perhaps 30 years. It has become even more front of mind in the last 10 years as we have seen numerous temperature records broken, with many areas of the country recording their hottest years on record and some cities setting daily temperature records. As a result, climate – and its impact on agriculture, living standards – has been an increasing part of the policy agenda for political parties for many years. However, for various reasons national- level policy setting has been very difficult in this area. Several Prime Ministers have lost their jobs in part or in full because of their belief in or approach to dealing with climate change.

The Australian grape and wine sector and its representative bodies have been discussing climate and implementing related programmes since the earliest days of Australian grape and wine production.

The first formal industry-wide sustainability program was introduced in 2009. Many individual grape and wine companies had active programs in these areas for decades before this. In the last 10 years, several companies have taken major commercial decisions on the basis of climate-related risks and opportunities, including divesting or acquiring vineyards based on their altitude, latitude and/or access to water resources.

What are the main threats to viticulture in Australia?

As a very dry continent, one of the chief threats to Australian grape growing is water availability. The nation may have enough water, in particular regions, but it cannot easily be moved long distances. Temperature variability and extremes are also important. Periods of temperature extremes during summer days/nights can have a greater negative impact on yield and fruit quality. Frosts are now happening at a time when they pose the most risk to vines.

Many growers and wineries have seen a trend of earlier harvests with many varieties ripening at similar times. Although these phenomena are serious and have significant potential to cause quality and economic losses, grape vines have shown tremendous resilience in the face of climatic changes.

Which national organisations are most involved in tackling climate change?

The national industry body, Australian Grape & Wine Incorporated and Wine Australia both have active programmes and policy positions on this subject. Australia has a highly coordinated approach to industry research and development. All grape growers and winemakers contribute to a collective research effort by national and regional governmental institutions, universities and the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI).

What have been some of the results that you and the research teams have achieved?

Australian researchers have led the world in areas such as:

  • research and development of water efficient irrigation strategies.
  • development of water use-efficient and saline-tolerant rootstocks better suited to Australian conditions.
  • canopy management for improved bunch zone temperature management.
  • understanding vine physiology and reproduction under elevated temperature and drought conditions.
  • identifying and planting more heat- and drought-tolerant varieties, rootstocks and clones.

Other outcomes have included:

  • the diagnosis and management of smoke taint.
  • management of problematic ferments caused by high must sugar and low yeast assimilable nitrogen content.
  • energy efficiency investigations leading to smarter energy use in wineries, in particular in the area of refrigeration.
  • feasibility assessments of alternative energy generation technologies.
  • evaluation of alternative uses for grape marc as a feedstock for livestock to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • annual benchmarking of carbon emissions (energy and nitrogen fertiliser) and water use by all members of Australian wine’s sustainability program.

Tuesday 14th May
from 12:00 pm
to 1:30 pm
Hall 2, Room 8

Dan Johnson Managing Director, The Australian Wine Research Institute

Dr Mark Krstic Business Development Manager, The Australian Wine Research Institute

Dr Mardi Longbottom Senior viticulturist, The Australian Wine Research Institute