“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)





01 February 2009



Victoria’s Gippsland Ablaze

Picking Begins In Intolerable Heat


In spite of two slightly cooler, breezy nights in the ranges, South Australia’s vignerons have started to pick what’s left of a horrible harvest.

2009 looks like being the earliest vintage on record.

As vulnerable people are dying in this unprecedented fiery furnace, the Bureau of Meteorology has begun issuing a new warning atop the usual ultra-violet warnings, blackout forecasts, and pollen counts for asthmatics and allergics: this is called the Heat Health Warning.

The Adelaide interstate bus terminal, which is air-conditioned, has opened its doors to offer the homeless some cool respite on its concrete, cold drinks from its faucets, and a shower in its travellers’ amenities.

In the fledgeling cool-climate viticulture region of Gippsland, east of Melbourne, Victoria, bushfires are threatening the power supply lines and generating stations as the precious cool-climate rainforests of the Strzlecki Ranges explode in flames.

We expect another day over 40°C today (Sunday 1st February), and consistent high thirties or forties through the next few days. The optimist may believe forecasts of mid-thirties temperatures later in the week, but optimism is thin on the ground this vintage.

Old unirrigated bushvines, the heart and soul of much of South Australia’s super-premium fruit, are taking the record heatwave very badly. Common misunderstanding about the resilience of the oldest strugglers includes the notion that such vines are somehow tougher than modern, trellised, irrigated vineyards.

The hellish heat of the summer of 2009 puts paid to such naive shibboleths: many of the grandest old vineyards have fruit that’s cooked and shrivelling before they even reached veraison.

The ones that might survive with tolerable quality are those with the best balance of leaf and fruit; carefully-managed canopies for shade, a modest supply of water, and an aspect that shelters them to some degree from the worst afternoon heat.

Breezes that move the leaves are good, as the leaf surfaces don’t simply take the full blast of the sun at the same angle all day, but then the horrid northerlies that have been blasting in from the vast central desert simply dehydrate everything they hit, and quickly.

Vineyards in reflective soils are the worst hit: the grapes are being roasted top and bottom as leaves roll, droop and fade. In normal conditions, such reflective soils are a boon, ensuring smooth, even ripening.

Heat susceptible varieties, like viognier, are unlikely to be picked. Growers of chardonnay in anything other than very cool places are wondering whether to bother picking at all.

Newly-planted vines are perishing in their grow tubes.

My bellwether vineyard, opposite the cool Salopian Inn in McLaren Vale, this vintage had budburst a fortnight earlier than the previous year, when harvest was the earliest on record and a fifteen-day heatwave blitzed everything that wasn’t picked early.

This year, as DRINKSTER then predicted, harvest is yet another fortnight earlier.

There is little traditional Aussie humour on the grape receival aprons and hoppers; stoic sobriety hangs over the whole wine industry. This will be a year when depression is as big a threat to vignerons as financial stress and the usual vintage exhaustion.

But before breakfast, I called Michael Waugh, of Greenock Creek in the Barossa, and he’s still showing his usual droll digger’s wit.

“We’re not crying in our beer”, he chuckled. “There’s nothing we can do about it. But, you know better than anybody, all our vineyards are on different soil types and they’re not all reacting terribly badly. And we only grow reds, which are tougher.

“The sauvignon blanc next door looks dead, but then sauvignon blanc in the Barossa never made much sense to me.

“The modern vineyards that are generally over-watered are carking it – they spoil them with too much coddling and the poor vines have no physiological resistance to conditions like these. They just fall over.

“But, you know, our acids are holding – last week that was all we had, bloody acid – and later this week they reckon it’s going to cool down.

“So, no panic here.”

Michael promises to report later today, once he’s done a thorough inspection of his priceless suite of vineyards, so watch for a later post.

Another wry exception to the fact of this stressed-out, deeply-shocked and exhausted community came by SMS yesterday. My mate Pat Conlon, the wine-loving Minister for Transport and Infrastructure, who has no reason to laugh as his systems grind to a halt in the heat, sent me the following message:

“The Premier has urged people to make sure they check on elderly friends in this heat. So. You OK?”

This came to my phone five hours before the message to which he referred.

“For urgent assistance”, it said, “phone 000. Do not reply to this message. IMPORTANT SA GOVERNMENT HEAT HEALTH WARNING: Heat Stress Can Kill; Stay Cool; Stay Inside; Drink plenty of water; Check the safety of vulnerable neighbours; Listen to your radio.”



Last year, Penfolds winemaker Peter Gago told DRINKSTER that for the last fifteen vintages, he’d had to annually readjust his definition of extreme weather.

He’s just done it again.

“We start fermenting at Magill on Tuesday”, he told DRINKSTER this morning.

“Not unexpectedly, this is the earliest vintage on record.

“We had some shrivel in the most stressed vineyards yesterday, but miraculously, it’s not excessive.

“Even though the heat has been hauntingly constant, we’re seeing quite a lot of variation between vineyards.”

Typical of Peter's usual calm politeness, this matter of "quite a lot of variation" leads me to wonder just how far the winebiz spindoctors will go in their attempts to suggest things aren't as bad as they initially said.

Various regions are already sending out the message that they're on top of it, or that they're not beaten yet. The more brazen tuggers will soon be saying it's a great year for this or that for whatever magical reason.

Such fey blatherings will of course backfire when the same people later attempt to get financial assistance from government, as grain farmers do with drought relief. Mallee wheatboys never pull any punches when they know their season's cactus.

Winemakers could learn something from the disarming honesty of the graziers, pastoralists and grain cockies, but I doubt it'll happen this year. Just depends on how bad things really get.

But Peter Gago's guarded optimism - or hint of it - echoes Michael Waugh’s Greenock Creek report. Check back later today for Michael's full round-up.

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