“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 March 2013


There's not a drop of water spare for vintage in the hottest summer ever recorded in Australia, and lots of what has been used was to little avail ... photo Philip White
V 2013: What Once Looked Fine  
Is Frying Has Fried On The Vine 
But There's Some Top Stuff Too 

“One of my best growers is so comfortable he’s gone on holidays, vineyard cruising,” said McLaren Vale winemaker Tim Geddes on Twitter.  “Old vines are low Baumé, high acid.” 

2013 is a tricky year to pick.  Literally.  The summer has just been officially announced to be the hottest in Australia since records began, so it’s miraculous that so many good wines appear to be in the tanks and barrels, and there's still some great fruit left to pick.

The build-up to vintage , as I wrote here a fortnight back, was very promising heat-wise in my neck of the woods: spikes in the maximum were not as dramatic and scary as forecast.  The subsoil moisture, however, was another thing: the spring was dry, and drier as you progressed from the tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula through McLaren Vale and the Barossa, north to Clare and into the Southern Finders appellation, and then east into the vast Murray Darling, where growers are confronted by a new, lower-irrigation regime whatever the weather does.

I recall a few years back, when climate change deniers were thicker on the ground, Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago suggesting he’d had to rewrite his meaning of “extreme” every year for the last fifteen vintages.  He’s still at it. As I write, he's flat out squeezing first-class fruit through the old open fermenters at The Grange winery at Magill.

While public relations chatter is suitably muted so far, some propagandists are insistently suggesting everything’s been perfect.  Rather than depend on press releases, my preferred weathercock in the north is the DRINKSTER cartoonist and illustrator George Grainger Aldridge, who lives on Glen Oak Station, north of Hawker in the Flinders Ranges. 

He’d returned there to assist with shearing after a spell down south when we spoke. 

“The road into the house was dry and tight as a nut when I came back,” he said.  “But after I’d driven over it a few times it had turned to powder.  Turned completely to bulldust.  The country is very dry around here.  She’s tough.”


.So the Southern Flinders growers south and east of Melrose spend another year worrying about increasing salinity as many write off the year and they watch the Goyder Line move over them and south towards Clare, which is perhaps the major bellwether for this state’s vineyard weather.  

Even in the milder-than-forecast heat of this summer, Clare has been astonished at the rapidity with which sugars have hiked in the dry ground – 2013 is already a lesson for the irrigators. 

In some parts of McLaren Vale, sugars went extremely high very quickly, catching growers and makers with their pants down.  Yields are a lot lower than what was expected, but unlike regions which got less rain than the Vales, these southern Vales  acids fell fairly quickly.

Many growers in Clare and the Barossa are suggesting cropping levels are around 50% of normal, or worse, with tiny woody berries of extreme Aeroplane Jelly-level sugars but green-flavoured skins and bitter pips.  No balance.  You can put the water hose in or spin the hell out of it on the de-alc centrifuge, but it’ll still taste bittersweet.  To add insult, growers used to pressing out 700 litres of juice per tonne are finding themselves with only 400l. And then acids of 9-10 g/l make it worse again.  The sophistry trucks will be making a killing, and even then the wines will be far from ideal.

With the return of what appears to be the new normal – drought – even many of the best-managed irrigated vineyards seemed to suffer the summer poorly.  Irrigation regimes give the vine roots little encouragement to delve deep into the rocks below their clay and topsoil: they need only spread in a shallow fashion around the drippers, where evaporation is extreme in freaky heat.  

Black dripper lines not only feed the vines hot water on hot sunny days, but they burn in bushfires, and can even act like cordite fuses, spreading the flames in extreme heat. Photo Philip White
Even the notion of feeding the vines water through a heat-absorbent black plastic tube seems nuts in sunshine like we’ve had: the vines are being fed hot water.  Restrict the water, according to new conservation practices forced by its scarcity and price, and the most verdant, healthy-looking vineyards simply pump sugar in the persistent sunshine, and ripening tends to happen so fast that growers are unprepared to suddenly harvest something they expected to attend to a few weeks further on down the track.

