“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





07 February 2009



Another Day Of Hell
But Cool Respite On The Way!

There’s been a little respite from the heatwave since I last wrote here of weather. The daily max actually slumped below 40ºC a few times. Not far below, but mercifully below. Yesterday was back in the forties, and last night was a blisterer.

Winemakers in the Fleurieu Peninsula, McLaren Vale, and up through the Adelaide Hills section of the South Mount Lofty Ranges, through Eden Valley and the Barossa to Clare, have well and truly got into picking.

Or at least selecting which of the least blistered rows to pick.

On the other side of the ranges at Langhorne Creek, nobody wants to talk about it. But closer to the receding Lake Alexandrina, Peter Widdop, world champion battler of Old Mill Estate is candid. “You’ve gotta be realistic”, he says. “This is terrible. But we’ve got some really good fruit. I got up on the roof of the shed this morning and when you look out across the flats you can see where the damage is. It’s highly soil-specific. Our touriga nacional is amazing. And we’ve got really tough shiraz: you can look into the odd vine and say ‘jeez, that fruit’s perfect’. But we’ve lost some of the cabernet that’s on the harder soil.”

On Wednesday, Chester Osborn, of d’Arenberg, McLaren Vale, told DRINKSTER “Nightmare vintage again Whitey. Again. Again.”

“It’s the earliest vintage by a million miles”, he continued. “And it’s very very low. We’ll pick about thirty per cent of what I estimated three weeks back, and that was already reduced dramatically from my previous estimation. Now we’ve got too many pickers. Nothing to pick.

“Anything in shallow hard ground, or reflective sands, with no deep moisture, is over. Bush vines? Poor old buggers! McLaren Vale grenache looked amazing. All gone. The sauvignon blanc’s brown. No flavour. The roussanne died. Viognier? No good, but not bad compared to the rest. Petit verdot? Shrivelled to buggery.”

I live about fifteen kays from Chester as the crow flies – although there’s not much in the way of flying going down in the bird world at the moment: they’re hiding. Here, it’s a bit higher, and a bit cooler, and not nearly so bad.

Most of the priceless old bush vine grenache perished in the first couple of plus forty days: the very sand which reflects light and heat up under the basket-pruned canopies to ensure even veraison and ripening, this year simply roasted them as temperatures in the sun passed 50º C. Unless somebody does a very selective pick of the best sheltered bunches, of which there are some surviving, there'll be no super-premium grenache this year.

But three nights ago the lads picked the first Yangarra chardonnay at 12.5 Beaumé, and near perfect pH and acidity. That went straight into the press, the juice cooled and cold settled, and it’ll soon catch some yeast from the air or from within itself, and begin its blessed tick. For that lot, the torture is over, and it’s now in the cool of the cellar.

The Yangarra shiraz is remarkably well, and the stoic crew are suggesting that in today’s bake it’ll hunker down and close up to retain as much moisture as possible, to then prepare to turn back on and complete veraison in next week’s promised cool, when they think “it could ripen up pretty quickly”. Although it’s patchy, and very dependent on soil types.

The remaining chardonnay is coming on bravely, and the roussane has the punk cockiness of Robert de Niro’s Travis Bickle (pictured) staring himself down in the mirror:

“You lookin at me? ... Who you lookin’ at?”

It’s fit, tight and cheeky.

Around the Vales, I hear good reports about tempranillo, too.

I rose at 0500hrs for a walk before sunrise. Looking across the vignoble, I see growing yellow patches in the canopy above the harder soil types. But there’s still plenty of green here.

In times of such stress, the vines sacrifice the burnt, crisping, yellowing and curling leaves, put their berries on hold, and pump their energy into the remaining canopy instead of the grapes, as they determinedly protect their little babies for another day or two, until the seeds become viable. That’s when veraison
occurs, and the vine ceases production of acid, turns the deterrent green bitter grapes to sweet, juicy, red attractors, and then lies back and hopes the birds will come in, eat them, incubate them in the warm little gizzards, and then kindly disperse them to keep the species going.

Funny thing, nature. Since the vines have trained humans to depend upon them for wine, we coddle the vine gardens, keep the flying incubators off and harvest the crop. We actually kill the seeds in the ferment, but instead of killing the vine as a species we also plant more vines than have existed ever before: there’s decreasing need for the plant to actually bother producing a seed!

Certainly no more need to grow up through the poplars and whatnot.

But back to the weather. By 0600hrs, a full-bore Heat Health Warning had been issued by the State Emergency Service and SA Health, while the three south-eastern mainland states brace for another day of searing, life-threatening hell. Some rural areas have been advised to expect 46+º C, 114ºF in the old money.

The Country Fire Service announced “all resources are on high alert in preparation for today’s extreme weather conditions ... the Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting extreme fire danger across most of South Australia with temperatures above 40 degrees and wind gusts of up to 90kph ahead of a mid-evening change. (!)

