“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)





17 February 2012



New Vintage Coming In To Land
Almost Perfect Vital Statistics
Everybody Holds Their Breath

Quietly, vintage has crept up. A tractor with as many lights as Close Encounters just hauled a cart of grapes past my window.

The farmyard today was suddenly abuzz with tractors and trucks and faces not seen for a year.  The winery, washed and polished to hospital grade, has its door agape like a huge hungry mouth.  People are welding things, filling things up, oiling machines.   

The wet la Niña February the sky doctors forecast has been merciful, keeping temperatures down, humidities up and things dampish, but not so much as to present growers with anything like the sousing of last year, which was the worst vintage most living Australian winemakers have encountered.

Most rains have been accompanied, or at least followed, by gusty breezes, which dry the vine canopies and minimize the need for fungicides.  From Clare to the tip of the Fleurieu (click to see map), small bits of the vignobles took mild hail damage at different times, but once again, nobody said much, because they knew that hiccup was minor compared to 2011, and they were still hoping that the long-range forecasters had got February wrong.
It’s never too late for things to go wrong, of course.  After an ideal Semillon harvest in the Hunter Valley, in New South Wales, the reds were ready to pick at lovely numbers when so much rain dumped that the sugars diluted and the vineyards got too boggy to work.  Pickers don’t do mud.

One thing is certain about the big vignobles of South Australia: the crop will be small.  Shiraz, the staple of McLaren Vale and the Barossa, just for example, looks to my eye to be about sixty per cent of its average yield.  Berries and bunches are small and sparse, and those who believed the Wet Feb Forecasters and kept the canopies plucked or hedged to allow the healing breezes through are happy that there’s not been enough sunshine to burn the skins.

This brings two things to my vagrant mind.  The first, McLaren Vale’s dodgy Scarce Earths racket. This masquerades as a sort of geological guide to the complex nature of the region’s terroir.  Like not.  In reality it’s a scheme in which punters are expected to pay up to $110 a bottle for Shiraz which is not quite two years of age.  From the quality of the first (2009 vintage) release, it seems likely -- if not merely possible -- that many of those makers would have little idea of what to do with an elegant, modest crop of lower sugar, higher acidity and intense, if forgotten to them, flavours, especially if they consider their 2009 prices to be fair.  But worse is the notion that wines from 2012 already look like requiring an extra year or two of bottle to be even partly understood.  In which case the 2012 Scarce Earth Shiraz wines will be many years short of ideal upon their selection and release.  This’ll work for Grange, but never for wines of no provenance.  And Grange, come to think of it, is already five years old at release.

The second wild thought involves sunshine and the lack of it.  I’ll come to that later.  


Mike Farmilo, of the big Vales contract winery, Boar’s Rock, agrees that the flavours are highly promising because of this modest yield and the other vital statistics of the crop.  He reports strong natural acids -- essential for great wine -- with healthy, if moderate sugars, and low pH.  So in a nation awash with deservedly unsold bulk from previous years, it appears that South Australia won’t be adding much to that embarrassing lake.

While the poor Mallee growers remain dumbstruck by the mess of gizzards in the Murray-Darling Basin wrangle, they report a similar hike in overall quality, although it’s hard to work out whether this is partly the result of borderline big-irrigation sugar-miners finally leaving the business.  Two of the eternally-optimistic die-hards I spoke to didn’t want to be named, were happy with their crops, shitty about the prices, and sick of the new CSD syndrome: Consultation Stress Disorder.

At this point I could ring Charlie Melton to ask about his vintage in the Southern Flinders Ranges, which has become a quality bridge of sorts between the River vineyards and Mt Lofty Ranges, but I won’t.  Because I did ask him a few weeks ago.  He said he’s walked away from that decade-long adventure.  Why?  “Salt.”

It’s a pity some Padthaway people don’t know any words that short.

Langhorne Creek, similarly, is a bridge between the Limestone Coast and the Mount Lofty Ranges vignobles, and when the Lake died, salt was a major issue there, too.  Now, thanks to two freak flood years, the Lake’s full, and the horror of the 2011 moulds is replaced by a very good looking crop indeed.  Peter Widdop of Old Mill Estate says acids remain high whilst yields and disease threats are very low.  “It’s everything 2011 wasn’t,” he said.  “More of the same weather, please!”  Like all other South Australian vignobles, it’ll happen very early in the piece, which was signaled by the very early set of Shiraz.


In Clare, David O’Leary of O’Leary Walker says that while the overall crop is down a little, and bunch numbers are down, the Rieslings they’ve crushed for much bigger producers have larger berries and bunches than usual, meaning the complex flavour influence of the phenolics in the skins will be decreased, giving much juicier characters.

“It’s just pure Riesling,” he said.  “The acids are holding, the skins are softening and the winery smells great when the fruit goes through.  These wines are gonna make themselves.  Watervale’s all lemon zest, and Polish Hill River’s really muscaty and aromatic.  Like other places, it looks like it’s all coming in a fortnight earlier than usual, but if the weather holds and these breezes keep up it’ll be a seriously good year for quality if not volume.  Which is what the industry needs.”

“Dare I say ball-tearer?” Tim Smith (left) shot back from the Barossa.  “We could have used a heat spike early in February, but it didn’t happen, and it might be just as well.  I want more of the same weather: plenty of breeze, real cool nights, fabulous acids.  The yields are way down, but the quality’s the best I’ve seen in years.  So far, 2012’s a cracker.”

