Crazy weather keeps producers on their toes
THE 2008 vintage in Australia has been totally erratic. Recurrent themes across all states except Western Australia have been record early starts with varieties ripening in totally unpredictable and abnormal order. In many instances this has effectively meant all at the same time; despite the heat, some better outcomes for whites than reds; and a vintage in two halves, the first preceding the record 15-day roasting of Adelaide and the second during or after it.
Adelaide made the headlines but it was simply the epicentre of the fierce heat that affected South Australia, Victoria and even Tasmania. As the heatwave unfolded, reports of red grapes coming into wineries with unbelievable baumes (sugar levels) proliferated. As a generalisation, preferred baume levels for red grapes at harvest would be 13.5 to 14.5 degrees, resulting in alcohol levels of 13 per cent to 14 per cent by volume.
The first shock numbers were 20 baume, quickly surpassed by 24 baume, finally tipping the scales at 31 baume for a load of McLaren Vale grapes delivered to a Barossa Valley winery and consigned straight to the waste heap.
It is all too easy to lay the blame on climate change and to assume that no good wines will come from the vintage. Both are simplistic assumptions.
For a start, one has to distinguish between weather (be it for days or months) and climate (long term). Australia had one of its many severe droughts through the early years of Federation, encapsulated by photographs on the front page of The Australian , one showing a town mayor standing on the bone-dry bed of the Murray River more than 100 years ago next to a recent photograph of two boys fishing in the river at the same spot.
Unravelling the ball of wool to determine how much of the present conditions are due to climate change and how much to El Nino is difficult.
El Nino and La Nina weather patterns have always dominated seasonal growing conditions across most of Australia, and it was the El Nino drought that led to bone-dry soils warming earlier than usual in the run-up to the 2007 and 2008 vintages, spurred on by warm spring weather.
In these years the ripening cycle began two to four weeks earlier than usual (with disastrous frosts in late 2006 but far fewer at the end of last year).
The paradox was that a cool to very cool February provided ideal conditions for the development of flavour and physiological ripening. Research has shown that the optimum temperature band for grape ripening is between 20C and 22C (and for canopy growth between 23C and 25C). So regions as diverse as the Yarra and the Barossa valleys were a considerable way into harvest by the end of February, Barossa shiraz with exceptional colour and flavour. Most of the white grapes were also picked early in excellent condition.
From this point on, the problems compounded rapidly. Yields in most, though not all, regions were above average (and above expectations) and the pace of ripening accelerated, resulting in vicious compression pressures on fermentation capacity in the wineries. One winemaker wrote to me describing it as a bathtub and gumboot vintage, as in the need to use every unit of available storage.
I have had vintage reports from all regions, and for SA and Victoria in particular, most nominate a date between March 1 and March 12 as the cut-off point for good quality. Once those dates were reached picking had to be delayed because there was no spare fermentation capacity, compounding the problems. The SA Limestone Coast was one key exception: having initially been thoroughly spooked by what was happening elsewhere in the state, picking began in a frenzied fashion but, once the heat passed (only three to four days), the harvest slowed in Coonawarra and continued into April in cool weather, and the quality was very good.
Finally, as well reported, the Hunter Valley and Mudgee in NSW saw the near destruction of shiraz due to 1000mm of rain since June 2007, much of it at critical times in January and February. Only 30 per cent of the red grape crop was harvested, the saving grace, as ever, being semillon.
2008 Australian vintage
THERE will be some very good wines but there will also be some reds with porty, dead-fruit characters and some blowsy, soft whites. The havens are the Great Southern (and its five sub-regions) and Margaret River of Western Australia; the opposite corner of Australia in Queensland’s Granite Belt; regions with strong maritime climates, such as the Mornington Peninsula, Geelong, Southern Fleurieu and Tasmania; and high-altitude regions such as Orange and the Canberra district, where the ACT Government has reportedly decided that 2008 vintage wines will be featured in its 2013 centenary celebrations. Chardonnay has performed particularly well in the Port Phillip Zone (Geelong, Macedon Ranges, Mornington, Sunbury and the Yarra Valley). So the cupboard will not be empty later this year or next. The paradox is that many winemakers in all regions except Mudgee and the Hunter believe the best wines of 2008 will be better than their 2007 counterparts. Exactly how much of this is wishful thinking won’t be known until the wines are bottled.