“But the fire danger forecast for today may be as extreme as we’ve seen in South Australia for a number of years,” CFS Chief Officer Euan Ferguson said.

“People who live in high fire risk areas will need to activate their Bushfire Action Plans and be prepared to swing into action by either staying and defending their property or leaving early, depending on what’s been decided in the plan.”

Police are on high alert: Chief Superintendent Silvio Amoroso said SAPOL has boosted its number of roving firebug patrols. Pity help any mad bastard that gets caught.

Fireys are fighting forty bushfires across the border in woody Victoria. South Australia is holding its breath.

The Ultra-Violet Index is predicted to reach an extreme 11.

Reports of a blitzed vintage continue to trickle past the spin doctors, who have worked themselves into a frenzy, attempting to convince the world that everything’s cool.

The pinot of the Mornington Peninsula is in deep trouble, with Geraldine McFaul, winemaker at Willow Creek, telling Tyson Stelzer that "any exposed fruit has been completely fried. It looks like someone's taken to it with a flame thrower."

To add insult to its growing phylloxera bloom, the Yarra Valley has been utterly blitzed, with some growers losing everything.

“You have to see it in perspective”, said Tony Brady of the great Wendouree, in Clare. “The end of the world was already nigh.

“The malbec doesn’t like it. It’s very soil specific.”

“But Clare is very very lucky”, David O’Leary at O’Leary Walker told DRINKSTER on Wednesday.

“We had that four inches of rain in twenty four hours in November, which nobody else got. That deep ground moisture delayed vintage, so our riesling was only eight Baume last week. It’ll be above that now, but it was so young and tight and tough it’ll be okay if we get ten days of relief from the heat. If.

“I mean everything’s way down in yield, of course. There’s no weight in it, and we won’t get the flavours we want. But Clare will come out of it quite well if ... ”

Tim Smith of Chateau Tanunda reckoned “Barossa yields could be down forty to fifty per cent”.

While many Barossa white vineyards will not be picked, Tim picked good shiraz on Tuesday at 14.3 Baume, and he said the whites that were coming in had “a shitload of flavour ... But you know what, Whitey?" he continued, “it’s ironic. Those who’d been going for the big yields and pumping the water on big time, so they’ve got much bigger leaf canopies than you’d normally want, will probably come through all right. Like the high-yield chardonnay, which nobody wants, doesn’t have a speck of sunburn!”

So, at a time when there’s barely a drop of irrigation water left in Australia, the bastards who’ve been squirting it on like there’s no tomorrow, going for maximum tonnages to make up for the lowest grape prices in years, are succeeding at the expense of those who were being respectfully frugal with precious water.

This water paradox is also obvious in Coonawarra, and on the Murray. With typical reserve, Jon Angove said “The heat has been very severe. Unfortunately, those who were ekeing their water out, trying not to use too much, have shrivelling crops. Those who’ve kept the water up, and have good foliage, good canopies, are looking alright. We’ve seen this before you know.”

“We’re standing here watching the debilitating effects of earlier heat become apparent”, said Greg Clayfield at Zema, Coonawarra. “There’s a lot of sunburn, yellowing, and shrivelling, and the summer’s just begun. The old bush vines are taking it very badly.”

Some determined district representatives are still struggling to convince the world, and probably themselves, that all is cool in sunstruck Oz. I woke to the five o’clock news to hear a well-meaning hero from Griffith saying leaves were yellow, curled and dropping and yields might be down ten or twenty per cent, “but”, he said, “of course that’s only anecdotal”.

Yep. It’s only anecdotal.

None other than the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, which is led by a former Minister for Defence, The Hon. John Moore AO (pictured, right), yesterday issued a press release saying:

“Recent reports of high temperatures across parts of South Eastern Australia are likely to impact the predicted yields of the 2009 harvest, however it is too early in the season to make quality assessments and it is clear that Australian wine supply is not threatened.

"Most reports from affected wine regions rate the downgrading at between 10% and 20%. The most likely impact of the sustained period of high temperatures will be to bring the season forward and to shorten it – thereby presenting Australian winemakers with some logistical challenges during harvest.”

Some logistical challenges, indeed. Probably merely anecdotal logistical challenges.

The first recorded use of the term “spin”, or its like, which I have encountered, is in dear old Cicero, reviewing the freshly-published historical writings of Julius Caesar sometime around 50BC.

“They are like nude figures, upright and beautiful, stripped of all ornament of style as if they had removed a garment” Marcus Tullio Cicero (left) wrote.

“His [Caesar’s] aim was to provide source material for others who might wish to write history, and perhaps he has gratified the insensitive, who may wish to use their curling-tongs on his work; but men of good sense he has deterred from writing.” from Brutus (262)

It's 0922 now, 41ºC, and the foreboding calm of the dawn has been invaded by a savage northerly, coming in off Australia's vast baking centre. It dries the eyes to a sand-blasted painfulness within minutes, and in it you can smell an acrid, fearsome reek, like the hot metal and brick of a blast furnace.


