2011 – a contrary vintage for Australian winegrowers

Plus a vintage roundup from Twitter

By Ian Hickinbotham
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Australian Plonky by Ian Hickinbotham

Australian Plonky by Ian Hickinbotham [©Papinian Publishing]

Higher Plane vineyard, Margaret River
Home Hill Winery, Ranelagh, Tasmania
Grapes and vines in a South Australian vineyard
Picking grapes in a South Australian vineyard

 

Vintage 2011 may go down in history as one of the most difficult for winegrowers of all regions of Australia, except for some parts of Western Australia and Tasmania.

Rain in our viticultural regions has been the basic problem, not just because it came at the wrong time, or caused flooding and flood damage, but it has been followed by increased humidity; or sometimes both together.

Even for those not flooded, rain also made the vineyard soils slippery, or impassible by machinery.

Obviously, rain falling when grapes are ripe dilutes juice in berries, but wine (of lesser quality) can still be made, while reduced alcohol content may be considered a bonus. It seems that grapes are most vulnerable when nearly ripe: rain and/or with humidity inevitably results in development of downy or powdery mildew – or both, unless the viticulturalist has been especially vigilant with his or her spray regime.

Of course there are degrees of mould infestation, determined by the ambient climate. If sunshine prevails immediately after the attack, little damage is inflicted, while it only affects the function of some leaves.

A more vigorous attack of downy mildew results in dysfunction of the leaves which even turn brown, losing their chlorophyll function, so ripening comes to a standstill: a sustained attack of downy mildew also leads to infestation of the stalks of the bunches and complete spoilage of the bunches.

To the chagrin of the grape grower, all this can happen in a day. Topically, a Barossa Valley grapegrower appeared on television early April and stated that for the first time in 45 years, his load of grapes had been refused by a winery.

For the winemaker, powdery mildew is worse than down mildew, as the actual quality of wine is affected, while the making is complicated.

A seemingly tragic aspect has been a severe shortage of fungicide sprays. This was first reported regarding Riverland growers, whose grapes always ripen earlier than most Australian regions, which automatically meant that growers in cooler regions suffered even more from the shortage of preventative sprays. Then there were others who had the sprays, but could not get a tractor onto their land.

Bordeaux mixture has been the basic spray for downy mildew for centuries. Like many scientific discoveries, for example penicillin, its veracity against moulds was discovered by accident. Grapegrowers in the classic Bordeaux region of France originally applied it to their rows of vines in their vineyard nearest the road to discourage travelling grape thieves. They had built in 'control' vines – being the majority in their vineyards that were not sprayed – and they soon learned that they were more susceptible to attack by downy mildew.

Bordeaux is usually referred to as 'Bordeaux mixture', but its major component is copper, which originally was simple blue-coloured copper sulfate (which was spelt 'copper sulphate'). Now, after generations of application in their vineyards, there is concern about the change brought to their soils. One immediate concern is based on the fact that as little as a quarter of a part per million of copper in wine produced can cause cloudiness, but worse, the damage only happens months after such wine has been bottled.

Bio-dynamic wine is a current catch cry. As a generality, reduction of the additives permitted to be added during the winegrowing process is the commendable objective, so allowing the use of chemical copper is a noteworthy exception. It has been a challenging year for the bio-dynamicists especially.

 

Ian Hickinbotham, one of the most innovative and influential oenologists in Australia over his 50 year career, is the author of Australian Plonky (see related review below).

 

 

Vintage 2011 reports from Twitter around Australia – Robyn Lewis

By following the Twitter hashtag #vintage2011 (go to http://search.twitter.com and type in #vintage2011) and from first-hand reports from the regions, we compile a largely anecdotal overview of vintage from some regions around Australia.

 

The summer of 2010/11 is reportedly the second wettest on record – but it depends where you were. Some regions like the Eden Valley have suffered from the rain very badly, others have been spared, or the rain has been more of an inconvenience.

