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The story of the Australian harvest this year is one of exceptional quality, but with significantly reduced yields in the country's premium wine regions in South Australia, as well as in the Margaret River, Hunter Valley and Yarra Valley.
In contrast to 2001, when the quality of the reds was stronger than the whites, the 2002 seasonal conditions generally favored both equally.
"This is a true grapegrowers' vintage," said Stuart Bourne, winemaker at Barossa Valley Estate.
The 2002 harvest is expected to total 1.67 million tons, up 7 percent from 2001, as a result of new vineyards coming into production as well as a strong season in the warm inland growing districts of southeastern Australia. These high-volume districts had what is being described as the best season ever in terms of quality, largely because of an uncharacteristically long, cool summer.
Most regions experienced a cool, wet spring that resulted in poor fruit set and small berries, early indications of reduced yields. A mild summer allowed the grapes to ripen slowly, enhancing flavor development and producing high acid levels. The lighter crop and small berries meant color and flavors could develop fully, and there was little fear of disease due to the consistently mild, dry conditions. A warm, dry autumn gave the grapes time to ripen so that sugar levels came into balance with the acid levels.
In South Australia, the Barossa Valley probably had the best growing conditions among the premium regions, and winemakers agreed that the moderate summer temperatures led to fantastic quality. "This year, the weather conditions provided the correct natural sugar and acid levels and perfect pH balance," said Bourne. "We think both the reds and the whites will be absolute stunners, even though the quantity will be below average. Shiraz [the region's signature variety] has a massive flavor profile."
The Clare Valley in South Australia experienced reduced yields due to the weather at flowering, with Riesling, the region's key white wine, down as much as 25 percent. But according to Jeff Grosset of Grosset Wines, the Riesling shows very good flavor concentration and great structure and finesse. "At this stage," he said, "I'd rate it as the best vintage for Riesling since 1982." Cabernet Sauvignon also looks outstanding and Shiraz very good.
The Adelaide Hills region also suffered lower yields -- as low as 50 percent in some places -- but the quality is very good, particularly for the region's Sauvignon Blanc.
The Coonawarra area of South Australia saw the most severe conditions during flowering and fruit set, resulting in what Ian Hollick of Hollick Wines called "the worst Cabernet Sauvignon yields I have ever witnessed." Other varieties also had below-average yields, but in general, the wines show rich colors, great depth of flavor and good acid balance.
Elsewhere in Australia, in Western Australia's Margaret River region, most Chardonnay vineyards suffered losses of at least 50 percent due to uneven budbreak. "It is the first vintage that Cabernet Sauvignon was harvested before all of the Chardonnay had been removed from the vine," said Vanya Cullen of Cullen Wines. "And it was a good vintage to harvest early because of heavy April rains." The cool weather, however, produced elegant wines with fantastic natural acidity and flavor.
Rain also affected the harvest in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, according to P.J. Charteris, winemaker at Brokenwood Wines. But the mild summer appears to have been particularly advantageous for the classic Hunter Sémillon, while the reds have good color and acid balance.
Victoria's Yarra Valley shared in the low quantities experienced in other regions. Tom Carson, Yering Station's winemaker, said that while the yields may be down by as much as 50 percent, the small crop and the cool summer made for a winemaker's dream. "It is probably the best year we've had across the board in terms of quality," he said. "My job is to worry about how good the wine is, not how much there is."
Read the 2001 harvest report:
Read editor at large Harvey Steiman's recent tasting report on Australian wine:
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