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Australian Winemakers Are Thrilled with the 2018 Harvest

Shiraz yields are down in Barossa and McLaren Vale, but quality is high across the board
White grapes are harvested early in the morning at Rosenvale Vineyards in Australia's Barossa Valley.
Photo by: Courtesy Rosenvale Vineyards
White grapes are harvested early in the morning at Rosenvale Vineyards in Australia's Barossa Valley.

MaryAnn Worobiec
Posted: May 8, 2018

As the 2018 harvest winds down in Australia, vintners are reporting a mostly uneventful vintage. They say yields are slightly lower than last year's, but they are pleased with the resulting wines. Still, with an entire continent's worth of wine regions, the growing season brought varied results. Leading vintners gave Wine Spectator their local reports.

Quantity down, quality up in Barossa and McLaren Vale

In South Australia, Matt Gant of First Drop wines says the wines of 2018 will be rich and full-flavored, less aromatic and pretty than the 2017s. "Whilst our whites from the cooler climes of Adelaide Hills look solid, our McLaren Cabernet Sauvignon posted another good year, making for 10 good to excellent vintages since 2009," he said.

Soul Growers' Stuart Bourne is very enthusiastic about what he saw in the Barossa. "I am absolutely stoked with what we have made this year, and I think vintage 2018 would easily rate a 9.25 out of 10 for me as a vintage score."

Bourne says the growing season was good, with average rain in winter, but below average rain in the spring. The summer was warm but without any heat waves, and an extended summer meant harvest could go at an easy pace. "Nothing untoward and no freaky bits," said Bourne.

Ian Hongell, chief winemaker at Torbreck, described it this way: "Harvest was late, flavors came on very slowly and the dry, mild conditions allowed fruit to ripen slowly. We were able to hang safely without the risk of weather. It was pretty ideal."

But the reduced rainfall meant lower yields down in the Barossa, as much as 15 to 20 percent. Many feel this is part of the reason for the more concentration winemakers are seeing in their wines. For Michael Twelftree of Two Hands, irrigation was necessary. "This increased berry size and extended veraison, as warm nights, especially in the Barossa, did not give any respite." He adds that he believes 2018 will rival 2016 and 2010, with Grenache and McLaren Vale Shiraz the standouts in his lineup.

Yields were also down in McLaren Vale. "After bud burst, a few heavy wind days caused some canopy damage to more advanced growing blocks," reported Sarah Marquis of Mollydooker. Despite this, McLaren vintners are calling the vintage a win. "2018 went exactly to plan and was really well-paced," said Marquis, reporting impressive reds across the board.

Chris Carpenter of Hickinbotham says ripening was "almost perfect," with short heat spikes followed by moderated temperatures. "Couldn't ask for better," he said. "Just a great harvest."

A balanced year out West

On Australia's west coast, Margaret River vintners report optimal ripening conditions and an exceptional, slightly early harvest. According to Leeuwin senior winemaker Tim Lovett, they harvested their white grapes before a rain spell arrived in the middle of March. "This topped up the soil moisture levels for the reds, without the usual requirements of irrigation," he said.

"A special feature of this season was its extremely gentle nature, without any heat spikes," said winemaker Bruce Dukes of Margaret River's Domaine Naturaliste. He believes that protected the aromatics in the resulting wines.

Some Margaret River vintners report healthy, balanced yields; others report variability. Leeuwin Chardonnay yields were down slightly, while Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon yields were up. "But the purity and clarity of fruit were higher than usual, even with the higher yields," said Lovett.

Courtesy Cullen Wines
Workers pick Cabernet Sauvignon at Cullen Wines in Margaret River.

Will Berliner of Cloudburst was one of the vintners that found 2018's growing and ripening conditions superlative, with excellent pacing. "One standout factor was the unprecedentedly massive blossoming for the marri trees," said Berliner of the native trees that are closely related to eucalyptus and the myrtle family. All that marri fruit kept birds away from his Chardonnay. "It enabled me to pick small, individualized micro-cuvées of Chardonnay at optimum flavors and ripeness." He believes that his wines are showing depth and purity.

Cool in Victoria and Hunter Valley

In Victoria's Yarra Valley, vintners report a significant amount of rain during the growing season. "That replenished groundwater and helped the vines maintain good, healthy canopies," reported Steve Flamsteed of Sexton.

A side effect was a larger-than-average number of clusters. "This meant we spent a lot of time in the vineyard, cluster-thinning (green harvesting) back to one cluster per shoot," said Flamsteed. Even with thinning, yields were up about 20 percent. "Having such a successful crop set allowed us to do a very selective fruit removal and only really demand from the vine the ripening of one cluster per shoot."

Elsewhere in Victoria, Matt Fowles of Fowles Wine in the Strathbogie Ranges reports dry and cool weather. "It was noticeably cool this year. Since late February I left the house every single day with a jumper or jacket on. We are a cool-climate region for sure, but this is still quite unusual." But he's not complaining. "Cooler weather led to excellent acid retention."

To the northeast in Hunter Valley, Iain Riggs, chief winemaker at Brokenwood, calls it a "stress-free" harvest. "We joked that 2014 red wines in the Hunter Valley were 11 out of 10. I think that some individual vineyards from 2017 and 2108 will be better than those from 2014."

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