By Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Winemakers in Australia's oldest growing region fear a ruined harvest after heavy rainfall, while vineyards in the country's west are under threat from bushfires, undermining efforts to recover from a near decade-long run of lower exports.
Just weeks out from the 2016 harvest, the contrasting events highlight the challenges from climate change, particularly extreme weather, faced by the world's fourth-largest wine exporter. Not only are wine growing regions getting hotter, weather is also becoming more unpredictable, scientists say.
"We've had one of the biggest downpours we have had in a long time," said Neil McGuigan, chief executive of Australian Vintage Ltd, one of the largest wine producers in the Hunter Valley, some 250 km (155 miles) north of Sydney.
"We are on the edge, if we get more rain, we will start to develop disease and as soon as that happens, you will not be able to harvest the fruit," said McGuigan.
As much as 200 millimetres (7.9 inches) of rain fell across Australia's east coast last week, data from the country's Bureau of Meteorology shows, twice the average January rainfall.
By contrast, Bernie Worthington in Western Australia lost his vineyard when a bushfire burned his property in Waroona in the state's southwest last week. Even if wildfires don't destroy a crop, they can leave an entire vintage with "smoke taint", leading to wines that taste like an ashtray.
The climate extremes seen through the 2015/16 season are a foretaste of future climate change, scientists say, which is threatening the outlook for Australia's wine industry.
Australia produces about 1.2 million tonnes of wine a year, exporting more than half to the United States, Britain and Asia in sales worth A$1.96 billion ($1.37 billion) in 2014/15.
But its main wine regions are getting hotter and drier, with temperatures projected to increase by between 0.3 and 1.7 degrees Celsius by 2030, according to Australia's science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
At the same time, the CSIRO said the intensity of extreme rainfall events is likely to increase, a pattern already seen over the last 12 months.
"The science projections do not point to Australia's climate getting any more favorable," said Phin Ziebell, agribusiness economist, National Australia Bank.
WILTING GREEN SHOOTS
Climate change mitigation is at the forefront of plans by Australia's largest growers, including Treasury Wine Estates Ltd, which is looking at cooler climate vineyards in places like the southernmost island state of Tasmania.
Other measures to deal with warmer temperatures include new irrigation methods that save water and specially developed sunscreen that is sprayed on grapes.
But growers say they have only limited tools to lessen the impact of unexpected torrential rain, with a switch to more tolerant varieties the only option for many. This can take many years to establish new crops.
That threatens the nascent resurgence in Australian wine exports, which grew in 2014/15 for the first time in seven years as the industry battled a stronger Australian dollar, increased competition from Europe and stiff tariffs in some Asian nations.
A weaker local currency and trade deals in several countries have helped exporters, but increased competition from Europe is still hurting.
Industry groups are also calling for government assistance to help reverse an 8 percent fall in sales last year to the United States, Australia's largest market.
In the Hunter, growers are crossing their fingers, hoping for no further rain in the next month, the only way they'll avoid production losses, said McGuigan, while other wine areas are studying the fallout from recent hot weather.
"The crop levels are a moving feast," said Andrew Weeks, executive director of the industry body, Wine Grape Growers Authority. "Many regions agree that berry size is down on many varieties, which will lead to a reduced yield in most cases."
($1 = 1.4302 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Richard Pullin)