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Australia experienced a record harvest in 2004, bringing in nearly 1.94 million U.S. tons, up 9 percent from the previous record set in 2002 and a huge 25 percent increase from the drought-affected 2003 harvest.
In general, winemakers assess the quality as high throughout the country's wine regions. The long, steady ripening conditions allowed for good color and flavor development in the grapes and led to a consistent harvest that was largely disease-free. Overall, however, quality is unlikely to reach the level of 2002 because of intense heat spells in many areas in February.
With the combination of a large crop and good quality, "it's one of those years that's easy as a winemaker," said John Davey, winemaker for the recently introduced Shingleback, Red Knot and the Gate brands from McLaren Vale.
Good winter rains and a generally cool spring set the stage for a good harvest, while hot weather in early summer encouraged strong growth and above-average yields. Many premium growers thinned their crops to ensure effective ripening.
The warmer regions, including the Barossa and Clare valleys in South Australia, experienced a burst of extremely high temperatures in February, at the end of summer, which slowed vine development. However, near-perfect warm autumn weather, with blue skies and cool nights, ensured that the wines came in with good color and excellent balance, winemakers said.
The Barossa was marked by a spate of 100-plus degree F weather for a couple of weeks in February, but this was not a big problem for the red varieties, which were not particularly ripe at that point. Charlie Melton of Charles Melton Wines believes the vintage is very strong. "Grenache is a standout, being very rich and perfumed," he said, "while Shiraz has great weight and is at the more savory end of the aroma spectrum."
In the Clare Valley, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon generally withstood the heat stress if they received sufficient water. Some Riesling was burned, but diligent sorting minimized the effects of this. Jeffrey Grosset of Grosset Wines said the hardy Cabernet fared the best, exhibiting ripe tannins and a stylish character.
While Coonawarra was warmer than usual, the region avoided the February heat wave. "Merlot and Cabernet are as good as I've seen them, including the '98 vintage," said Kym Tolley, winemaker for Penley Estate. "I put it down to a cool, dry season, which enabled excellent fruit and sugar balance and good acid levels." Yields were up 25 percent overall, even with the extensive crop thinning undertaken by most serious producers.
McLaren Vale also missed the worst of the February heat wave; in fact, the growing period was generally cooler than normal. As a result, Phillip Dean, senior winemaker at D'Arenberg, said he feels the reds have more fragrance and finesse than typical McLaren Vale blockbusters.
Whites from the cooler Adelaide Hills region also benefited from a long, slow ripening period. Quantities are up, and winemakers there believe Chardonnay, in particular, is showing finesse and good natural acidity.
In New South Wales, the weather in the Hunter Valley was generally hot and dry, marked by heat spells in late December and February and by two big rainfalls in late January and February. Sémillon has a bigger flavor than usual, while the quality of Shiraz depends on whether it was picked before or after the rain, said Bruce Tyrrell, CEO of Tyrrell's Wines.
In Western Australia's Margaret River region, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc benefited from a cool, dry growing season. These varieties were harvested before a heat wave struck the area in March, ripening the red varieties and Sémillon all at once. Vanya Cullen, chief winemaker at Cullen Wines, said Cabernet Sauvignon from old vines looks particularly interesting since they handled the heat stress, and the heat enabled full ripe flavors to develop.
In Victoria, the Yarra Valley had a fantastic year for Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, said Tom Carson, chief winemaker at Yering Station. Yarra Valley did not experience the February heat wave and a long ripening period "gave Chardonnay a lovely intensity, with good natural acidity and texture," he said. "Chardonnay likes the cooler years." Hot temperatures in early summer, on the other hand, gave Cabernet a good jump start so that it was able to ripen fully, with good color and flavor intensity.
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