The impacts of smoke caused by burn-offs at this time of year could be dramatic for local vineyards. Despite this, the RFS reportedly issued several burn-off permits recently as vineyards reach a crucial time in their growing season.

Ken Helm, owner of Helm Wines in Murrumbateman, said smoke is very dangerous to the vines at this time of year but believes the permits issued were largely due to a miscommunication with local authorities.

“The wineries want to work with everybody in the community and so we’re just asking that they don’t do the burning at this time of the year,” he said. “We’re only about three or four weeks away or less than that from harvest and it’s a very critical time.”

“In 2020, the smoke taint from the bushfires both down the coast and south of Canberra caused a complete loss and many of the wineries, their businesses are still trying to get over that.”

Vintner’s Daughter owner Stephanie Helm said the Canberra District Wine Industry Association (CDWIA) and the Viticulture Society in conjunction with local wineries are all keen to aid authorities and landholders in understanding the impact that these burns could have on the grapes.

“We’ve become very aware now, because it’s actually happened, of how dangerous smoke can be,” Stephanie said. “It’s always been something that we’ve worried about when we’ve had burns in the past, but it obviously became a very real threat after those [2019/2020] bushfires.”

“It’s something that we just feel is still not really recognized in this area when people are issuing those permits.”

When vineyards and grapes are exposed to smoke it can result in wines with undesirable aromas and flavours, described as ‘smoky’, ‘burnt’, ‘ashy’ or ‘medicinal’. Wines affected by these characters are commonly known as ‘smoke-tainted’.

There are no effective ways to remove smoke compounds from grapes or wines and the extent of the damage is often unknown until the fruit is sent to a lab for testing (which can be expensive) or until the wine is made.

“It becomes pretty much un- drinkable,” Stephanie said. “It’s not a pleasant flavour.”

“It’s not like a smoky kind of wine that’s pleasant, it’s like an ashtray when it’s really bad.”

Ken said the vineyards that were affected by a recent burn-off in Murrumbateman won’t know if there was any damage until they assess the grapes in the next fortnight.

“We’re hopeful that it was for such a short period that there won’t be any and that’s why we’re sort of trying to make people aware that it is just so dangerous,” Ken said.

“We’re not trying to stop people burning,” he said. “We’re just asking them to work with us.”

“The wineries are not blaming anybody,” Ken said. “We’re just trying to alert them that we’re here and we want to work with them and the community.”

“We’ll happily work with them, just so that everyone goes and has a good income and a good life in this area in our beautiful Yass Valley.”

It’s been three years of very tough conditions for many of the wine region vineyards and grape growers.

Stephanie described the industry as “on the brink” at the moment enduring hail, frost, smoke and drought.

“We’ve really just had a rough few years now,” she said. “Our yields have been down because of drought so our stock levels are down.”

“Losing another crop is something that we would really struggle to survive.”

By Brianna O’Rourke