“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)





25 February 2014


Yangarra High Sands unirrigated bush vine (1946 planting) Grenache slowly approaching ideal picking condition. I took this photograph this evening. Below: the scene in a similar summer in 2009. Admittedly the photo below was taken in the extreme heat of the day, the above at sunset, but you can see through my photographic sophistry. The biggest difference? Biodynamic viticulture. Turn the herbicides off. Let the grass grow, so the earth stays alive, the vines grow more resilient without the prophylactic influence of the drugs, and the sand is not so destructively reflective in obscene heat ... photos by Philip White 

Vintage '14 in South Australia
Ridiculous: best word for it
But smartest guys got it licked

"You’d think nothing could survive out there on some of those days."

I woke in a seven Richter hangover a few minutes ago, sweating. In the moments it took to realise it was the weather outside, and not entirely an internal problem, a wave of reassurance broke.  It wasn't like 45°C, as we had in January. This was lovely mellow warmth: exactly what this ridiculous vintage needs. These last days have given us perfect gradual ripening weather, but the  lovely gentle rain of the preceding weeks needed this breezy warm spell to dry things off.

It's almost as if that opening line from Tim Freeland related to 2009, which now seems like a dress rehearsal for this year. Both times, South Australia blistered in record heat which built for days before crossing the border to Victoria, setting it ablaze.

This last January there was one horrid week when my brother's bushy suburb in the hills east of Perth burnt to the ground.  At the same time, another brother in Pinnaroo, 3000 kilometres east of Perth, had scrub fires at three points of the compass, fortunately a respectable horizon away, but very discomfiting nevertheless.  My sister at Kanmantoo, where the hills hit the Mallee, looked out her front door at the smoke of the big Rockleigh fire, and another brother sweated it out preparing for the worst at his place on the southern shoulder of Mount Remarkable in the Flinders Ranges, watching Bangor and Wirrabarra explode around him.

Some homes survived, but many didn't in the bushfire that whipped through the Perth Hills ... photo by Stephen White, whose house luckily survived

There were more fires across the Onkaparinga Gorge from where I live. There was little point in expecting sympathy from my kin - in comparison, the deadly Onkaparinga Hills ignitions were piffling.

Freeland's comment came in after that fiery blitz of record heat, and the record sousing which finished it.  He'd read the pre-emptory abuse I'd got on the chat lines even before I'd written that such weird conditions were hardly ideal for grape growers and wine lovers, and sent me a marvelling e-mail, describing how his bush vine Adelaide Plains fruit had survived quite well.

Tim's a partner in wine crime with his old Gawler High School buddy, Dominic Torzi, in the Long Hop and Old Plains brands. Dom also makes the delightful Torzi Matthews wines - these three labels led me to call these joint efforts the best value stuff released in Australia last year.

At the risk of further dissing 2014, let's recap with some facts. We had two stupendous heatwaves. Adelaide was officially branded the hottest city in the world on January 16th. We had five days in a row above 42°C.  From January 13th to the 17th daily temperatures were 12°C or more above the normal average. It hit 45.1°C on the 14th.

Vines close down above 32-34°C.  You can water them, but they don't seem able to do much with that irrigation: they're in a kind of hibernation, just sweating it out while their sugars soar towards the sort of gloopy jamminess which is increasingly unpopular in both winery and marketplace.

That vicious heat seemed the end of nearly everything to many growers, from Port Lincoln to Griffith.  Friends twenty kays south of here on the Sellicks piedmont reported watching the wind blow famished bunches clean off the vines.

The first tricky bit of the 2014 crop came away back before Christmas, when the vines flowered and the tiny bunches began to form.  In some parts of McLaren Vale, like other vignobles, the flowering took an agonising six weeks. Extreme winds and freaky weather irregularities led to uneven berry formation: the phenomenon we call hen-and-chicken.  You get bunches with big ripe sugary berries alongside mean little green buggers the size of lentils, and all points in between.  This makes sweet-and-sour wine which demands unusual winemaking sophistry, and rarely gives ideal flavour.
When that heat hit us the big berries went nuts with sugar, but because the vines had the dormant sulks, the green berries stayed put, presenting the winemakers with an even more sweet-and-sour extreme.

High Sands Grenache again, at least a week or two short of ideal. These bunches still have some green berries that may or may not catch up, but these bunches are much more even than in many conventional industrial vineyards ... photographed this evening by Philip White ... photo above right by James Hook of DJ'sGrowers

Everything changed when Huey suddenly chose to drown us in the wettest 24-hour period since 1969 - the fifth-wettest Adelaide day on record, when 75.2mm fell in the city and parts of the Ranges took 130mm and more.

