Hilltops grape growers battle through a tough vintage

Brian and Sue Mullany and their daughter Alexandria Mullany from Grove Estate. Their cellar door has seen an influx of visitors since reopening two weeks ago. Photo: Peter Guthrie
Brian and Sue Mullany and their daughter Alexandria Mullany from Grove Estate. Their cellar door has seen an influx of visitors since reopening two weeks ago. Photo: Peter Guthrie

It's been a mixed wine grape harvest this year across the Hilltops region but grape growers are keeping optimistic.

Drought, bird damage, coronavirus and smoke taint from the summer's bushfires are just some issues the region's vineyards have had to overcome to harvest their crop in 2020.

Hilltops Inc president and grape grower Peter Creyke says "there's a sense it could have been worse".

"Our worst fears weren't realised. There's a sense of optimism. It's been a very trying and very difficult vintage. A lot of mental and physical stress and a lot of worrying. It's not been easy but there's definitely a sense of optimism and a sense that it could have been a lot worse," Mr Creyke said.

"Even though some people found a home [market] for their crop, others couldn't, and some didn't harvest. The grapes that were used, from all reports, are making good wine. We're suffering but not as much as others elsewhere."

Brian Mullany from Grove Estate says their income from selling grapes this year was down about 70 per cent, with smoke taint complications compounding the drought.

"More than 50 per cent of grapes in the Hilltops are sold to other wineries. So before the other wineries buy the grapes they insisted on getting a test done for smoke taint. So you'd pick a bag full of grapes and send them away for a sample. About a week later you'd get a recommendation. Nearly all the recommendations from the Australian Wine Research Institute were saying the grapes have smoke taint and they recommended you not pick these grapes. So not many were sold. They either stayed on the vine, or were sold at a discount," Mr Mullany said.

"We picked about 170 tonnes, we would normally pick about 700 tonnes. Of the 170 we picked we sold about 70 and made about 100 tonnes [of wine] ourselves. With the 100 tonnes we're making ourselves we're still looking at how it's going as far as the issues of smoke taint go. A lot of people think smoke might give it a smokey flavour you get in a whisky or something, but it's not nice. But what we've picked and had a look at, we had a taste about two weeks ago, we certainly didn't have the issues we were thinking we would have, in fact we had some beautiful wine in tank.

"Then we also got hit with COVID-19 which meant all the cellar doors shut and restaurants shut. If you're a supplier that supplies restaurants, then that shut overnight. A lot of restaurants are still trying to use stock prior to COVID-19. We supply more bottle shops which have picked up in sales. So our wine sales have picked up, our grape income dropped dramatically, and the cellar door since opening in the last two weeks is getting a lot more visitation due to people travelling within NSW, who would normally travel outside the state. A lot from Sydney and the Central Coast. Destination NSW advertising is definitely working. I'd say visitation to Young has picked up."

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