Australia’s 1995 vintage

Before the laser age they said a tree was best measured when it was down. But to get the measure of a wine vintage, there are no precision aids, just personal judgement. And since no vintage is all good or all bad, it takes time, perhaps a decade or two in the case of the best reds, for a clear picture to emerge.

Vintage 1995, if for nothing else, could be remembered as the year winemaker fell short by a quarter of a million tonnes short of grapes. But it was also a year of great contrasts, likely to produce a few fabulous wines but mostly good average quality. It was also a vintage that set back the financial plans of some by two years or more while giving grape growers who escaped crop losses windfall prices.

Rothbury Estate Chief Executive, Dennis Power, tells me crops in the Hunter Valley were the lowest in memory with losses from some vineyards as great as 70 per cent. He says surprisingly good whites and blockbuster reds of a once-in-a-lifetime quality compensate a little for the otherwise devastating losses.

Power’s neighbour, Bruce Tyrrell, reckons the Hunter’s total harvest at 40 per cent down on previous years. Then, with a touch of black humour, tells of a mechanical harvester operator setting off into a vineyard that normally yields 15 tonnes, coming back with 0.78 tonnes — and writing it in the register as 780 kilograms. It sounded better he said.

In the West, Paul Lapsley, Chief wine maker for Houghtons, reports a smaller than average year with the Swan and Moondah Brook bringing grapes to maturity rapidly under hot, dry conditions that favoured Chenin Blanc and Verdelho. Margaret River, affected by two years of drought, suffered volume declines, too, but semillon and cabernet quality appears very good.

From the Mount Barker and Frankland River area, Lapsley rates shiraz and sauvignon blanc as very good. And having tasted Merv Lange’s Alkoomi Frankland River Sauvignon Blanc 1995 last week, I cannot argue.

Tasmania, according to the folks at Heemskerk, probably crushed more grapes than average. And being a cool vintage, sparkling and white grapes fared well, particularly chardonnay, while red varieties struggled to ripen.

From the Yarra Valley, Domaine Chandon’s Wayne Donaldson loved the vintage from a sparkling wine-maker’s view. Cool ripening conditions saw red table-wine varieties struggling to ripen, but pinot noir and chardonnay destined for bubbly met quality and volume targets. But as the Yarra varies so much, there are bound to be tales both happy and sad from its many makers.

Southcorp wine maker, Peter Taylor, offered a thumbnail sketch of several regions within his domain: the Barossa was down in quantity but made outstanding shiraz; McLaren Vale may have been down a little and made average wines; Langhorne Creek was down and the fruit just average; and the Eden and Clare Valleys, while down in volume made outstanding shiraz.

From the all-important Limestone Coast, Wynns wine maker, Peter Douglas, estimates combined crush for Coonawarra-Padthaway a healthy 50-60 thousand tonnes (around 4 million cases) with great quality contrasts. Coonawarra and Padthaway whites were outstanding, while reds overall were average.

Collectors will not see any Wynns John Riddoch, Michael Hermitage or Penfolds Bin 707 from the 1995 vintage, Douglas says, but there are good quantities of Wynns Black Label Cabernet and Penfolds Bin 389 now in barrel. And he rates Padthaway as the best source of South Australian cabernet for 1995.

Down in Rutherglen, Robin Pfeiffer reports a small vintage that might have been a disaster had it been bigger! Drought-stressed vines set small grape crops early in the season. Then cool conditions replaced the heat and persisted. Because of the small grape load, vines found the energy to deliver full ripeness. That would not have been the case, she says, if the crop had been a normal size.

Ian McKenzie of Seppelts Great Western Winery reports spectacular central Victorian shiraz and says he’s fighting to keep it out of some pretty prestigious blends over in the Barossa.

In our own backyard, Canberra district seems to have struck its biggest and best vintage yet, according to Ken Helm.

As they say, it was a season of contrasts. But the smart money at this early stage seems to be on Hunter, Clare, Barossa, Eden Valley and Central Victorian Shiraz and on Coonawarra and Padthaway Chardonnay.