Game of vines – Canberra’s season of ice and fire

Vintage 2014 seems a song of ice and fire for much of the Canberra region. Frost nipped vine buds in October and intense heat waves followed in January and February.

The frost affected many, though not all vineyards. While no one escaped the heat – growers with adequate water are faring better than those without. Those with inadequate supples struggle to keep vines, let alone crops, healthy; while others see promising, if reduced, crops ripening under protective leaf canopies.

“It gets down to who has ready access to water”, says Four Winds winemaker Bill Crowe. Crowe reckons Four Winds’ crop to be down by around 60 per cent, largely because of the October frost. But, says Crowe, “we have lots of water” and vineyard manager (and brother in law), John Collingwood, has maintained healthy canopies capable of ripening the reduced fruit load.

While vines generally shut down when temperatures climb to the high thirties, Crowe sees steady progress in veraison (where grapes change colour and soften) and ripening. “Riesling seems on track to ripen by early March”, he observes. “And veraison all but complete for the reds”.

However, he says they’ve already harvested sangiovese from Gundagai – fruit that normally ripens around Anzac day.

At Hall, Brindabella Hills Vineyard’s Roger Harris, echoes Crowe’s sentiment, “Right now dry is more of a problem than the heat. It’s the longest stretch of heat I’ve seen in my 30 years in Canberra. I started with a full dam, now it’s two-thirds depleted”.

Luckily, believes Harris, a lack of wind saved further vine stress. And a high water table coming into the vintage got the vines off to a good start. He adds, “If this heat had come at the end of a drought it could’ve been catastrophic”.

Nevertheless, Harris remains optimistic of harvesting healthy riesling, sauvignon blanc and shiraz, albeit in lower than average volumes.

His main vineyard suffered no frost losses, though a newer, one-hectare plot of sangiovese (with a little sauvignon blanc), at a slightly lower altitude, was badly affected. He attributes the smaller volumes to grape bunches not being as full as they should be, though rainfall could change that.

“Twenty millimetres would be good”, he chuckles hopefully. Then adds, “But that’s not promising as the tropical monsoons failed and that’s where our rain comes from”.

Despite the adverse conditions, Harris says ripening in riesling and sauvignon blanc, measured by sugar content, was exactly the same on 10 February 2014 as it was on 10 February 2013.

In Murrumbateman, new YouTube star, Ken Helm, assures readers no red wine was lost or damaged in the making of Plonk, episode 1, Murrumbateman (see youtube.com/user/roadtoplonk).

The October 2013 frost smashed Helm’s home block, wiping out 80 per cent of his riesling crop and 30 per cent of the cabernet sauvignon. The substantial riesling losses, however, allowed Helm to redirect scarce water from those vines to the survivors. These are carrying healthy fruit with no sunburn, says Helm, and he expects to make a reduced quantity of his Classic Dry, though none of his benchmark Helm Premium Riesling.

Helm now contacts riesling from Julia Cullen’s Tumbarumba vineyard as a backstop against local crop losses and with an eye to future expansion. He trialled the fruit successfully in 2013, releasing a small run of Helm Tumbarumba Riesling.  For similar reasons, Helm’s also sampling fruit from a vineyard between Cargo and Orange in the Central Ranges Zone.

Following this year’s crop losses Helm withdrew from a UK wine exhibition for lack of stock. He says grape sourcing from nearby regions will, over time, increase his ability to export wine.

Helm’s Murrumbateman neighbour (and fellow YouTube star), Eden Road’s Nick Spencer, grows mainly shiraz on what used to be the Doonkuna vineyard. He says it’s hard to assess the crop at present, though he feels more positive than he did a few weeks ago.

The vines looked tired, then, he says, but the leaf canopy remains healthy (largely because of good rainfall in recent vintages), giving him hope for ripening.

Frost struck Eden Road vineyard, knocking off 30–40 per cent of the shoots. But thanks to above average rainfall in 2011 and 2012, shoot numbers were high. So, despite the frost, the shiraz crop from the surviving shoots remains at an estimated six tonnes to the hectare – which is high in a dry, late ripening climate like Canberra’s.

Spencer planned to begin dropping about two tonnes a hectare off the vines from 11 February, leaving a modest four tonnes to the hectare to ripen. After the fruit thinning, he expects the grapes to race through veraison, which was about three quarters complete on 10 February.

He’s concerned with the inconsistency of ripening following a frost – as much as two weeks in a single vineyard. This, more than a reduced crop yield, becomes the main the issue for wine quality, he says. Following the event they marked frost-damaged sections of the vineyard, so these won’t be harvested.

Like Four Winds, Eden Road is already taking fruit from Gundagai. “It’s very ripe”, says Spencer, “and it looks good but inconsistent”. He’ll therefore be taking less volume than he could have.

Tumbarumba, source of Eden Road’s pinot noir and chardonnay, “Looks great”, says Spencer. “It has better rain, good water and it’s a little cooler”.

At Lark Hill, on the top of the Lake George Escarpment, Chris Carpenter, laments the dryness following little rainfall in winter and during the growing season. While the vines tend to shut down in the heat, he says, he’s seeing veraison in Lark Hill’s pinot and shiraz (in their Dark Horse vineyard, Murrumbateman).

Frost hit both vineyards, taking out half of the chardonnay at Lark Hill, half of the viognier at Dead Horse, 20 per cent of Lark Hill’s pinot noir and some of the Dead Horse shiraz. Because the frost hit late, when bunches had already formed, “the vines had little scope to recover”, says Carpenter.

Both vineyards are short of water, he says, and anticipates a small crop of very small berries with high skin to flesh ratios – meaning concentrated flavours and a challenge in the winery.

Down the hill a little, on the western foreshore of Lake George, Lerida Estate’s Jim Lumbers reports a slightly bigger than normal crop, comparable to 2009’s.  The vineyard avoided frost damage, while the two to its north reportedly were hit fairly hard.

After recent, wet, disease-riddled seasons, the dry and hot 2014 vintage has been free of disease. As well, says Lumbers, very deep soils, with significant water reserves, means healthy leaf canopies to ripen the crop. He says he considering selling grapes this year.

On Canberra’s northern edge, Mount Majura escaped the frost but suffered some minor late October hail damage.

Winemaker Frank van der Loo says that because the vineyard lies on limestone, with good ground water, the vines show little sign of stress. He says Mount Majura is on track for a good but not big harvest, largely because of small bunch sizes.

Just as a tree is best measured when it’s down, the only true measure of a vintage comes out of the bottle. Canberra’s wide weather swings, particularly notable in recent years, nearly always throws challenges and heartache at vignerons. But even in the toughest seasons – like cold, wet 2011 and hot, dry, frost-ravaged 2014 – our winemakers come up with many lovely wines, each indelibly stamped with the season that shaped it. Here’s to ice and fire in 2014.

A happy sequel
Between the writing and publishing of this story, Canberra vignerons received reviving rainfalls.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2014
First published 19 February 2014 in the Canberra Times and goodfood.com.au

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