Thursday, January 31, 2013

A few 2013 vintage musings

A few 2013 vintage musings

What a contrast between take off and landing.

Lifting off in Adelaide on Monday and as far as the eye could see the land was brown. Browner than I've seen it actually, the hills brown, the valleys brown, the lakes.. brown. The South Australian landscape ochre and dry, punctuated only by the odd vineyard, the rows of green sticking out against the brown hills.

Conversely, I landed in Sydney to pouring rain. House flooding, crank-the-windscreen-wipers-to-light-speed, pouring rain. Rain that was turning already green grass, and green gardens, even greener.

Suffice to say that, as ever, Australia is a big place. A big place, with wildly divergent weather, particularly in summer time. Wildly divergent weather that gives wildly divergent vintage conditions.

In South Australia, or at least in the Barossa, Eden Valley, Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale (all of which sit in the Adelaide zone, so let's use that) where I spent some time last week, it has been a seriously dry and warm summer. With little significant rain since late winter (which is not strictly unusual), the grass has died off and the land looks dusty and scorched, more so than I can ever remember.

Tiers vineyard. Grass is brown, vineyard is green and healthy
Thankfully the winter rains were good, so soil moisture levels are still ok, and whilst the weather has been 'hot', there has been nothing like the multi-day 40+ degree heatwaves of 2008 or 2009 to really fry those precious grapes, all of which bodes better for quality. Regardless, even the most hardy 'dry grown' vineyards have needed a drink this summer and, as a result, dam levels are well down. A little rain would be very welcome right now, particularly judging by some very dusty vineyards I spotted in the back of the Barossa and Adelaide Hills.

The net effect of these dry conditions however has been a drop in yield. It's not uniform, for some vineyards in the cooler, wetter areas are actually setting big crops, but in many vineyards bunch and berry sizes are down (I was regularly quoted 10-15%).

Tellingly, you can see these yield drops in other fruits too. Apples at several spots in the Adelaide Hills were tiny this year, and peaches by the roadside in Willunga were small and dehydrated. The Shiraz bunches I spotted in Rowland Flat (the southern end of the Barossa) looked small, if well formed as well. All of it points to (potentially) smaller yields.

The good news is that, whilst yields may be down such a dry and hot, but not 'roasting hot', summer, when combined with a 'normal' flowering and solid fruit set, has resulted in some very healthy grapes. The bunches may not be as big but they look healthy and absolutely disease free, if a fraction sunburnt on the western sides. The grapes are already colouring up too, with Primo Estate in McLaren Vale looking to pick Merlot in a week or so, which is very early, whilst some Shiraz grapes I cheekily picked in Grant Burge's Filsell vineyard already full darkened in colour and ripening by the day.

Judging by how ripe those grapes are already looking, and based on feedback from locals and cellar door staff, vintage will be up to two weeks early in many vineyards. Saying that, not everyone is early (or has reduced yields). At the Tiers vineyard, located in the Piccadilly Valley and source of Petaluma and Tapanappa's 'Tiers' Chardonnays, the Chardonnay grapes are only now going through veraison - which is apparently about normal. Yields are about bang on normal too (and the vineyard looks a treat. Just ignore the brown grass).

Beyond just Tiers, what do these weather conditions mean for quality? Cautious optimism at least. If vignerons have managed to control canopies to cope with the heat and, if necessary, kept irrigation water up as required, 2013 could be a very strong 'ripe' vintage, particularly for reds.

Conversely, we could be seeing a repeat of 2007, another hot and dry vintage, where even more prolonged dry conditions dried up everything, those same vines yielding tough little grapes with thick skins and a lack of flesh. Thick skins and a lack of flesh producing tough, dehydrated wines with high alcohols and uncertain fruit to match.

Of course we are only now actually entering the really crucial period, that final post-veraison ripening stage where the grapes darken and soften and sweeten, the acid dropping and the sugars rising. Right now, the vignerons are praying that the weather stays sunny and dry, at least for long enough to keep those grapes healthy enough to get them over the line. Fingers crossed for blue skies, rain that passes quickly and moderate heat over the next month or so.

Speaking of rain, we need only compare the aforementioned Adelaide zone weather conditions to that of the Hunter Valley. The Hunter too has had a dry and warm one, again with limited rain since spring. With dams nice and full, and soil moisture levels excellent, this has been anything but a worry and vignerons have been rubbing their hands together at the early quality of the whites and reds. At least they were until the weekend..
Very healthy Semillon, picked after the rain
Photo: Tyrrells

It's that rain you see, the rain that drenched our suitcases getting off the plane and delayed our flight coming into Sydney (and that's not even talking about the devastation it caused in SE QLD and northern NSW). That pouring rain, which managed to dump up to 150mm in just 18 hours on the Hunter vineyards. It's the sort of pouring rain that potentially could fill berries up with water, which then splits them, which then leads to rot and disease. It's the sort of rain that will destroy whole vintages in, well, 18 hours.

Or at least it could. But then the sun came out, and for the free draining sandy soils that underpin most Hunter Semillon vineyards, this meant the water seeped in quickly and the grapes dried up. For the Semillon still on the vine - which are at that all-important final week or so of ripening - this is a great thing, crucially reducing the disease risk very quickly. Shiraz is still hard and crunchy, and thus at much less risk of splitting, but Semillon is fragile. Seeing the sun come out - and watching that water drain away so quickly - is like a blessing from God.

Naturally it's not all beer and skittles though, as some sunburnt bunches (which are most in danger of splitting) will need to be dropped and picking could be delayed, yet for the large part it is crisis averted. Amazingly.

Such a situation does serve to highlight one thing - whilst I have already generalised earlier in this piece about vintages and vineyard conditions, what this little vintage flight, from south to east, reminded me is that in any one vintage, at any one time, Australia is so large and so climatically diverse that giving straight out vintage declarations is a problematic beast.

Perhaps more importantly, the final conclusion of all this vintage study is one major realisation - growing winegrapes is bloody hard work. More power to the viticulturists!

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