Wet summer puts pressure on Coonawarra vignerons

The countryside surrounding Coonawarra seems unusually lush and green for January. Cold, wet conditions throughout spring and early summer explain the pretty greening that’s proved troublesome and expensive for grape growers across all of south-eastern Australia.

Persistent rain brought with it outbreaks of downy mildew, a vine disease showing up as discolouration on leaves that, if unchecked, quickly destroys foliage and renders vines inoperative for the season. In other words, no spray, no crop.

The solution is frequent spraying. Naturally this is an expensive business and vignerons across southern Victoria and South Australia tell me vineyard management costs are dramatically up because of the mildew problem. And spraying costs have been edged up by shortages of chemicals caused by the unprecedented demand. Some components have had to be air freighted in from the United States.

Spraying for mildew brings other difficulties. There are only so many tractors and so many hours in the day. Hence, at a time like this, other vineyard chores tend to languish as the more serious problem takes priority.

In Coonawarra, weed growth normally well in check at this time of year, is rampant in many of the big vineyards. Exuberant weed growth seems matched by bursts of vine foliage so wild that parallel rows of vines appear to be almost shouldering each other aside. Given a spell of hot, dry weather, the vines will hopefully be hedged and weeds eliminated before the month is through.

Someone must have been cracking the whip at Petaluma’s ‘Evans’ vineyard in Northern Coonawarra. It’s hard to imagine a more immaculately kept vineyard: not a weed in sight; vines tightly trimmed; and a neat two bunches of grapes for every shoot, carefully trellised, and getting just the right sun exposure.

(Remembering a stunningly concentrated cask sample of 1990 ‘Evans’ vineyard Cabernet tasted about this time last year, I get a glimpse of how important vineyard management is to wine quality. If vineyard looks are important, then the 1993 Petaluma Coonawarra will be another beauty.)

The unusually cloudy and cool conditions means grapes are about one or two weeks behind their normal development. But none of the half dozen or so growers I spoke to seemed particuarly worried. They all believed a burst of sunny, warm weather would arrive to speed things up (that now seems to have materialised).

Whatever materialises this vintage, there’s no doubting the unique qualities of Coonawarra’s red wines.

Ian and Wendy Hollick planted their 24 hectares of vines in 1975 when Ian worked as a viticulturalist with Mildara, one the area’s biggest growers. The Hollicks sold their grapes to Mildara until they established their own brand in 1983.

They knew what they were doing and since then the wines have been consistently good and getting better. To my taste, Hollicks Cabernet Merlot 1990 is the epitome of Coonawarra with its lush berry flavours and silky smoothness. It’s a smart wine because the maker allows Coonawarra’s distinctive flavours to dominate, with oak a background element adding firmness and complexity without intruding.

Hollicks ‘Wilgha’ Shiraz 1990 is another gem. It’s lighter-bodied than the Cabernet Merlot, with the delicate and supple ‘cherry’ flavours I love in Coonawarra Shiraz. Adherents of, say, Rutherglen’s thundering big reds won’t like it. But if you like a red that’s lighter and still jam-packed with flavour, this one’s a good bet.

Perhaps with both of these wines we’re seeing, too, just what a great vintage 1990 was for Coonawarra. The remarkable richness of flavour showed through in other 1990 reds. By far the most impressive was Lindemans St George Vineyard Cabernet 1990 tasted in the Rouge Homme Winery with winemaker, Greg Clayfield.

Greg kindly trotted out three vintages of St George: 1989 and 1990 from bottle and a cask sample of 1991. The 1989’s a most attractive wine, a little softer than normal and, I suspect, one to drink in three or four years rather than ten or fifteen. The 1991 seemed very much in the classic mould: elegant, with sweet fruit, and a fine, firm finish. The 1990, though, is far more powerful, concentrated and tannic. It’s atypical of the St George style, but there’ll be a few bottles hidden in the cellar at Chateau Shanahan when it’s released later this year.

The highlight of my brief visit, though, was a 1980 Leconfield Cabernet Sauvignon ordered from the wine list at Chardonnnay Lodge, the motel-restaurant located smack amongst the vines of the great ‘terra rossa’. It proved the glorious cellaring potential of the area’s cabernet. And it was a sentimental return to a wine I remember buying in the early 1980’s from its then eighty-year-old maker, the late Sid Hamilton on one of his high-speed motoring trips across the Hay Plain to Canberra. Was it Sid who’d penned the words on the back label: ‘hand picked by experienced girls’?

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007