In 1885, John Francis Brown, then aged 18, planted 10 acres (four hectares) of vines at Milawa in the Australian state of Victoria, mostly in riesling, muscat and shiraz. He knew nothing about nurturing grapes or making wine, but the growth of Victorian vineyards convinced him that wine was a good trick. A few years later – encouraged, no doubt, by a government subsidy of £2 an acre – he planted another 10 acres. In 1896, he called the enterprise Brown Brothers.
Brown died in 1943. His brothers never joined him in the winery, but his son, John Charles, did. Seventy years later, Brown Brothers, is still headquartered at Milawa and is known as a large producer of very good wine. And it’s still family owned: third-generation Ross Brown is chief executive.
Brown Brothers has expanded a lot in the past 40-odd years. Starting in 1968, it established four more vineyards around Victoria, including in the Murray Valley and at one of Australia’s highest – and coolest – wine sites, Whitlands, in the King Valley.
It would appear perspicacity remains a family trait. In 2010, the company bought three vineyards totaling 400 hectares (988 acres) in Tasmania, specifically to insulate its operations from the impact of climate change. The sites cost a total of $32.5 million Australian dollars ($32 million) – a big spend by anyone’s standards. “You have to put it into context,” says Ross Brown. “We’d had 10 years of severe drought.”
During that decade, the Browns found that vineyards they had thought were drought-proof were, in fact, as vulnerable as any other, and came – slowly – to the conclusion that it was because of changing weather patterns. “We were probably a bit like most farmers, a bit skeptical,” says Brown of climate change. “But then we thought, let’s sit down and understand the science.”
They dialed up a climatologist, sought data from around the country, and by the end of the process were convinced that climate change was a reality. They also realized that given a 2°C (3.6°F) average temperature rise, they would no longer be able to make certain kinds of wine – in particular pinot noir and sparkling styles – in their existing vineyards. Brown is typically sober about this: “We’d be very incompetent if we didn’t make some forward planning around this science.”
But they came to other conclusions, too. The first was that consumers are tending towards lighter wines – pinot noir and riesling – against chardonnay and shiraz. Which, for Australian winegrowers heretofore known for big, gutsy reds (the alcoholic equivalent of a big Holden ute), is something of a double whammy, says Brown. “Global warming is giving higher alcohols and richer wines, when in fact the consumer’s going in the other direction.”
Companies such as theirs, the Browns realized, would need to change what they grew and where they grew it. If they wanted to benefit from the trend to reds such as pinot noir, they would have to look elsewhere. “I don’t think in the future you’ll grow chardonnay in the Murray Valley,” says Brown bluntly. “I just don’t think it’s going to make wine that’s going appeal to anybody.”
So they looked to Tasmania. For a start, the island seems less likely to be affected by the temperature increase expected from global warming – it has a maritime climate. In addition, its wine industry is already gaining a reputation for very good pinot noir. Brown Brothers realized they might need to cross the Bass Strait (which separates Tasmania from the mainland).
Things were hustled along when forestry giant Gunns put three vineyards – producing mostly pinot noir, riesling and sparkling wines – on the market. “They didn’t have any experience in wine,” says a bemused Brown, “so they employed every Ph.D. in the Southern Hemisphere to advise them.”
The result? Three beautifully laid-out vineyards – much better than his company was used to, jokes Brown – were added to Brown Brothers' holdings. Crucially, each of the sites was at least 100 hectares in size, which the company had established was the minimum size for a vineyard to be economically viable. (The pleasure that Brown Brothers got from buying the sites didn’t stop it from putting in the boot to the vendor via a press release: “And Gunns exits the wine industry, to the relief of many observers, including Tasmanian wine producers, who felt Gunns’ logging and forestry activities sat uncomfortably with winemaking.”)
There’s a reason that boffins started steering clear of the term "global warming" and opted instead for "climate change": as well as a general temperature increase, more erratic weather is on the rise. British wine critic Jancis Robinson has noted that while Tasmania is cool, it’s not necessarily wet. On the eastern side of the island, where one of the Brown Brothers' vineyards is sited, there isn’t always a lot of rain. A problem? “Well, it would be,” admits Brown, “except Gunns built a 700-million-liter [185-million-gallon] dam on the property, which is something you could just about water ski on.”
The Browns don’t plan to buy any more vineyards in Tasmania (Gunns had been selling half the grapes to other producers) and the focus is now on building the brands and making them pay. But Brown does reiterate that there’s a sea change occurring in wine drinking; the market for pinot noir, for instance, is growing at 17 percent a year. “I went to a dinner party a few weeks ago,” he says, “and there were five bottles of pinot. I thought that was pretty bizarre.”
*Clarification & Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a temperature rise of 2°C equated to 35°F. The correct figure is 3.6°F.