Canberra vintage 2009 begins

Canberra’s 2009 vintage is underway as I write and will be in full swing when you read this. It’s almost certain to be smaller than the extraordinary 2008 season when, for example, Lerida Estate harvested more than 70 tonnes from a vineyard that ought to yield about 45 tonnes. However, barring adverse weather in the next few weeks, quantities will still be in the normal range.

We won’t know the quality until we begin drinking the wines in a few months. But the fruit that’s been harvested so far appears to be ripe and healthy and reflects the seasonal conditions.

The season started well with mild weather and good spring and early summer rainfall. Then dry conditions set in and temperatures rose, culminating in a couple of severe heat waves that put vines under stress.

But locals makers escaped the extremes experienced by vignerons in Victoria and South Australia, where temperatures soared into the forties and strong winds exacerbated heat stress in the vines.

In Victoria and South Australia many growers reported severe crop losses caused by sunburn to the fruit or leaf loss that left vines unable to ripen their loads.
Canberra’s losses, in general, appear to be more modest although some growers, including Roger and Faye Harris at Brindabella Hills, reported significant reduction in yields caused by hot winds. In general, it seems that growers with adequate water were able to maintain vine health during the heat.

At Hall, the Canberra District’s lowest sub-region (around 550 metres), Dr Roger Harris of Brindabella Hills Winery calls it ‘a funny season’. Rogers says any summer rain came only as thunderstorms distributing moisture unevenly. One storm dumped 50 mm at Murrumbateman, but only 5 mm at Hall.

When I spoke to Roger on 14 March he’d already harvested the early-ripening varieties, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay and expected to start on riesling and shiraz from about 21 March.

He’d also processed fruit from a couple of warmer areas outside of Canberra. These included verdelho, albarino and tempranillo from the Rusty Fig vineyard near Bermagui and shiraz from Tumblong, near Gundagai.

From Murrumbateman Ken Helm rates the 2009 riesling from Al Lustenberger’s as even better than the 2008. He said the green juice had ‘beautiful acid and flavour’. He’d crushed nine tonnes of riesling by Saturday 14 March.

By that time chardonnay had just finished fermenting and sauvignon blanc had begun ticking over. Ken anticipates a smaller vintage than in 2008. He says that Canberra may have been spared the worst of the heat damage because it arrived before veraison (when berries begin to soften and ripen) for most varieties.

At nearby Clonakilla Tim Kirk reports great colour and ripe flavours, but low acidity, in shiraz from the warmer Hilltops region. Because of the heat wave he sees 2009 as ‘more of a red vintage than a white vintage’.

Tim makes a slightly fuller style of riesling than Ken Helm and was leaving his on the vines for another couple of weeks. He expected to harvest viognier from 22 March and shiraz from 25 March. He believed that if the fine, mild weather held for another two weeks a good vintage could become an outstanding one.

Frank Van de Loo of Mount Majura Vineyard was busy pressing chardonnay when I called and had also harvested merlot for rosé and pinot noir for sparkling wine. Other varieties, including riesling and pinot gris needed another week or two of ripening, Frank said.

Unlike many vineyards in the region Mount Majura had set an even larger crop than in the generous 2008 season. If left on the vine this would’ve reduced wine quality, so Frank’s team trimmed it back in January – dropping around 60 per cent of the riesling and graciano on the ground.

During the season Frank’s been working with the Australian Wine Research Institute on rotundone, the compound recently identified as the source of shiraz’s distinctive peppery character. He’s been sending shiraz berries at various stages of ripeness and will later send samples from the fermentation. But that’s a story for another day.

At Lake George Lerida Estate’s Jim Lumbers anticipates an even higher quality vintage than the ‘wonderful’ 2008. He said that after the heatwave ‘ripening slowed delightfully’. He believes that the longer hanging time for the fruit will produce ripe flavours at low sugar (and therefore lower alcohol) levels.

Pinot and chardonnay for sparkling wine and pinot noir for rosé were already fermenting when I spoke to Jim. And he expected to be under way with the main harvest by 21 March.

Up at Lark Hill, our highest vineyard, at 860 metres, vintage was still a week away when I spoke to Chris Carpenter. He said he expected to harvest pinot noir and chardonnay for sparkling wine on 19 and 20 March and for table wine in the first week of April, followed by riesling and grüner veltliner (their first crop of this variety) a week later.

Chris said they’d been short of water during the heatwave but their biodynamic practices, including deep mulching, had kept the vineyards in good health. He expects volumes to be about the same as in 2008.

We’ll have a sniff around the district in a few months to see what’s really in store from vintage 2009.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009