Australia 2008 — vintage vignettes

No vintage is all good or all bad. And it seems that 2008 was a mix of both extremes – from tales of woe and withered fruit in South Australia’s March heatwave to delight at a riesling vintage that may measure up to the legendary 2002.

While water shortages continued to plague growers along the Murray River, some inland regions, Canberra included, benefited from intermittent summer downpours that boosted crops beyond early-season expectations.

Near the mouth of the Murray, at Langhorne Creek, on Lake Alexandrina, growers coped more or less successfully with severe water shortage. Then part way through vintage an extraordinary burst of heat wrought considerable damage to crops.

Guy Adams, from Brothers in Arms vineyards, describes a schizophrenic, before-and-after the heat vintage. ‘Water aside’ he writes, ‘the growing season was sensational and as picking drew near we were very excited by the physiological balance we had achieved with the vineyard and fruit overall’. Vintage ran smoothly for ten days before ‘the longest, most brutal heat event ever experienced in modern times in our state’. The heat persisted from 2 March to 18 March.

In its first week, it brought ripening on in a rush and those with fermentation capacity harvested reasonable material. But the second week dehydrated the remaining crop, much of which stayed on vines or came into wineries at extraordinary sugar levels.

Fruit that came in ahead of the heat, particularly shiraz, malbec and petit verdot, produced good wine, says Guy. But the later ripening cabernet, always a problem in a hot vintage, fared poorly. This gels with reports of good pre-heat Barossa shiraz and ordinary post-heat cabernet from Foster’s chief winemaker Chris Hatcher in a recent interview.

The pre and post heat story applies across eastern Australia in varying severity – from mild in Canberra to dramatic in South Australia’s McLaren, Clare, Langhorne Creek and Barossa areas.

In Clare, the Hardy-owned Leasingham Wines, one of the district’s largest producers, crushed about eighty per cent of its fruit before the heat. Winemaker Simon Osicka rates this year’s riesling ahead of 2007’s on all counts and says that ‘shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, harvested in the period prior to an early March heatwave, have produced wines with great fragrance, density, full flavour and length’.

Leasingham’s 3,983 tonne 2008 harvest was up ninety five per cent on last year’s drought reduced crop.
From Glenrowan, northeastern Victoria, Baileys’ winemaker, Paul Dahlenburg, reports a high quality 2008 vintage, with yields down about thirty per cent on normal. That was infinitely better than 2007, though, as frost reduced fruitfulness, then seventy days of bushfires tainted whatever wine was made. In the end, according to Paul, ‘all red and fortified wine from the 2007 vintage will not be released under the Baileys brand’.

Across Canberra, we’re hearing reports of a bumper, high-quality crop, following near devastation by frost and drought in 2007. It was, for example, a record, if early, harvest for Ken Helm at Murrumbateman. He rates 2008 riesling with the outstanding 2005s.

Canberra’s biggest winemaker, Cooper Coffman winery, reports good volumes and quality from nearby Tumbarumba and Hilltops regions. Martin Cooper says viognier from the Elvin Group’s Holt vineyard is outstanding and he’s impressed with shiraz from the Wily Trout vineyard at Hall. Some local fruit however he sees as having been grown for quantity not quality.

Down in Coonawarra heavy October rain pushed the vines and fruit along. Thereafter, it was a dry season with less than ninety millimetres falling in the following six months, says Wayne Stehbens of Katnook Estate.

Vintage started and finished early and the heat wave shrivelled some fruit, especially cabernet sauvignon. Most whites ripened ahead of the heat and are of good quality. But if red quantities are down, makers report some pretty exciting parcels.

From nearby Wrattonbully, Stonehaven winemaker, Sue Bell writes, ‘It was the most relentless and rapid vintage I’ve ever experienced. The heatwave at the end kept us on our toes and if anything, strengthened the ties between viticulture and winemaking’. Sue rates cabernet from Wrattonbully and neighbouring Coonawarra as ‘amongst the best I’ve ever seen’.

Western Australia’s largest winemaker, Hardys, reports moderate crops, with an early vintage in the warmer Swan Valley and normal picking times to the south at Margaret River, Pemberton, Frankland River and Mount Barker.

Hardys’ Houghton winemaker, Rob Bowen, sees shiraz and cabernet as the highlights, comparing the latter to the very good 2004s.

While the Hunter Valley struggled with torrential vintage rain (what’s new?), it seems New South Wales’ newest official region (admitted to the national register in January), New England, turned out the quality. Port Macquarie based John Cassegrain writes, ‘Chardonnay is the standout this vintage. The fruit analysis and flavours from both New England and Tumbarumba are so exciting. The acid and Baumé ratios are perfect, at levels almost unheard of’.

These vintage snapshots barely touch our vast and varied winemaking landscape. The real vintage story will unfold as the 2008 wines begin to flow, starting with the whites over the next few months.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008