I walk down the rows at Simon Cowham's Shiraz vineyard in the Barossa Valley. A few raisined bunches remain on the occasional vine. I pick a few and taste them. They taste like black figs.
"There," says Cowham, who has Sons of Eden winery with his partner Corey Ryan but sells most of his grapes. He spies a bunch with some plump berries. "There's one with some fresh grapes." They taste sweet and reminiscent of plums.
Grapes are almost that scarce in some vineyards this year. Overall, growers estimate wine volume to drop by 30 percent or so in Barossa, a bit less in McLaren Vale, as much as 50 percent overall in Clare and perhaps more in Coonawarra. It's worse in Victoria. As I said, it hasn't been pretty for the growers.
Later, at Henschke, I taste a barrel of wine made from Cowham's grapes. The fruit is pure, the balance impeccable.
That's fairly typical of 2007. The combination of drought and spring frosts led to very poor set. The drought reduced vine vigor. Typically, the vines produced smaller bunches with smaller berries, and fewer of them. But the weather during summer and fall stayed dry and warm, without the heat spikes that can make the grapes too sugary and lead to high alcohol levels and raisiny flavors.
"There was no disease pressure," was a typical refrain, and that's what Stephen Henschke says as we taste a drop of the meager quantity he made of Hill of Grace, one of Australia's icon wines. "The fruit looked stunning," Stephen says. "No mold. No damage. There just wasn't much of it."
Standing in the Hill of Grace vineyard a few minutes earlier, Prue Henschke pointed to a wind machine. "We installed that a couple of years ago, and it saved the vineyard (from frost damage) 18 times this spring," she said. "The last one was a black frost, and nothing could save them." Hill of Grace got about 1/4 ton of grapes per acre for 2007.
Next day I walk toward Torbreck's still-busy winery with owner Dave Powell, crunching over a patch of yard strewn with wood chips. They smell like TCA. A hundred yards away, however, the winery smells sweet with fermenting grapes.
"Everybody else was running around picking grapes a month ago, but I decided to wait," Powell said. "And look," he added, reaching for a bunch of deep-blue Grenache grapes in a bin waiting for the fermenter. The grapes look normal, taste plump and sweet, already showing some complex flavors before they meet the yeast.
The tanks of fermenting wine at Torbreck yield deeply colored, aromatic wines-in-progress. Powell proudly shows off two new computer-operated stainless steel basket presses. They have taken some of the hard work out of the basket press method, which he insists on employing, for softer textures in the wines.
The steel ribs of a new building rise next door to house a barrel shed, case storage and bottling line, which is now being done in eight other locations. The short crop in 2007 will put a crimp in Powell's ability to pay for the new building, but he has made a separate deal to make and bottle some wine for a Japanese company that will bring in enough revenue to cover it, he says.
Other growers and wineries will be feeling the economic pinch of a short vintage. Inevitably, prices will go up, especially if the wines come out as good as they look now. It's a double-whammy for American wine drinkers, who will also feel the effects of a rising Aussie dollar.
The 2007 vintage follows a series of good ones since 2003, the last truly challenging vintage, when it was so hot that some grapes cooked on the vine. Both 2004 and 2005 produced pure-fruited wines with great, open structures. On my tastings, I give the edge to 2005, which looks like a classic vintage across the board. 2006 is also pretty good, but not as flashy as '04 and '05.
But 2007 will be remembered as the weirdest vintage of them all. Or, in one vintner's opinion, the easiest. "It's like a holiday," says Peter Barry, head of the Jim Barry winery in Clare. "This is the most relaxed vintage we've ever had. There's hardly anything to do."
Tony Aukett — Chicago, IL — April 20, 2007 10:47am ET
Claude Pope — Raleigh, NC — April 20, 2007 3:42pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — April 20, 2007 7:24pm ET
Jeffrey Spurlock — Laguna Beach, California — April 22, 2008 4:29pm ET
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