Several notable regions are reportedly in denial, or have been counselling growers on how to deal with the media asking 'difficult' questions (like, 'how was vintage this year?'), as if they and the wine-consuming public won't notice the effects.

Well, maybe they will, maybe they won't, but the reality of farming anywhere on earth is that nature calls the final shots, and there are always going to be difficult years, and even wipe-outs, and no-one can pretend otherwise. Producers of cherries and many other soft fruits have suffered similarly, and just ask farmers in Queensland what their season has been like....

The summer of 2011 destroyed far more than the hopes of some winemakers. A more important question should be, who will survive the lack of cash flow if there is nothing to sell? Bad years come, but only the well-prepared can see them out. But it's hard if there are several in a row, or other factors like the high Australian dollar...

Established companies with cash reserves should be OK, especially family-run wine businesses without significant debt or external shareholders, but at the smaller, boutique end there may be a lot of pain. Some vineyards are reportedly on the market for land value only. The significant sized Pettavel near Geelong is in receivership, having recently (June 2011) laid off around 30 staff.

On the plus side, given the wine stocks that some winemakers have built up over the past few years, it could be a great year for selling some back vintages, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that; many of these wines improve with age, will have been well cellared, and the consumer has a chance of picking up some good quality wine without paying an additional price premium for the aging.

 

Let's look firstly at several regions that have done well, i.e. avoided most of the excess summer rains and humidity.

Southern Tasmania was largely unaffected by the heavy rains of the north and north-east of Tasmania but suffered from cold and/or lack of sun, especially south of Hobart.

  • Most vineyards in the Coal River and Derwent Valleys are reportedly fine, with both yields and quality high, although harvested their pinot noir later than usual, either side of Easter (when the autumn weather finally stabilised). As Paul Smart of Pressing Matters described Easter, "it's... a fruit-nami". The vintage dragged on, and winemakers were looking very weary.
     
  • Riesling and grapes for sparkling were harvested earlier and there were no adverse reports heard. Derwent Estate Wines reports 'just enough rain, plenty of sunshine and one of the best recent vintages' for pinot noir, with the rain causing delays rather than damage.
     
  • Peter Shields of Kilbowie Estate Wines (Huon and Channel area of Southern Tasmania) reported that  "so far four of the vineyards won't be picking this year as the grapes simply won't ripen on time. We're cutting off the grapes as the canes are not ripening as well. If we get a frost and the canes are still green there will be no crop next year". 
     
  • St Imre Vineyard, Australia's secondmost southerly vineyard, located near Dover (also in the Huon and Channel area), reported at Easter that "the nets are now just on and we will harvest at the end of May, which is about 2 weeks later than usual".

Very heavy but sporadic rains affected much of the reminder of Tasmania, but at time of writing it remains too early to say how much an impact they had. No wipeouts have been reported. The last grapes reported to have been picked were cabernet in the Coal River Valley, in the final week of May.
  

Western Australia

Western Australia also appears to have been spared, despite extra rainfall,  with Margaret River vignerons especially happy with the 2011 conditions, which follows on from four successive excellent vintages. This appears to be the lucky state of 2011, with no regions reporting adverse results of which we are aware, even in the cooler south around Pemberton and Denmark.

 

Canberra

In another cool-climate region, Twitter reports are that alcohol levels of the wines will be much lower this year – around 13% compared with over 14.5% in 2008 – due to lower sugar levels. Makers of white wines (including Lark Hill's semillon) report that the grape flavours are still well developed, although some red growers report turning their entire crop into rosé.

 

South Australia

Australia's great wine state appears to have suffered the most, despite having avoided the direct flooding that hit parts of Victoria, NSW, Tasmania and Queensland in January. However the ability of makers to blend from grapes sourced across regions will assist greatly.

The famed sunshine of the Barossa summer didn't shine as much this year, and the wines made will vary enormously by producer. Some report that Barossa cabernet may be 'the best ever'. It should be remembered that even though some grapes from prize vineyards may have been or unavailable, good grapes were still picked (and carefully sorted), and the skill and experience of the winemaker can produce good results.
 