Generally, the Barossa reports Shiraz behaving much like its brethren elsewhere: a modest crop, down by at least a third in yield, with small, open bunches of little berries.  The acids and pH numbers look really promising; growers suggest the pulp of the berries offers ideal viscosity without the gloop-gloop sugars that see alcohols soar at the expense of complexity and finesse.  From my illicit grape munching around the Vales, I agree that the 2012 Shiraz wines here, too, will be beautifully textured, and look forward to seeing some serious gastronomic intelligence applied to capturing the essence of this modest year with truly fine wines of lower alcohol.

Which brings me back to sunshine.  There’s always a sicko twist in the wiles of agriculture.  This year, it’s this very cool, moderate, dampish February.  While it’s not as wet as some forecast, its nature looks like giving the warmer areas (Mallee/Riverland, Clare, Barossa, McLaren Vale) low-volume wines of elegance and finesse, after all those drought years of sugar and Parkerilla Points.  But that same cool has some high country vignerons (Barossa Ranges, Adelaide Hills) growing anxious about their lack of warm sunshine.  Even after the Big Wet, they could have made more acceptable wine last year if they’d got a dry warm March and April.  They couldn’t ripen the fruit that did survive the moulds.  So some are getting twisty about sunshine and the lack of summer.  In the Hills, March must be sunny. For the Festivals, March must be sunny.  For those addicted to high alcohols, March must be sunny.

And you know what?  March is nearly always sunny.  Which is why all those festivals happen in March.  That crusty pioneer of wine, David Wynn, was always active in the arts world.  His knowledge of so many vintages had him ensure the Adelaide Festival would always be in March.  He never admitted that it was a good excuse to have the odd day away from the winery at vintage, but I’m sure that had something to do with it.  

Andrew Hardy of Petaluma agreed with O’Leary’s appraisal of Clare Riesling.  “We’ve just taken the first of it off,” he said, “and it’s sensational.”  But his greatest praise was for the promise of the Adelaide Hills.  “There’s a lot of hen-and-chicken in the Shiraz,” he said, “because of the wind at flowering.  But I reckon it’s gonna be a cracker otherwise.  Our sparkling Pinot and Chardonnay’s looking really good and we’re already picking some still wine Chardonnay in ideal condition.  Same goes for reds in Coonawarra if this weather continues.  More of the same, please.”

Peter Gago, of Penfolds, is similarly excited.  When I called, he was finishing a grape-munching tour of the Limestone Coast.  “Wrattonbully, Robe, Padthaway, Coonawarra --  it’s amazing,” he said with obvious anticipation.  “I mean, coming off 2011 it’s all through rose-coloured glasses, but when you walk the rows, it’s there: a good news story.  There’s no need to talk it up.  Like Cabernet.  If this weather holds, we’ll be picking at ideal numbers in a fortnight.  But fingers crossed.  It’s not over yet.”


He went on to recall how things looked pretty good in the Adelaide Hills at this stage  last year, and within ten days the moulds had infested everything.  “It’s like the floors in an international hotel,” he said.  “Most of them have no thirteenth floor.  2011’s like that to me.”  

Which leads me to address those who insist on talking last year’s wines up. Sure, the vintage was cool, so acids were high.  Just as they boast. But so were the rots and moulds.  Any peanut who denies the latter inconveniences hasn’t a hope in Hell of understanding high natural acidity.  The muck I’ve seen for sale in bulk lots on the grey market truly deserve the colloquial terms it has won itself.  Words which would flash around the internet in hours.  The winesmiths who were honest about that harrowing, mucky harvest beating them don’t begin to deserve the international derision the other errant cowboys can inflict with their rotgut.  Not just in grading their produce with night cart terminology, but in trying to make wine from it then expecting somebody to drink it.

I have a query to put to those who expected my lot to report dishonestly in favour of 2011: “If you insist on the second-wettest vintage in Australian winemaking history being one of the great vintages, what would you like me to say about 2012?” 



sprinkles said...

Scuse me buttin in bin drinkin billygoat milk BUT this bit off OzWineForum is intersting comment about what whitey calls big squirters

"WineRick » Tue Feb 21, 2012 5:19 pm

Yes, certainly the beginnings of a great vintage here in the Barossa. Colour, Flavour and Compositional figures for carefully grown fruit are exceptional, with some pH's needing to be checked, the're so special.

"After a very wet year in 2011, those who like to irrigate might be missing out on some of the greatness of the year because their sugar levels have arrived quickly but out of sync with flavour and tannin maturity. A lot of carefully managed vineyards are now actually showing the effects of the dry spell we're experiencing but if the crop levels are right, and they can get them off soon, fruit quality will be special.

"Australia needs a special vintage like 2012, to quickly negate possible ramifications of a lot of the crap that the 'carpet-baggers' absorbed after reputable winemakers rejected it in 2011. If we're on the road to recovery, then is is a good vintage to start with. Here's hoping no-one has upset the weather gods!"

Hope rick dont mind me pinching his copy! Just intersting!!!

iffatali said...

Against my will, in the course of my travels, the belief that everything worth knowing was known at Cambridge gradually wore off. In this respect my travels were very useful to me.
Flights to Gaborone
Cheap Flights to Gaborone
Cheap Air Tickets to Gaborone