The book on vintage 2008 in Australia could be called A Tale of Two Harvests: There was what happened before the heat, and what happened after. Temperatures in South Australia hit 95° F on March 3 and didn't dip for 15 days, topping out at 104° F on March 17. Fortunately, many producers in the premier regions of Barossa and McLaren Vale—the sources of Australia's finest Shiraz—had already picked the majority of their best vineyards, or were able to pick many of the remaining grapes relatively quickly.
Still, few vintners escaped unscathed. The heat sparked a mad scramble; some producers couldn't pick fast enough while others ran out of fermenting vats. "We chose to get as much fruit as possible and started fermenting in any vessel that could hold grape must," said Michael Twelftree, owner of Two Hands Wines, a Shiraz-focused producer based in Barossa in South Australia. "We hired a number of extra staff with our thinking being that we are better to get the fruit off and into the winery than let it hang and dehydrate."
The grapes that came in before and soon after March 3 look to be very high quality, said Twelftree. However, grapes left on the vine were badly dehydrated; some were too dry to pick, while others registered as much as 24 degrees potential alcohol.
Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds, which has wineries in Adelaide and Barossa, picked nearly all of their finest vineyards before the heat. "At the top end, we'll make slightly higher volume and better quality than average," he said. "The [top-tier Shiraz and Cabernets] are not especially tannic or muscular wines, but they're beautiful, with a certain sheen and lovely fruit. Nothing over the top."
|Mechanical harvesters are employed in Australia's Yarra Valley.|
Before the heat, the growing season had been relatively normal, though early. Several days of January rain helped relieve what has been a decade-long drought in Australia; that helped, because it gave a bit of a buffer for the March weather.
McLaren Vale, Barossa and Clare suffered the worst of the heat. Regions further south, including Padthaway, Coonawarra and Wrattonbully, and southeast, in Victoria, fared better.
On the western coast, in Margaret River, vintners enjoyed much milder conditions. "We've had one of the best growing seasons I've seen in a long time," said Cliff Royle, chief winemaker at Voyager Estate. Royle likes the Chardonnay, which retained freshness after being picked in early February, before the warmest summer weather. But he's especially pleased with Cabernet Sauvignon, which benefited from an extended, very warm but not scalding growing season.
The one downside to an excellent vintage throughout Margaret River is that producers have had another year of inexplicably low yields: Chardonnay yielded about 1.25 tons per acre, Cabernet about 1.75 tons per acre. That's been the trend in recent years, and vintners are at a loss to explain it. It's not due to weather during flowering, or any other factor they've yet isolated. "We're wondering if the organic regimen has reduced the nutrients in the soil. But we're at a point where it's uneconomical, and we're examining all avenues why," said Royle.
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