In the most extreme situations, you can say it’s been just a few days, not weeks.

So you get entire regions suddenly struggling for harvesting machines or hand-pickers, which are always in limited supply.  The winemakers sit back anxiously outstaring the vineyard blokes as they watch fruit they wanted to ferment at, say, 14 Baumé, to get wine of around 14.5 per cent alcohol, suddenly lurching into the 16s and 17s and the nether regions beyond.

And when the fruit does churn in, the wineries fill to capacity very quickly, so grape bins are left waiting their turn on concrete aprons in even more heat.  This has admittedly been alleviated somewhat by the lower than expected yields, and now a cooler week, but nevertheless, winemakers are forced to rush ferments through to clear tanks for subsequent batches, so the coarse tannins already there are exaggerated, never getting the chance to properly soften and polymerise with relaxed cold soaks to dissolve the pretty floral water-soluble aromatics befpre the alcohol takes hold.  There aren’t too many calm extended ferments going down.

Shiraz stressing under irrigation on Seaview Road, McLaren Vale

At a time when the entire business is attempting to make more elegant, lower alcohol wines, this is sickening for winemakers and marketers.  They have no choice but to watch the crop rapidly ripen beyond the ideal figure, as vineyard managers sweat in a scary competition to lure the limited numbers of harvesters whether machine or human.

I unearthed a telling figure recently, researching old numbers for a book I’m writing about Penfolds Grange.  I came across Max Schubert’s recipe for Grange, written on the plane on the way back from his fact-finding tour of the vineyards of Jerez and Bordeaux  after the war. Even before he’d attempted a trial, he wrote that his new superwine would be made from Shiraz from Magill and Morphett Vale, harvested between 11.5 and 12 degrees Baumé, to deliver a finished wine of around those alcohol numbers.

This is indeed what he did, and those early Granges, now worth skrillions, can still drink splendidly if their corks have miraculously lasted.

Early Granges were made at much lower alcohols than we see in red wines today, and can still drink beautifully if the corks are good.  This is a Milton Wordley photograph from our forthcoming book, A Year In The Life Of Grange. To see a gallery of some of Milton's amazing photography from this book click hereFor release details, keep an eye on DRINKSTER. Below is the author's birth vintage, the 52 Grange, less than 13% alcohol, and still hanging in there, in this case having a day out in Gotham City. 
During the ’nineties, whether driven by a climate change nobody understood, or the wiles of fashion alone, this old number grew to an average of 14.5% alcohol and beyond. 

Consider the number you see most commonly on red wine today.  Miraculously, every red on the shelf is 14.5. 

But this, of course, is abject bullshit.  The law permits a margin of error of 1.5% either side of the claimed number, so most of the wines you imagine are 14.5 are in fact closer to 16%.  Find a favourite small producer who claims 15.5%, and you could well be drinking a wine of 17% alcohol, a number which in Max Schubert’s day was reserved almost exclusively for fortified sherry. 

While the American critic, Robert Parker Jr. loved many of these supercharged jam bombs and gave them scores of 100/100, there were enough people on Earth to take his advice and buy them.

Now Parker’s sold his Wine Advocate and vanished, leaving a market reeling in its hangover, grasping for the sorts of wines Max Schubert wisely planned, the jam bombs languish on the shelves and those who were expert at making them are suddenly acclimatising to a life without Ferraris.

Vintage 2013 will be a Ferrari-free year.  Worse than that, it’ll be devoid of BMWs and Mercs. 

It’s not all horrid, of course.  Vintage rain in this last week eased some of McLaren Vale’s troubles, and great fruit is coming in from the cooler corners, with ideal acids and lovely balance at 13.5 – 14 degrees Baumé. Properly-run biodynamic vineyards, like the one I live on at Yangarra (no commercial involvement), seem to have coped much better than many.  Without the dreaded Roundup, which kills all the microbes in the soil, but good mulch and groundcover instead, the total biomix of life in the ground works to retain what moisture there is.  Today, for example, I see Cabernet arriving at 12.5 to 13 Baumé, Merlot at 13, and Shiraz at 13.7 with acid of 5.22.  Most pHs are ideally low.

