Vineyards in the U.S. and Europe are just flowering, but there's juice fermenting in the tanks down south, in the Southern Hemisphere, that is. This year, Mother Nature brought wet weather to both New Zealand and Australia, forcing vintners to fight off rot. In Australia, where some regions faced heavy flooding, cool weather meant long hang times, ripe tannins and lower than normal alcohol levels in the country’s big reds. In New Zealand, temperatures were warmer than average, which meant a constant struggle against mildew and botrytis. Winemakers in both countries report lower yields, but good quality fruit.
Here's a sneak peek at the upcoming vintage. Check back tomorrow and Friday for reports from Argentina, Chile and South Africa.
Vintners in some of Australia’s key growing regions, including Barossa, McLaren Vale and Victoria, are reporting that they picked their grapes at low sugar levels this harvest. The wines could have some of the lowest alcohol levels in years, resulting in a very different style from southeast Australia’s typically rich, full-bodied reds, especially in Barossa and McLaren Vale.
The growing season was marked by cool, wet conditions. This delayed harvest, allowing the grapes to hang on the vines and develop their flavors. “Harvest sugar levels were moderate to low, but flavor, tannins and seed ripeness were good because of increased hang time,” said Stuart Bourne, who completed his final harvest at Barossa Valley Estate this year. (He's moving on to Chateau Tanunda.)
The season started well, with winter and spring rains that helped canopy development and increased vigor in the vines. Summer was mild and sunny with some rain and plenty of warm days in January. But the wet weather returned in February and March as harvest commenced. "The 2011 vintage in South Australia, and indeed most of the southeast of the country, will be remembered as a challenging one," said Louisa Rose, chief winemaker at Yalumba.
While the rain helped alleviate a prolonged drought in the region, the wet conditions and humidity increased the risk of downy and powdery mildew. Botrytis also became an issue. Vineyard management was imperative, with vintners spraying their vines and thinning the canopies to allow more airflow to protect against rot. “It was definitely a year for diligence in the vineyard, and many blocks were hand-picked because bunch and berry selection was required,” said Chester Osborn of D’Arenberg, in McLaren Vale.
A winery worker helps as Chardonnay grapes tumble into a press at Petaluma wines.
Vintners in McLaren Vale reported a late start to the vintage with rain during the ripening period, which increased disease pressure among the vines. But the region’s geography—it borders the Gulf of St. Vincent on one side and the Sellicks Hill Range to the south, creating a natural funnel for strong winds from across the water—helped in drying out the vineyards. Yields will be down, and fruit quality was variable, but vintners are happy overall.
Farther north in Barossa, growers had to deal with botrytis as the sugar levels in their grapes started to rise. Some vineyards were too infected and were not picked. But those that survived were high quality. Matt Wenk, winemaker at Two Hands Wines, reports a strong Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon crop this year. “In general, from what I have seen, the wines from 2011 will be subtle with great aromatics and elegant structures,” he said.
The story is similar in Clare Valley and in the Limestone Coast region to the south, with vintners reporting smaller yields of good quality fruit. Bruce Clugston of Wineinc, which produces several wines from South Australia, estimates that statewide the volumes could be down 30 to 40 percent.
To the east, Victoria experienced record rainfall in 2011. Floods hit regions in the western part of the state, including Great Western and Pyrenees, with some vineyards wiped out by the high waters. Fortunately dry periods in March and April helped ripen the grapes in undamaged vineyards, allowing vintners to pick under sunny skies. In Yarra Valley, Steve Flamsteed, winemaker at Innocent Bystander and Giant Steps, says that his Chardonnay is showing minerality, acidity and good flavor at lower sugar levels, while the Pinot Noir is highly perfumed.
Western Australian winemakers will have far brighter memories of 2011. Margaret River vintners enjoyed warm and dry conditions. “The winter rains stopped in September and very little fell after that, making it a magnificent growing season,” said Vanya Cullen of Cullen wines. It was an early harvest for the white grapes with vintners picking in February and early March in above average temperatures.
New Zealand’s vintners will remember 2011 as the year a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch on the South Island. It was the worst natural disaster the country has ever experienced. While that region continues to recover from the damage, the country’s wine industry was largely unharmed. This growing season was slightly soggy, with warmer temperatures and more humidity than normal, but vintners are hopeful that extra work in the vineyards saved the vintage.
Some vintners in Marlborough reported a late budbreak, but a subsequent warm spell led to an early flowering. “The period from budbreak to flowering was the shortest of the last six vintages, which shows that it was warm,” said Brian Bicknell of Mahi Wines in Marlborough.
Blair Walter of Felton Road in the Central Otago region says a fast, successful flowering produced solid crops across all varieties. “We were relieved to see things cool down in January, which set the pattern for a cool and wetter midseason,” said Walter. Central Otago rarely sees much rain, however, so Walter said a wetter season there is still fairly dry.
The North Island received plenty of rain and high humidity too, according to Michael Brajkovich of Kumeu River. “The extra moisture caused bunch-rot problems, but not botrytis. We use a team of 70 hand-pickers, and they had to work particularly hard to triage rotten berries,” said Brajkovich.
Fresh picked clusters of Pinot Noir arrive at New Zealand's Amisfeld.
Yields are a sensitive issue with New Zealand winemakers. Since the 2008 vintage—when volumes exceeded expectations and there was a surplus of grapes—growers have lived by self-imposed crop restrictions, and are more attentive to pruning and thinning. Early estimates projected a bumper crop in 2011, but most vintners reported average yields once harvest arrived.
Bicknell said yields were down in Marlborough due to aggressive pruning. “Growers were pruning to lower bud numbers, which have been so great for the quality of the fruit,” he said. “We are all aware that it is a waste of time putting down too many canes and then having to go through and green harvest a lot of fruit.” Other vintners reported that despite early signs of high yields, by the time they cut fruit to avoid bunch rot and other problems, yields ended up lower than average.
Harvest was slightly earlier than 2010, but not significantly. Most growers reported warm harvest temperatures, ripening grapes quickly and condensing the picking period. Some rains threatened the end of harvest, which meant possible rot for those that didn’t pick early. Most vintners in Marlborough reported they had finished when the rains hit in mid-April.
The wines are expected to be clean and intense, and the earlier picking probably resulting in lower alcohols, particularly with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. “Our wines are always more complex in cooler and more challenging growing seasons,” said Walter. “We have our fingers crossed that the early positive impressions of 2011 are accurate. I don’t think concentration will be a word that will be used to describe [the wines]: words more like precision, mineral, tension. I think the wines will have reasonably firm structures and a pleasant kind of rusticity about them: more complex and European.”