Adelaide Hills: one year on

By Amelia Ball

18 Dec, 2020

It's been one year since the Cudlee Creek bushfire left the Adelaide Hills community reeling. We check in with some of the region's hard-hit producers to hear about their 12 months since.

When fire swept through Tilbrook Estate on December 20, 2019, it destroyed the winery and affected about 85 per cent of the vines. Even now, James Tilbrook finds it difficult to assess the full damage. “It’s hard to go out there and count the number of vines that haven’t made it, but I think we could say we lost about 25 per cent,” he says.  

Work had already begun last year on their new cellar door, which was spared in the fire, so that ongoing project has given James a positive focus. “With the wine thing going down the gurgler this year, being able to concentrate on that has taken my mind off what’s going on around me,” James says. “The actual building is exactly what I wanted. Waste concrete blocks are the internal and retaining walls at the same time, so there’s a connection with the earth. And because they’re waste, the carbon footprint is zero.” 
The focus has also been on resurrecting the vines and replacing the strainers, posts and other elements that burnt. They have also expanded the headland to create more space for the vines, which could help to prevent fire damage in a future scenario. But so much is still unknown about the recovery process – vines that initially came back ended up dying, while others they had written off returned. “We won’t know the real extent for two or three years,” James says. 

Thanks to the generosity of others in the community, Tilbrook Estate received wine that allowed them to continue trading this year. James believes they will be able to harvest some of their own fruit this coming vintage, but they still have a long way to go. “I think we thought a year’s a long time, but it’s not nearly long enough.” 

The new Tilbrook Estate cellar door
Tilbrook Estate's new sustainable cellar door is nearing completion.  

Vinteloper was in the line of fire last December, with it burning through the vines and infrastructure, and also destroying the property’s 100-year-old house. Ask David Bowley how he’s doing now and it’s still raw. “It depends what day you catch me,” he says. “I’ve just had a meeting with our viticultural consultant who’s helping with the recovery, and the vines aren’t growing back at the rate we expected. Only 50 per cent have survived. Perhaps that’s the problem – having any expectation at all.”

Despite the challenges of the past 12 months, the team was able to make about 70 per cent of the wine they would normally produce, thanks to the generosity of several growers around the Adelaide Hills and other producers beyond the region. And with Vinteloper one of the five producers showcased at nearby Lot 100, which was unscathed in the fire, trade for Vinteloper continued uninterrupted.  

One of the best ways to support those affected is to buy wines direct, David says. “If people are motivated to support us or the other wineries directly, then buying wine from us is a great way to do it,” David says. “It’s one of those win-win situations – you can support us and feel good, and drink some delicious wine at the same time.” 

David has also been tracking the recovery process on Vinteloper’s social channels, and encourages people to follow the journey. “We’re trying really hard to document this to help people understand more about what they love drinking, so follow us on socials,” he says. “Come and visit us, too. Spend time in our cellar doors and support the cheesemakers whose factory burnt down and all kinds of other people who have been directly impacted.” 
A new shoot at Vinteloper
A new shoot at Vinteloper, with their recovery process documented on their social channels (image: Vinteloper)  

Simon and Narelle Tolley of Simon Tolley Wines lost about 30 per cent of their vines in last year’s fire, with smoke taint destroying the rest of their 2020 vintage. But now, after solid work in the vineyard and on a new cellar door, they’re excited to open their Woodside venue in January – a project that's been a long time coming. “People can come to our cellar door for a tasting or a glass of wine, stay for a while and chat to Simon and me about our wines and the viticulture, while looking out over the beautiful vineyards,” Narelle says. 

The region's wine community marked the anniversary at the Adelaide Hills Wine Show this week, recognising their collective efforts of the past 12 months. Winners included Wicks Estate (Best Sauvignon Blanc), New Era Vineyards (Best Gruner Veltliner), Shaw + Smith (Best Pinot Noir) and Longview (Best Rosé), while Bird in Hand picked up Best Syrah, Best Red Wine and Best Wine of Show with its 2018 Syrah.          

Top image by Vinteloper. Originally captioned:"24,000 of our 27,000 vines are a work in progress. This is one of the 3,000 giving us hope for epic redemption."