Barossa Tops growers, like Bob and Wilma McLean, are only beginning to think about harvest, with good looking unirrigated bush vine crops growing out of those ancient, water-bearing sandstones and schists of the Cambrian (500-540 million years) Normanville and Kanmantoo geological groups.

We did an experiment in the McLean’s Farm vineyard a few years back, when Bob couldn’t understand what was keeping his baby bush vines alive.  We took a sledgehammer and chipped off a chunk of the sandstone – there’s hardly any soil there.  We weighed it, then sank it in a bucket of water overnight.  In the morning, it was around 25% heavier.  If you’ve got the right stuff, like David Brown also enjoys at Mountadam, further down the range, those stones can work like primæval sponges.

Some old rocks have remarkable water-retentive capacities ... photo Philip White

“I’m not picking til next week” Bob said this morning.  “On Monday our Riesling was 10.2 Baumé.  Shiraz, Mataro and Grenache were about 10.7.  The nights have been cool, and Wednesday we got 15ml of rain.  It kept up all day, steady and gentle – it sounded  like kids eating watermelons on the roof.  That’s the first 15ml we’ve had since October.

“I dunno about these Hooray Henries who say they get the same quality every year.  I know the big guys do that deliberately, to maintain their style, like they think they’ve got to please the market, but the littlies who make small batches – I dunno, but I’ve only got one vineyard and I can say every year’s been different.”

So Bob’s a bit like Tim Geddes’ grower of old unirrigated bush vines in the Vales.  Many of these ancient strugglers have their roots well down into the stones beneath that topsoil, where they can suck out moisture that few believe is actually there.  Around my neck of the woods, the best-looking fruit is hanging smug in such canopies on the bush vines, with good acids holding, and sugars rising much more slowly than in their flash shallow-rooted neighbours with all their trellis sophistry, drip-lines and mechanical management.

Sadly, these old vineyards are nearly all gone.  The beauty beside the Morphett Vale Baptist Church, which Max Schubert used for his famous babies for decades, just for example, has long vanished beneath the houses, and the only spread of similar old rock geology remaining unconcreted, Seaford Heights, is being cemented as I write.

Thankyou, Planning Minister Rau.

Simultæneously, the same government which pushed that housing through is considering relaxing the phylloxera laws.  If that dreaded bug follows fruit fly across the border, these old glories will be the first to vanish.

In which case, we’ll have to learn to drink even stronger wine, whatever song the spinquacks sing.


South Australian Deputy Premier, Attorney General and Planning Minister John Rau lays down the law, advising McLaren Vale his destructive Seaford Heights development would go ahead on the last piece of priceless old rock geology left without houses in McLaren Vale, regardless of his much-touted planning freeze ... this is called "community consultation".  My arse! He tried to storm out ....photo Philip White


Anonymous said...

You seem to be writing about an industry which is finished.

Gavin said...

I was reading an article in an old issue of Food Technology in Australia (as you do) recently called "In search of quality for red wines" (by TC Somers of the AWRI, Feb 1975). A few bits are quite interesting, eg:

Earlier harvest. Sugar accumulation in most Australian vineyards is usually more than adequate, and the crop may quickly become over-ripe. Grapes intended for dry red wine production should not, however, be allowed to ripen beyond about 12.5° Baumé (22.5° Balling); higher sugar levels are accompanied by lower total acidities and increase cation contents...

"There is no evidence to suggest that late harvest gives better pigment extract in the wine. On the contrary, a field experiment some years ago at Magill, South Australia, showed that the anthocyanin content of Shiraz grapes reached a maximum at 11-12° Baumé (about 20-22° Balling) and then decreased"

I did try a syrah that claimed to be 12.5% alcohol in France (the 2009 Dard & Ribo Crozes-Hermtiage, from memory). A beautiful wine, and certainly not under-ripe. But it seems a rarity now to get red wine that is less than 13% alcohol.