While this sousing offered instant relief in the cooling division, as it continued, the vines switched back on and those fat ripe berries sucked it up til they split.  When this occurs, sugary juice begins to ooze, adding to the bird-peck damage that many  growers already had. This is food for all sorts of moulds, like the botrytis that wrought havoc in too many vineyards in 2011.  Even if the ground is firm enough to carry spraying machinery, and there's enough fungicide to go around, the growers then face the problem of leaving the sprayed fruit for fourteen days for the chemicals to neutralise before they go into the tank with the wine. Those over-ripe berries get even riper.

Botrytis taking hold on white grapes ... photo James Hook

"We started picking for Old Plains and Torzi Freeland International on Feb 9th," Tim told me in that aforementioned missive, "directly after the heat on a cool Sunday morning. We’ve bought in 22 tonnes of Old Plains old vine Shiraz, from four different vineyards at Penfield Gardens and Angle Vale.

"The old bastards gave us steady Baum├ęs from 13 to 14," he said. "They held up really well in the heat, tough old buggers: thick skin. They trucked through ferment, plenty of dark colour, aromatic, spice. Basket pressed and barrelled down last Sunday. Just finishing off ferment in barrel ...

"Even the Lenswood Pinot Gris looks okay at this stage. There's no splitting, but the same grower has some split on other varieties that were more advanced."

So. By that stage we had panicky growers getting less than ideal grapes off before anything else went wrong. Less fortunate ones, with borderline quality at the best of times, were facing the dread reality that there'd be no buyers for their crop.

Machine-harvested botrytis-ridden Shiraz fruit in 2011 ... photo Philip White

But, as in 2011, the very lucky and the very smart sat it through. Those who'd managed their leaf canopies, ensuring there was good shade to stop the bunches stewing, but enough breeze space to dry out moulds and funguses, stood back in amazement.

The lovely pacifying cool of the last fortnight put these growers back on the profit map. The high sugars fell. Some folks were even beginning to worry that the grey cool was permanent, and those greener berries would never catch up.

Winemakers were facing the possibility of putting their casual vintage staff off for a week or two, as there was little for them to do until ripening finished.

So that warmth that set me sweating in hungover fear this morning is just perfect. Tickety-boo. Schmick.

If it had been like this since Christmas, we'd be looking at one of the best vintages ever. If it stays like this till the traditional ANZAC day rain, some may still lay to claim to something along those ideal lines.

Only time will tell.

And yes, that hangover? Blame it on Dudley Brown, the Inkwell winemaker who was the chairman of the McLaren Vale Grape Wine And Tourism Association in the 2009 heatwave. Last night, in a tremendous bucolic splurge, he married his sweetheart, the formidable vine scientist Irina Santiago.

Today, they're picking beautiful fruit with near-ideal vital statistics, if a little below the perfect tonnage.

"Whitey," he said, "we might just be looking at a really good year. Trouble is, everyone's so bloody punch-drunk after those waves of crap the weather sent us, that we're not quite capable of realising it."

Some leaf bugs and extreme heat stress evident, but there's still a lovely healthy crop on the old  High Sands vines this evening ... photo by Philip White ...  Disclaimer: believing all winewriters should live in a vineyard somewhere, the author quite deliberately rents a small flat on Yangarra Estate. So he can learn stuff. Never too old. It's exciting.


Brendan Carter ‏@brendovino said...

@whiteswine Amen! So many quick to jump on the bandwagon. Perhaps forming early excuses for poor winemaking? Good read mate!

Keith Mugford Moss Wood said...

Challenging conditions but the good vineyards and winemakers will shine through. I understand people being “punch drunk” after what’s happened.

Vintage is proceeding apace here. Crops are down but not unexpectedly after the wind damage during Spring. Temperatures through the season have been good to us and the last 2 weeks have seen a succession of days with maxima in the 28 to 32 range, so there has been steady ripening, across the board. We’re so close to the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest we’re starting to keep an eye on the long range weather forecast – if it stays dry for the another 3 weeks that would suit us fine. Our fingers are crossed.

Hope things are settling down in SA after the rain last week? I haven’t heard any bad stories, so hopefully that’s a good sign.

Jay Louse said...

Howd Michael get a crop like that? That looks delicious. Clever.