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Widespread drought in Australia caused a substantial drop in the size of this year's wine-grape harvest -- the first decline the country has seen. But the dry conditions helped keep the grapes free of disease, and overall quality ranges from good to excellent across many regions and varieties.
Nationally, the wine-grape crop weighed in at 1.5 million tons, a 12 percent decrease from last year. Yields of white varieties declined by 16 percent, which is likely to exacerbate shortages of white wines. On the other hand, the 9 percent reduction in yields of red varieties will enable wineries to make a dent in their record-high stocks of red wines.
The drought affected the warm inland districts more severely. Within the cooler premium wine regions, South Australia and Western Australia were less impacted by the drought than the eastern regions of New South Wales and Victoria.
After hot, dry conditions for most of the growing season, heavy rain hit many regions--particularly in South Australia--in February, at the start of harvest. The water caused some splitting of tight, drought-constricted grapes, further reducing yields. Following the rains, a long Indian summer helped to dry out the undamaged berries and enhance flavor development.
"The tough weather conditions tested viticultural management practices," said Jeffrey Grosset, of Grosset Wines in South Australia's Clare Valley. He said quality wasn't compromised when the rains fell if vineyard yields were low and varieties were not close to ripeness, such as the region's signature Riesling. Grosset believes the quality of the Riesling will challenge the exceptional 2002 vintage, while reds, such as Shiraz and Cabernet, are more variable. He said reds should be well-structured and long-lasting, but some might suffer from the raisined characteristics of overly concentrated fruit.
In the Barossa Valley, the grapes were dry at harvest, with low juice content and concentrated flavors. In general, later-ripening varieties fared better, according to Robert O'Callahan, CEO and chief winemaker of Rockford Wines, because the second half of the vintage was "idyllic, with the kind of weather you paint pictures about." Andrew Wiggan, chief winemaker at Peter Lehmann, said overall quality looks good to very good, with Shiraz and Merlot faring better than Cabernet.
The consensus among vintners in McLarenVale is that it was a difficult year. With the reds, including Shiraz, Cabernet and Grenache, alcohol levels were high, but winemakers had to wait until the grapes were fully mature. The resulting wines are reported to have reasonable structure and depth, good balance and controlled tannins. In Adelaide Hills, Sauvignon Blanc appears to be a quality winner.
In the Coonawarra region of South Australia, Kym Tolley, chief executive and winemaker of Penley Estate, said, "It is not the best year in the Coonawarra, but it is very good. Anything with such a low crop has to be good. It's just up to the winemaker to make it happen. And there are some parcels of Cabernet that are absolutely fantastic."
In Western Australia, in the Margaret River, spring rain and warm summer temperatures boded especially well for Cabernet Sauvignon, which "showed a beautiful balance of flavors," said Vanya Cullen, winemaker at Cullen Wines. Malbec also appears potentially outstanding.
In New South Wales, Bruce Tyrrell of Tyrrell's Wines, headquartered in the Hunter Valley, said quantities of Shiraz were down by 50 percent, and Sémillon and Chardonnay by about a third. Wineries had to wait until grapes reached sugar levels of as high as 16 Baumé before they developed ripe flavors and colors. "The resulting wines are big but may not be very long-lasting," he said. But he added, "The reds out of the Mudgee [region] are the best we've ever had, in spite of the drought."
In Victoria, Tom Carson, winemaker at Yering Station in Yarra Valley, said that 2003 was generally a very good year for red wines. Shiraz was the best performer under the hot, dry conditions, while the region's white wines do not have the flavor intensity of 2002.
Read last year's harvest report:
Read Harvey Steiman's most recent tasting report on Australia:
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