Due to Australia's harsh and hot climate, its winemakers are taking creative approaches to protecting their grapes from sun damage—including good old sunscreen.
Living in one of the countries with the highest rates of skin cancer, Australians are taught from birth to "slip, slop, and slap." It's only logical, then, that this idea be extended to protecting their finest produce too. At the Tyrrell's Wines vineyard in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, grapes are sprayed with sunscreen to protect them from the harsh rays of the sun in temperatures that can soar up to 46 degrees Celsius (114 Fahrenheit).
The vineyard began using a specially formulated clay-based sunscreen during a particularly severe 10-day heat wave in December of last year. "We didn't have great amounts of canopy foliage to naturally protect the fruit at the time," managing director Bruce Tyrrell told MUNCHIES. "So without the sunblock, the fruit would be sunburnt." The optimum temperature for Tyrrell's vineyard is somewhere between 28 to 36 degrees Celsius (82–96 degrees Fahrenheit). In extended heat waves of 40-plus degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), up to 50 percent of the vine can be negatively affected by sunburn.
Sunburnt grapes can result in two things: one, the skins soften, making the grapes susceptible to going rotten after a rainstorm, and two, burnt grape skins add the unwanted flavor of burnt sugar, especially to white wines.
Vines are sprayed with the sunscreen prior to an expected heat wave. Following the harvest, grapes are washed before going through the normal fermentation processes. Through vigorous inspection and work-desk boozing, I determined there is no noticeable effect on the taste of the vineyard's shiraz, chardonnay, or sauvignon blanc.
Bruce predicts he'll continue to use the product in the hot spells sure to continue in the coming years. With rising global temperatures and more heat waves expected, it's one creative way to safeguard Australia's best exports.
But the vineyard isn't simply slathering the plants with Coppertone: The grape sunscreen used at Tyrrell's is an industrial product, different from the greasy variety applied to human skin. Bruce assures MUNCHIES that the product has been through industry testing, and is safe to use on food.
There are some foods that taste better when slow-cooked to crispy perfection. But wine grapes are not one of them.