2020HRS: I have just turned the exhausted air-conditioning off and opened my windows and doors for the first time since January 28th. There's a beautiful sou-easterly breeze coming in from the Gulf St Vincent (appropriately patron of viticulturers, lost things, schoolgirls and vinegar-makers), and the crickets are singing with glee!

I can almost smell the whales' breath.

In the last couple of hours, as the northerly wore itself out and swung about to the south, the temperature has taken a merciful plunge. It's now 18.6ºC, and the relative humidy has risen to a comfy 71%. At 0930 it was 12%! The Bureau of Meteorology says temperatures will stay below 30ºC until Friday, and ease up to 37ºC next Saturday.

My asthma has gone, the prickly hay-fevered skin is beginning once more to feel liveable, and my eyes suddenly require no lubricating drops. The wee berrudies are chattering delightedly in the gloaming, and from my desk, through the French doors, I believe I can hear the vines sucking in their first big gulp of cool air in a dozen days.

It will take the survivors a day or two to return to normal functions, and then winemakers hope they'll begin smoothly to stack on some sugar without shedding all the precious acidity that remains.

Baz White, from Gomersal Wines in the Barossa called to say that once it was cool enough, he'd taken a walk in his normally schmick vineyard, and discovered that his vines had been auto-aborting bunches all day: each vine has shed two or three bunches. And he keeps them running fairly minimally at the best of times, so that's a big crop loss before he gets down to individual row or even individual bunch selection at harvest.

"We'll just have to see how we go", he said sagely.

Peter Gago called this afternoon from Penfolds, where he makes the legendary Grange, the Magill Estate red, St Henri, and all the Penfolds numbered bin premiums. He'd just done a lap of his wide-spread minions.

"The Magill Estate crush is over", he said of the vineyard surrounding the grand old suburban winery and the tiny Grange cottage of the original winemaker, Mary Penfold. "We beat the previous earlist crush record by two days, and it's not looking too bad at that!

"We've got five open fermenters initially hovering around Baumes of 14.1-14.3, thankfully without any greenness."

Peter had been in the south-east and Coonawarra earlier in the week, and says it was "quite encouraging" since the best Fosters vineyards in the district have in recent years been returned to more modest viticulture with single-wire trellis systems.

"Yesterday in the Barossa it was, not surprisingly, more variable", he added politely.

Now the radio says that as the cool change moves east into Victoria, the cooling wind which brought it will actually inflame the many bushfires raging there. Many vignobles are now surrounded by savage conflagrations, and the poor old Yarra Valley, on the edge of suburban Melbourne, which has been strugging with phylloxera, then a record heatwave that scorched its crop, now looks like getting more than its share of smoke taint, if indeed it doesn't burn down.

Vineyards near Bendigo and Keyneton face the same threat.

Hundreds of thousands of Victorian householders have been warned to prepare for evacuation, or rigidly enforce their emergency bushfire plans if they choose to remain. Melbourne's major power supply lines are threatened at several points, and the open pit coalfields of the La Trobe Valley are being licked by uncontrolled bushfire.

The head of the Victorian fire services has just warned that the cool change has made the State even more treacherously dangerous.

"The wind is what we don't need ... and fire at night is a lot more scary than fire in the daytime", he added flatly.

Somehow, miraculously, South Australia stayed free of big fires today.

Now, with intense pleasure and relief, I'm going to put some clothes on and taste a few reds. It's that cool.

I may even risk turning the stove on to cook something.

Anecdotally, of course.


The radio has just reported fourteen people confirmed burnt to death in Victoria, with another thirty unconfirmed.

And the floods which have just subsided in northern Queensland are rising again, as some districts report two and three hundred millimetres of new rain.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of irrigaion. Everyone need to know that the Penfolds Magill Estate vineyard is irrigated using Adelaide Mains Water. Is this legal???

Penfolds buried the irrigation tube so that the tourista could not see it.

So much for a dry grown vineyard, they aslo did it at the Seppeltfield bush vine vineyard!!!

"Deceptive and misleading conduct" tell me?

Philip White said...


Penfold's can use mains water like anybody else. You apply, you pay.

Buried driplines are much more efficient than above-ground ones. The water delivered is cooler and there's much less evaporation.

Some parts of the Seppeltsfield grenache vineyard was dying.

Since the buried drippers went in, the old vines are looking much happier.

The 2009 vintage has finally put paid to the romance of unirrigated bush vines. Sure, some survived the heat quite well, like Big Bob McLean's seven year old ones on Mengler's Hill, but many growers wished they'd had the convenience of giving the poor old buggers a drink during the heatwave. What's the point of growing vines that cannot produce grapes when the weather's hot?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I have learnt something more about growing grapes.