Heavy rains fell across all of South Australia's major wine regions in late February causing new headaches for winegrowers who have been dealing with severe drought conditions during the entire growing season. As a result, the 2003 vintage is expected to be smaller than usual.
The state's two warmest premium regions, the Barossa and Clare valleys, received the heaviest downfalls, ranging from 2 to 3.5 inches, around Feb. 20 and 21, just as harvest began. "It's the first time in 20 years that I have experienced three and a half inches of rain at the time when the grapes are so ripe," said Peter Barry of Jim Barry Wines in Clare Valley.
Winegrowers initially welcomed the rain, because their vines have been under severe stress due to the drought, but they became concerned when the rain didn't stop. Excess water causes grapes to split, especially in varieties that are close to full ripeness -- in this case Sémillon and Shiraz. Splitting can cause rot, which can be exacerbated by humid conditions.
Many winegrowers sprayed their vineyards with either sulfur or a fungicide to try to dry out the grapes and minimize the damage.
The effects of the rain on individual vineyards varied considerably. Jeffrey Grosset's Clare Valley Riesling vineyard, for example, has been unaffected by splitting, but the grapes have not yet fully ripened. In the Barossa Valley, Charlie Melton of Charles Melton Wines and Robert O'Callahan of Rockford Wines estimate the total berry-splitting damage to be 5 percent to 10 percent, similar to the percentage given by Barry and Grosset for their Clare Valley vineyards.
Some winemakers feel that at least the rain slowed down the ripening process to allow further flavor development. "I'd rather take the rain every time. If we didn't get it in this drought year, our dry land vines would have collapsed," said O'Callahan.
It also rained to a lesser extent in the cooler regions of McLarenVale, Coonawarra and Adelaide Hills, resulting in a small amount of berry splitting. Some winegrowers, such as Doug Bowen of Bowen Estate in Coonawarra, have been concerned about the continuing humid conditions, which could cause more mold. However, most varieties in Coonawarra are at least a month away from being fully ripe so berry splitting should be minimal.
The weather over the next few weeks will be crucial for the quality of the vintage. If the weather stays mild, there should be optimal conditions for flavor development, but forecasts call for more showers in the next week. Kim Tolley of Penley Estate in Coonawarra, said," At the moment, we are on the precipice."