It's summertime in the U.S. and Europe and grapevines are still flowering, but there's wine aging in barrels down south, in the Southern Hemisphere, that is. The 2011-2012 growing season produced lower yields in New Zealand and much of Australia. Most winemakers made less wine, but of better quality. On Australia's east coast, however, monsoons arrived right in the middle of harvest.
The 2012 vintage could be a return to normal for southeastern Australia’s winemakers following the wet and challenging 2011 harvest, which produced grapes with low sugar levels. Vintners finished harvesting their grapes in mid-April and are excited about the potential quality of the vintage despite a smaller-than-average crop. Many are reporting good concentration and color in both their reds and white wines that are now in barrel.
One of the main themes of the vintage was low yields throughout southeastern Australia and across most varieties. The Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics and Sciences reported that the crop could be the lowest in half a decade. “The low yields are likely a combination of the strong winds experienced this season, low soil moisture from a dry spring, and the low bud fruitfulness resulting from the challenging 2011 season,” said Frank Mitolo of Mitolo wines in McLaren Vale.
The season started with cool weather, which delayed bud development and affected fruit set. A mild spring with some beneficial rain and a warm, dry summer with few heat spikes followed. The moderate weather allowed the grapes to develop slowly. “The wines have basically made themselves this year, so the expression of the individual vineyards is at a peak in the resultant wines,” said Stuart Bourne, winemaker at Barossa’s Chateau Tanunda.
The vintage was not without its challenges, especially for growers on Australia’s eastern seaboard. In March, they faced substantial rains and flooding during harvest. Over the course of seven days, monsoon weather dropped nearly 12 inches of rain over parts of Central New South Wales, including Orange and Hunter Valley, and Riverina farther to the south. Homes and wineries were flooded, and botrytis became an issue in the vineyards. Fortunately, winemakers had picked the majority of their fruit before the rains hit.
Nick Spencer, winemaker at Eden Road Wines in Canberra, called the vintage “incredibly challenging.” But winemakers are optimistic about the quality of the grapes they did harvest. Spencer compares it favorably against the 2011 vintage: “In 2012, there were bigger rains, but enough dry days in between for the fruit to ripen.” He particularly likes the Chardonnay.
Vineyards farther south in Victoria dodged the worst of the wet. In the Yarra Valley, the growing season was long and slow with an Indian summer. Phil Sexton, winemaker at Innocent Bystander and Giant Steps, said it was a low stress harvest. “It’s a Pinot vintage—the colors are just fantastic,” Sexton said.
Juice and must are pumped into the fermentation vat. (Photo Courtesy Mollydooker)
South Australia, which includes the growing regions of Barossa, McLaren Vale and the Limestone Coast, didn’t experience the same weather extremes. In Barossa, vintners reported an easy harvest with near ideal weather conditions. However, overall yields were down by almost 20 percent. “In a nutshell, 2012 was early and fast, with lower-than-average crops, near-perfect weather and great quality,” said Luisa Rose, chief winemaker at Yalumba. Rose said the reds such as Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon have great color and varietal character.
It was a similar situation in McLaren Vale. Harvest got off to an early start and finished early, with vintners pulling in a smaller-than-average crop. “The reds, safely tucked away in barrel now, have bright natural acidity and soft, ripe yet mouthfilling tannins giving the framework for aging,” said Mitolo.
It was a different story on Australia’s west coast. Vintners are reporting slightly higher yields after a growing season marked by hot and dry weather. In Margaret River, the season started with less-than-normal rainfall, but the weather stayed mild, resulting in larger berries, especially with Chardonnay.
For most vintners, 2012 was one of the coolest growing seasons in New Zealand’s recent history, with low yields and a delayed, rushed harvest. But sunny skies at harvest time turned out to be a saving grace.
A cooler than average December and January affected fruit set in much of New Zealand, especially Marlborough, where half of the country’s grapes are grown, resulting in lower yields. “The flowering was the worst flowering we have ever seen,” said Matt Thomson of Saint Clair Vineyards.
Growers report that yields are down between 10 to 40 percent depending on the site. A vintage survey from the New Zealand Winegrowers suggests the overall vintage size is down 18 percent from 2011. But small crops and tiny berries typically result in wines of concentration. “The crops are historically low, but the quality is top notch,” said Simon Waghorn of Astrolabe. Allan Scott said that a light crop not only means more concentration, but better balance of sweetness and acidity.
Summer never seemed to arrive—temperatures remained relatively cool and dry. Autumn seemed to make up for the cool summer, with warmer weather leading up to harvest. Picking was delayed by about 2-3 weeks, as some vintners wanted extra hang time for flavors to develop. For many, when harvest started it was short and compressed. “Everyone has to be thankful the yields were low as that certainly helped the ripening process—heavier crops would have delayed even more,” said Scott.
“With the warmth at the end of the season and the cloudless skies, we were able to see the sugar and acid levels exactly where we wanted them before harvesting the fruit,” said Anthony Walkenhorst of Kim Crawford, adding that the resulting acids will be softer and the flavors more intense.
Pickers harvest grapes for Wairau River Winery. (Photo by Nick Entwhistle)
Central Otago—home to some of the country’s best Pinot Noir—had a relatively normal spring and a very warm early summer before cooling down to the cool summer that other wine regions experienced, according to Felton Road’s Blair Walter. Harvest in Central Otago was also fast-paced, and Walter reported yields down slightly on Pinot Noir, but down 25 to 40 percent on Riesling and Chardonnay.
Though there is less wine, most vintners are excited with the results. For Sauvignon Blanc, the cool growing season likely means that flavors will avoid tropical notes, instead offering classic lemon, peach and grapefruit flavors, with vibrant acidity. Most vintners are reporting deep, unusually dark Pinot Noirs with low alcohols, plush tannins and red fruit flavors. “Pinot Noir has the best vintage that I’ve ever seen in Marlborough," said Thomson. "I would previously say that about 2010, but the 2012s look darker and fleshier than the 2010s. They also have a wonderful violet character.”