One Of The Ones To Remember
It’s fascinating to watch the way wine industry people mismanage their reports of a difficult vintage. Unlike grain growers, winemakers fudge to baroque degrees. Knowing that the bread and the beer will still be on the tables, graingrowers simply say it’s either cactus or it’s cool. With wine, it’s a perverse temptation for brains like mine to keep lists of the conflicting reports that emerge from one end of each tricky harvest to another.
Of course harvest IS tricky, and it varies from place to place, human to human. Look at 2012. It started with Andrew Margan praising the gods for ideal harvest weather in the Hunter. Then it rained. Half of the irrigated Murray-Darling Basin is under water. And yet fruit in perfect condition finds its way into the wineries of McLaren Vale and up through the Hills and across the Adelaide Plain to the Barossa. After that rain, the weather has been ideally mild and breezy. But they'll pick only half of what was expected, mind you. This year, there’ll be no new sportscars for the wine brides, whatever their gender. Again.
And today, winemakers all along the ranges from McLaren Vale to the Barossa are wondering whether the smoke haze we all woke to -- it’s from the Victorian bushfires -- will taint fruit still hanging. I doubt it. It’s clearing as I write. Which probably means it’s falling out of the sky.
A perfect example of the trickiness of explaining the second wettest vintage in Australian history, 2011, was the contrast provided on the Barossa’s recent live internet tasting when David Lehmann (David Franz Wines) and Rick Burge (Burge Family Winemakers) discussed my suggestion that 2011 was far from ideal. Regardless of their polarized intentions, they more than verified my proposition.
“We didn’t actually pick the fruit that was diseased and all that sort of stuff,” Lehmann said. He thought I’d been too harsh, but his summary said it all. “It went on the ground,” he continued. “I mean you know we were lucky around my little pocket around the kitchen where I live we were lucky and we managed not to lose as much fruit as the people who lost everything and we lost, you know, more fruit than people who lost nothing. In terms of ‘is 2011 a complete right off?’ I don’t think so.”
In response, Rick Burge came to my defense. “Philip has a huge allergy to spin doctors,” he retorted with perfect acuity “ ... and at my age I’m beginning to dislike them too. In December I was in Hong Kong, tasting with my distributor and there were two Bordelaise and they said '2011 was very trying for you' and I said it was a pig of a vintage and they opened up and told me about their pigs of vintages. Now if I’d have bullshitted to them they would have walked away and gone back to their tables.”
Lehmann, who was averse to my harsh, but honest summary, mentioned disease, luck, the lack of it, and loss. Burge mentioned pigs and bullshit, and my allergy to the latter.
A day or two later Brian Smedley, Chief Executive of the Wine Industry Association, made an exemplary response to Ian Henschke’s questions about this year’s difficult early vintage rains on the local ABC.
“It probably won’t be too much of an issue at this stage, depending upon what the weather does in the next few days,” Smedley said, with unusual honesty and precision for a wine industry representative. He’s a pro. Any repetition in the quotes below is the result of the questions, which I have removed.
“If we get some wind, that will dry out the canopies. That will be good circumstances; if we get some humid and more stagnant conditions, that will be a bit more of a problem in relation to I guess disease pressure and also possibly splitting of grapes.
“There are variable falls right throughout the regions. There will be some areas that have more significant rainfalls than others but I think at this stage they are not necessarily of concern to the industry.
“All reports that we’re getting to date indicate that the vintage is going to be one of the ones to remember, and certainly that the grapes and the quality that they’re seeing is superb.
“[The big risk] is really the disease pressure I guess. The mildews that might start to surface and that would depend on spraying regimes that the growers have had and also I guess the weather that follows.
“Certainly you might see some splitting if we get continuing rain, and more rains to follow, that certainly might be a possibility. There may even be some splitting even to date, but that’s still got to be determined.
“I think there will be some superb wines from this vintage that people will be able to consume.”
And the wine lake? He became a little more typically coy:
“A number of companies in South Australia have moved on their supplies. They got empty tanks for this vintage, which is the right way to be approaching it, but, you know, there are still some supply issues in the industry.”
By the time he’d got off the air, an SMS had arrived saying “All the fruit is split and the sugar levels are stuffed.”
