Crazy weather keeps pro­duc­ers on their toes

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - News - James Halliday

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.

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