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Nerissa Hannink
Media Office, University of Melbourne
Ph (03) 8344 8151, Mob: 0430 588 055
Email: nhannink@unimelb.edu.au

With climate change projections indicating extreme weather events will become more frequent and occur with greater intensity, researchers are using the wine industry as a model to examine potential adaptation strategies for food production more generally and are highlighting potential adaptive management strategies.

With climate change projections indicating extreme weather events will become more frequent and occur with greater intensity, researchers are using the wine industry as a model to examine potential adaptation strategies for food production more generally and are highlighting potential adaptive management strategies.

In January and February 2009 south–eastern Australia was subject to record high temperatures that, in many regions, also persisted for record durations. Unfortunately for the wine industry, these areas are home to Australia’s key wine-growing (viticulture) regions.

Professor Snow Barlow, who heads the University of Melbourne Viticulture Group (VitUM) and will speak on food security at the University’s Festival of Ideas, said that soon after the heatwaves, reports emerged of unprecedented impacts on vineyards with significant heat–stress related crop losses recorded at some sites.

“Documenting both the impact and the management strategies employed to cope in high temperatures is one area the industry will need to understand better.”

“We are at the stage where we need to move past the debate over whether climate change is happening and move onto how best we can adapt to the inevitable climate change.”

Dr Leanne Webb, a former viticulturist and now researcher in the VitUM group and the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, led the heatwave study.

“In effect the heatwave created a huge natural experiment where grapes, managed in different ways, were exposed to different levels of extreme heat,” said Dr Webb.

“We wanted to examine the heatwave impact and management strategies employed as they varied between regions, within regions and within vineyards. Our team surveyed 10 randomly selected vineyards in 10 heat-affected regions.”

“All of the information was gathered by our team of six within 6 weeks of the heatwave. We noted that while the effects on grape vines ranged from stalled growth, leaf burn and shedding to berry shrivel and sunburn, it was observed that not all vineyards were similarly affected.”

The information was then analysed to establish any links between the impacts in vineyards with temperature records from the National Climate Centre, and will be published in Greenhouse-2009 Proceedings.

Over all of the regions, four management options appeared to have a major influence on minimising damage. Generally there was more reported damage where water was not available, grapevine rows were oriented in a north–south direction, berry development was in the ripening phase and bunches were exposed to the sun's radiation.

“We found that the variation of impact was not generally related to the level of temperature to which the vines were exposed, but to the regional or inter–regional management strategies and viticultural practices employed.”

“Variation in the management strategies, either traditional approaches or reactive management, has highlighted potential adaptive management strategies for dealing with extreme heat events in future. In the future viticultural management will be, even more than previously, a risk minimisation exercise.”

Professor Barlow notes that in many ways the viticulture industry is well-suited to be a forerunner in climate change adaptation.

“Despite these new challenges Australian agriculture and particularly viticulture has always been innovative and has access to considerable research resources and capacity .Therefore as this model study has illustrated there is considerable scope to develop and apply adaptive management strategies to counter the initial phase of climate change.”

It is imperative that we begin immediately to develop these adaptive management strategies because as Darwin reminded us “It is those who adapt first that survive”

Professor Snow Barlow and Professor Janet McCalman will speak on ‘Food Fights/ Food Security’ at the University of Melbourne’s Festival of Ideas, which runs from June 15th to 20th.

Please note: Pictures of heat-affected grapes and vines available.