  • It was reported on Twitter that there would be no Torbreck RunRig 2011, #vintage2011 not 'up to snuff!'
     
  • WBM reports that "few super-premiums will be released this year; queries about where the Eileen Hardy will actually come from – maybe the west; (and that) one legendary South Australian winemaker declaring it the worst vintage he’s seen in his 40 year career"
     
  • In the higher Eden Valley, some smaller growers like Karra Yerta Wines made the difficult decision not to pick at all, despite the grapes remaining being of very high quality, due to the quantity being insufficient to cover the winemaking cost. Conversely, in the Clare Valley, WBM again reports that "Grosset making perhaps the best wines of his career";
     
  • In McLaren Vale, one winemaker reported turning his grapes straight into port, presumably on the 'something is better than nothing principle'. Again this appears likely to be a variable region.
     
  • The late harvest record seems to have gone to Shottesbrook in the Adelaide Hills: "Last day of #vintage2011, Botrytis SB from the #AdelHills on a cold (zero in fact) , 1st day of winter morning". Being botrytised, this could however be a delicious wine.

All rather confusing, really.

 

Victoria

Again, reports are mixed.

  • Pfeiffer Wines in Rutherglen finished vintage in early May, and they report their wines are "looking great';
     
  • It was reported on Twitter that some growers in Geelong and the Mornington Peninsula were still picking mid May. Some of have lost significant proportions of their crops;
     
  • Hanging Rock in the Macedon Ranges was wiped out early by heavy rains and flooding, and will produce no wine this year;
     
  • Best's in Great Western are 'thrilled with the outcome. It’s been a tough vintage for many in Australia, but after a wet start we’ve seen exceptional fruit quality coming through. The cold conditions without intense periods of heat lead to a long ripening period with minimal stress on the vines. Great regional characteristics are emerging and we’re particularly excited about the Shiraz, which is showing some great regional spicy characteristics! The Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are also looking exceptional.'
     
  • Phillip Island Wines report "our vintage is in good shape (thanks to some rigorous care and some sustainable sprays we got onto early in our spray program that worked a treat)."
     

NSW

Vintage 2011 was 'tough' but overall, winemakers were reported as feeling optimistic.

  • In Orange, Angullong general manager Ben Crossing said the company was looking forward to the wines this year, despite losing some varieties to rain and disease. In the Central Western Daily, he was quoted: “It has been wet all season so we expect we’ll end up with more aromatic wines and characteristics of a higher altitude”. He expects this year’s sauvignon blanc, that will be ready by mid-June, to have a lifted aromatic quality'.
     
  • There was a cold snap in mid-May that caught some vignerons off guard. Again the Central Western Daily reported that 'Brangayne winery owner David Hoskins had over 20 tonnes of cabernet sauvignon grapes on his vines, and was disappointed he was unable to harvest them before ... snowfall'. The cold snap meant the grapes will no longer ripen and have to be brought in quickly before the vines shut down. The crop is usually picked by early April, but the wet and cool conditions delayed harvest for many growers. “The wet meant the season started a lot later,” he said. “We just wanted to leave the fruit on as long as possible to get a bit riper.”
     
  • In the Hunter Valley, the start of vintage was extremely wet, with a lot of downy mildew, but this was in general followed by good ripening conditions and most grapes were harvested at the 'new normal' times of January and February.

 

QUEENSLAND

Along with Victoria, his state suffered the most from flooding. Kaeserberg Vineyard on Lockyer Creek in the Brisbane Valley perhaps lost more than any when floodwaters tore away fencing, trellises and even vines. Another, Riversands Vineyards on the Balonne River at St George, picked their remaining grapes from a boat. In the main wine-producing Granite Belt, reports are mixed, with many affected by the wet conditions and consequent mildew.

The wine critics will certainly have to work hard this year – there certainly has never been as much variability. For consumers, don't write off 2011 wines just because it was 'wet'; many wines will be perfectly fine. All the more reason to get out and taste before you buy.

 

 

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June 05th, 2011
 
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