Torrential rains are threatening the grape harvest in the Hunter Valley district of New South Wales where 2002 began with fears that vineyards could be hit by bushfires, which were devastating the Australian state.

The deluge has brought havoc to NSW with the capital, Sydney, already having had double its entire February average rainfall.

If forecasts of further rain are accurate the weather could damage the grape crop now being harvested including the Semillon variety for which the Hunter is renowned.

But such is Australia's ever capricious climate that the only concern in the major grape growing areas of South Australia and Victoria is an uncommonly cool summer which is lengthening the ripening period and which may delay the start of vintage by several weeks.