There’s nothing like the whim of Mother Nature to remind the owners of a winery that they’re in the business of agriculture. For the team at Best’s Wines, this reminder came in the form of a devastating black frost in the early hours of Saturday 4 November 2017.
Best’s managing director and vineyard manager, Ben Thomson, woke that morning to find the damage already done to the estate’s 20 hectares of vines in Victoria’s Grampians, including the 150-year-old Concongella Vineyard.
Despite the presence of frost fans installed throughout the vineyard, the layer of warm air sitting above the sub-zero ground-covering areas was too high to be drawn down by the fans to minimise the frost damage. The result is the loss of all the estate fruit that was previously looking like becoming the yield of a great vintage – possibly the best-looking crop in 15-20 years.
It’s worth noting that black frost, otherwise known as “killing frost”, is not strictly speaking frost; rather it’s the condition seen in crops when the humidity is too low for frost to form, but the temperature falls so low that plant tissues freeze and die, becoming blackened, hence the term “black frost”. White frost tends to be less cold, partly because the latent heat of the water freezing reduces the temperature drop.
In the case of this black frost, Best’s wasn’t the only winery affected; many other local Grampians vineyards were substantially damaged. However, frost can be a very localised phenomenon, the severity of which can vary significantly over a very small area. Vineyards only a few kilometres away from Best’s escaped the destructive impact suffered at the estate’s property.
Thankfully, damaging black frost events, such as this one, are infrequent in Best’s neck of the woods. According to Ben Thomson, Best’s has been impacted by devastating frosts only three times in his time managing the vineyards: 1982, 2006 and, this most recent event, 2017. Each time the frost has killed off the fruit and destroyed any chance of the vines bearing commercial amounts and grades of grapes until the following season.
Experienced vineyard managers like Ben Thomson can mitigate many of Mother Nature’s various threats to agriculture. Disease is manageable if you’re in the vineyards often and keenly checking for potential risks. Even drought can be managed to a certain extent with planned irrigation.
However, what can wineries like Best’s do to prevent a frost damaging its vintage prospects? The truth is, not much. When the sub-zero areas are too far away from the higher warm air temperatures, the impact of the chill factor is too swift and hard-hitting to prevent any damage in a reasonable amount of time.
Even throughout the preceding months, the conditions of the 2017 vintage were looking very positive: average rainfalls reflected a lower chance of frost, the grape bunches were balanced and full, and the vines were healthy and green. But sometimes, the price vignerons pay for working with the whim of the weather gods can be costly.
Ben Thomson knows only too well that the fixed cost of each and every vintage is dealt by Mother Nature, not by the work of the vineyard team. Just like grain, fruit and other natural produce farmers, winemakers are in the business of agriculture and no one crop is guaranteed in quality or quantity.
Many wine lovers tend to be removed from the idiosyncrasies of the production process – they open a bottle of wine and enjoy it without realising the often years-long toil that goes with producing their precious drop. So what can wine drinkers do to help with devastating weather events for wineries? Cherish every single drop of wine that passes their lips. Taste the blood, sweat and tears no matter the vintage, the region or the variety. And know that every bottle of wine that makes it to your table is as much a product of the winemaking craft as it is a gift from the weather gods.
Best’s 2018 vintage wines will still be produced from fruit grown on its Rhymney Vineyard and fruit sourced from its loyal local Grampians growers. But there will be an impact on some of our top end wines… Some wines from our Concongella Collection and our icon range like Thomson Family Shiraz won’t meet the grade and allow us to produce the wines that we’re proud to release to our customers to enjoy.
We will keep you updated as the following months transpire and the outlook for the rest of the crop becomes clear. Please keep everything crossed for positive conditions for the rest of the 2018 vintage period, and know that the Best’s team has every intention of being around for the next 150 years.