Bad year for the rationalists
17 March 2015
2015 VINTAGE REPORT: EARLY AND QUICK
Bad year for the rationalists
but naturalists with proper kit
make the best of a tricky pick
by PHILIP WHITE
Now that was a vintage.
Early and quick are the two new buzzwords it seems we'll be pasting at the top of our wine vocabs.
Around my neck of the woods, winemakers are looking lost, wondering what they're gonna do til Easter and Anzac Day, milestone holidays they usually spend up to their ankles in hoses, with their noses pressed firmly to the winestone.
It all started last year, when it was warm and dry, month after month, and flowering was early and quick.
Everything was as dry as a chip when the merciful rains set in for a few days towards the end of January. Vineyard blokes were a little sweaty at that point, wondering if Huey was gonna smite 'em with mildews and botrytis moulds like those that wrecked 2011. But that moisture seemed happily married to cool breezy evenings which dried everything out nicely: only a whisper of mildew developed in some southern vineyards. That was easily dealt with.
It was so cool here where the Vales meet the Hills at Casa Blanca this writer found himself chopping firewood. In January.
Previous Januaries have been spent nervously waiting for the local firebug to strike again, but that terrible business seems to have halted since the arrest of a fireman, and there I found myself, worried that my whiff of smoke on the twilight zephyr would set the old neighbourhood panic spreading.
Then the steady daytime warmth turned back on as the evenings stayed cool. Smooth and calm ripening progressed until last week, when I found myself photographing a big mob of pickers working efficiently through the baby bush vine Shiraz and Grenache. Suddenly it was over.
Which makes it time to go kick tanks and barrels, which I have done with all due diligence.
I've never seen anything quite like it. McLaren Vale people are all gooey about their Chardonnay, but it's the Roussanne that will blow the judges' whistles when these 'fifteens emerge. I can't recall any white grape, other than maybe Clare and Eden Riesling in exceptional years, taste more of the ground in which it grew. I've even seen Roussanne that smelt like ironstone: tight and supremely confident of its future.
In these Vales, everybody always seems obliged to rave about Shiraz, which they do to the point of caricaturising themselves. That's what they grow.
Sure, I've seen some cracking Shiraz: intense, solid, glowering wines with beautiful natural acidity. You can't beat natural. I'm not talking about dirty, unstable hippy wines. I'm talking about responsible scientific winemaking which depends upon the best natural ingredients. Like natural acidity which fits in the wine and sits there where it belongs, preserving the rest of the wine's nuances, guaranteeing a good long steady maturation in cellar: quite the opposite of early and quick. Natural's always superior to the standard tartaric acid you add with a shovel after you've buggered your grapes with bad viticulture. There'll be no new Mercs and Bimmers for the acid dealers this year. Not in the Mount Lofty Ranges, anyway.
Speaking of natural, it is brilliant vintages like this in which it seems the organic and biodynamic vineyards really hit their straps: the more nature the vigneron can employ in the vineyard reflects with more open-faced innocence in the bottle: there is no sophistry evident or indeed required in the face of such honest purity.
All that aside, I reckon this will be the year when Grenache grown in the right place and made well finally shows with real authority that it can replace Pinot noir in the elegant part of your red cabinet. I've seen Grenache wines this year which remind me of the best of Burgundy, with riveting florals, acidity, and that one thing that most mainland Pinot lacks: natural tannin. Oooh-eee. There. I've said it.
Vaucher Beguet grape-sorting machine at Yangarra ... all photographs by Philip White
I've tasted a wide range of varieties in the Barossa, both high and low bits, and it's pretty much the same: wild natural beauty over solid bones, with splendid aromatics and hues. Eden Rieslings are highly promising.
I've not tasted much from the Adelaide Hills or Clare yet, but I can guarantee you'll see some stunning Cabernet from the cooler uplands. After those horrid Hills fires, there's a noticable silence relative to smoke taint in those vineyards which survived. If such spoilage has been incurred, it must be coming evident by now.
Which leads me to the really horrible bit. Early and quick are factors which simply don't fit the template of big refineries which depend upon everything being relaxed, steady and spread out.
Efficiencies of scale and the adoration of the investor sees the faceless accountant-driven boards building wineries which simply aren't big enough to hold everything they have planned, or even promised to take.
Even huge family outfits along the Murray-Darling saw themselves panicking over their own wineries that were brimming full while they watched the other two-thirds of their crops lose their natural acidity as the sugars soared through fifteen, sixteen, seventeen and even eighteen Baumé, meaning that when the wines are fermented dry, their alcohols will be right up in those heady nether regions, well beyond the likelihood of gastronomic delight.
To correct this misadventure, which is built in to their manufactury cycle, the big refineries will be adding water and tartaric. They'll be using all manner of sophistry and shiny gadgetry to get that alcohol out. While they do this, they'll be stripping many other aspects of the fruit.
At the same time, these refinery winemakers will find themselves attempting to push ferments through at an unholy pace. Wineries of better design are sitting there grinning as their reds are still in the initial cold-soak stage, in which the prettier, water-soluble aromatics are expressed before the tanks are let warm so the yeasts take over, while these giants are bashing stuff through without giving the musts and ferments a chance to let their beauty develop at a seemly pace. At the stage where Winery A is just letting the yeasts in, Refinery B has one batch dry and finished, the second batch being pushed with warmth, and third through fifth batches sitting out there in the baking sun, in bins on the concrete apron.
Which leads in turn to those growers still out there in the queue, watching their beautiful fruit fall to bits on the vine. If they can somehow jump the queue to get harvesters, the wineries will shake their heads because they're full. Carnage.
It's time this intensifying cycle is recognised as a permanent aspect of hot irrigated viticulture, and many of those poor broken growers are helped to discover a replacement crop which better suits their environment, and requires less water. Hemp comes immediately to mind. Is anybody applying any science? Any trials going on?
Many small-scale premium Ranges winemakers without their own vineyards, machinery and wineries to suit--those who depend upon renting such stuff--have found themselves in the same sad position as those upriver behemoths they regard as the enemy. There'll be plenty of very expensive reds about with unseemly alcohols. Watch out for jam and gloop from your favourite artisan/garagiste.
So. There are some true glories adorning the crown of South Australian winemaking in 2015. These will emerge in the $20-plus ranks. The cheaper stuff will be of a much cheaper quality than usual, but because the best of it will be in short supply, it'll probably cost more. Be careful. Beware the bulkmongers.