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Brown Brothers and CSIRO look to climate-proof grapes

Brown Brothers and CSIRO look to climate-proof grapes

Brown Brothers’ end-of-vintage party is an annual event, with last Friday’s marking 130 harvests for the family-owned company that owns six vineyards across 840 hectares in Victoria and Tasmania.

But lately, the date for the party has shifted left in the company calendar.

Dean Carroll is the second chief executive from outside of the family to lead the business.

“The average harvest time [used to] start in mid to late February,” Brown Brothers chief executive Dean Carroll says. “These days, it’s closer to Australia Day and sometimes earlier.”

Carroll says the company is very conscious of the consequences of a changing climate and its effect on viticultural operations.

“The whole vintage is starting earlier and becoming more intense. Everything is ripening closer together than what was historically the case.”

The 2019 vintage for the King Valley – Brown Brothers’ base in northern Victoria – saw the trend continue.

“Just like many other regions, this vintage in the King Valley has been hot and dry, compressing the harvest period,” says Craig Robinson, an independent winemaker and wine expert for Dan Murphy’s, one of Brown Brothers’ biggest customers.

In order to address the growing disruption caused by climate change, Brown Brothers has invested in CSIRO research which aims to develop new grape varieties that boast a higher tolerance to the types of environmental challenges poses by climate change.

“We’re trying to get different varieties that will grow in warmer climates or with less water,” Carroll says. “If we can find varieties that cope better with what we see as being a hotter and hotter climate then we’ll have a way of combating that.”

From petrie dish to palate

Developing new varieties has a long lead time, Carroll says. New cultivars are developed by CSIRO and once a variety is ready to be tested, Brown Brothers will graft the plant on to existing mature vines.

“[CSIRO] will have developed the plant, then we’ll plant it to see how it grows, what sort of temperature it deals with, what sort of fruit it produces in different circumstances,” Carroll says.

With six CSIRO-designed varieties currently in the pipeline, Brown Brothers’ Kindergarten vineyard and winery are where the new fruit is grown.

Once fruit from a variety being trialled is ready, small wine batches are made before Brown Brothers turns to customers to understand whether the flavour and style is likely to get traction in the market. Carroll says they have had success in the market with some new cultivars. Cienna, for example, now has a strong presence in the market, with 900,000 litres sold annually. Other experimental varieties, however, may not make it past the cellar door.

Climate drives Tassie acquisitions 

Brown Brothers’ embrace of innovation lead the company to look at how its vineyards will be affected by climate change at a time when the public narrative remained incoherent and other businesses were still yet to recognise incoming risks.

Carroll says this was the catalyst behind the company's decision to spend $32.56 million on three vineyards over 400 hectares in Tasmania's Tamar Valley in 2010.

Ross Brown, the then CEO, said at the time the move was to mitigate the risks poses to its mainland vineyards by ensuring it had a cooler production base that was less exposed to climate change.

Ross Brown was at the helm in 2010 when the Tasmanian vineyards were acquired.  Photo: Wayne Taylor

“We started to treat all of our vineyard assets as being basically two degrees warmer than what they were back in 2008–2009,” Carroll says.

“And when we did that we started to realise that our coolest climate land wasn’t going to meet the needs of what we were after. The asset in Tasmania came up, they sit at the perfect intersection of cool climate [and a] great source of sparkling [grape varieties].”

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