To set this right once and for all, I know that of course some fine wines will emerge from 2011. I have tasted them. People who selectively picked and evaded the twin curse of botrytis and mildew to varying degrees have made sound wines, some very special. Those with access to pasteurizing machines may even have managed to get some half decent red wines back in order. But what I saw going through hoppers in various places was pure gloopy mush. Much of this is now schlurping its way around the bulk wine business, trying to find its way into bottles of one brand or another.
And in response to Henschke’s query about lower prices? Uh-huh. Much of the bulk samples I’ve seen here and there were still ridiculously expensive for what they are. Their prices must fall to some degree, but there’s still a danger: one thing certain about 2012 is the very low yield. Shiraz, for example, I’ve seen in the Barossa and McLaren Vale is coming off at 50 to 60 per cent of the average tonnage. So there certainly won’t be grand volumes of very fine wine, and the temptation, of course, is to fill the gaps with products scratched together from that grey market bulk. Beware.
The perfect example of how to be honest about your own wine occurred at a Shiraz lunch in the Barossa Ranges in the late ’eighties. The mighty Cheong and his crew struggled with a smoky combustion stove to produce magnificent fare, and all my favourite Shiraz makers brought two bottles of their best.
It was one of those unforgettable days. Veterans. Peter Lehmann, David Wynn, Robert O’Callaghan, Tony Brady, Charlie Melton, Michael Waugh, Stephen Henschke … two dozen of us got into it. I think the oldest wine was David Wynn’s 1954 Coonawarra Sparkling Shiraz. The event was to honour the great French wineman Gerard Jaboulet, of the revered Paul Jaboulet company of Tain l’Hermitage on the Rhone. We were all hanging out to see what he would bring, and hoped that he’d include some of his legendary La Chapelle Hermitage.
He did, of course. Like Lehmann, he arrived in a cardigan, chain smoking. But Gerard brought two cases of Hermitage. One contained all his best vintages. The other contained his worst.
I had borrowed an enormous silver punchbowl for the middle of the table; not for spitting -- there was no spitting -- but to pour leftovers to clear the glasses. The next day that huge old room smelled heavenly. The essence of dozens of very great wines, and some rather ordinary, from many different years and widely-dispersed locations, oozed from that huge bowl.
So what did I do? Got a mob around and drank it. It was exquisite. In a way, it was like you’ll see from 2011 and 2012, where cunning blenders can hide the lesser wines by parking bits of them in vats of better stuff. This occurred on a grand scale with 1974, the wettest vintage.
Of course there’ll be nothing from these recent years to match the mighty tincture from that punchbowl. But the memory leads me to another matter: cross-vintage blending is a touchy subject in Australia. Australians can add up to fifteen percent of wine from another year and still label it with the vintage of the other 85%. Perhaps the laws should be relaxed: much better wines can be made. Think of most of the French Champagne you drink. All the non-vintage blends are the results of interminable blending sessions from reserves of many village sources and numerous vintages.
The Champenoise make declared vintage wines only in very special years; the rest are blends made to assure constant supply. When asked about the quality difference between his rare vintage wines and the blended Grand Cuvée -- a truly remarkable luxury, year in, year out -- Remi Krug famously suggested “ah, the vintage occurs only now and then. God makes the vintage. My brother and I blend the Grand Cuvée.”
Should be more of it.
What's wrong with the back label listing the percentages of what's inside, if indeed the maker seeks to profess?
At the very bottom of the vat, bits of 2011 could be diluted with slightly less terrible bits of previous years and some of the average bits of 2012 to make a better alley juice for export. (There won’t be much: half of the source of the wine lake is under water.) But since the authorities at Wine Australia have shut down the export review tasting panels it’ll be a lot easier to export 2011 anyway.
I see they’re advertising for bureaucratic wine police this week. They’ll come and audit your books to see whether you’ve done more sneaky blending than the law permits. So on the one hand, it’ll be easier to export horrid wine, on the other, it’ll be harder to fudge the books if you’ve attempted to increase the average quality of your output with a little creative blending.
As for 2012? Yields are very low; in many locations, quality is sublime. Acids have held, alcohol is modest, but rising now, and pHs are mercifully low. I have seen some utterly gorgeous red.
He missed the chance to prophesy this smoke, but otherwise, Brian Smedley was right on the money.