Canberra – vintage 2010 a rollercoaster

What might vintage 2010 hold for Canberra wine drinkers? The season began exceptionally hot  and dry in November, turned cool and wet at Christmas, warmed up in January, then dumped rain again in February and March – encouraging berry split and fungal diseases. A slightly too-cool week following the early March rain retarded grape ripening. But as I write the mercury’s rising and we’re moving into a final, idyllic run of cool nights and warm days.

This is likely to save the day for the district’s red grapes. But the vintage could be down as much as fifty per cent for both reds whites, due largely to outbreaks of the fungal disease botrytis cinerea and berry split.

Ken Helm at Murrumbateman calls 2010 “the most topsy-turvy vintage ever”. Pessimism set in as the November heatwave stressed vines and seemed likely to bring vintage forward by weeks. But optimism rose at Christmas when four days of rain and cool weather revived the vines and put vintage back on a normal track.

Optimism faded with the February rain and outbreaks of mildew and botrytis – especially after bird netting made anti-fungal spraying a nightmare. But Helm and his grape growers found a workaround, using a small tractor and an improvised technique to spray a mix of hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid through the nets.

By now Helm had written off the chance of making a premium riesling in 2010, despite a record crush of the variety. Yes, there’s botrytis in some of it. But Helm is amazed by the combination of high sugar, exceptionally low pH and high acidity of the riesling juice – enough to revive hopes of a ‘premium’ riesling. It’s still a long shot and he says the jury’s out until the wine’s bottled in June.

Chardonnay withstood the botrytis charge less well and is a complete write off – there’ll be none made in 2010. A little sauvignon blanc survived to make a botrytis affected semi-dry style.

Helm’s main red variety, cabernet sauvignon, sourced from Al Lustenburger’s block, looks healthy, he says but won’t ripen until early April.

Clonakilla’s Tim Kirk calls 2010 “a difficult year that’s not in the same league as 2008 and 2009 – and in fact shows what remarkable years they were”. He’s glad to have picked riesling before the early March rain and says because it’s on the low-alcohol, high-acid side, it’ll be a delicate style.

By 13 March, he’d already processed 70 tonnes of “fantastic” red grapes from the warmer Hilltops region, but still had some whites and all of his reds hanging on the Murrumbateman vineyards. He anticipated harvesting the reds between mid March and early April. “It’ll be a selective pick”, Kirk said, “and some of the fruit will be declassified”.

Roger Harris of Brindabella Hills, Hall, describes 2010 as complex, “even the vines are confused”, he says, with cabernet ripening ahead of shiraz when it’s normally the other way around. Harris says he escaped disease but berry split (followed by shrivelling) caused by the rain reduced his crop significantly.

He’s made tiny amounts of good sauvignon blanc and riesling (crops are down 50 per cent) and, if weather forecasts prove correct, he anticipates a small but high quality shiraz crop.

At our highest and coolest vineyard, Lark Hill, vintage generally begins later – the first fruit generally coming in as the rest of the district polishes of the last of its whites. Running against the district trend, Sue Carpenter calls 2010 “our most striking vintage yet” with picking of pinot noir and chardonnay for sparkling wine scheduled for 19 March and chardonnay and riesling for table wine a day later. She expects to wrap vintage up on 15 April, harvesting the Austrian variety gruner veltliner and riesling for Lark Hill’s legendary auslese.

Carpenter says the vineyard has no botrytis and attributes this to biodynamic vineyard management. She believes that mulching interferes with botrytis’s life cycle. As well, the berry skins are too thick for the botrytis to penetrate and it therefore dies.

Down the hill at Lerida Estate on Lake George, Jim Lumbers reports good quality but quantities severely reduced by a “huge amount of botrytis”.  He says he salvaged 50 per cent of the chardonnay by using sorting tables – eliminating rotten fruit and sending only clean fruit to the fermenters. The resulting wine should be on the light and delicate side, reflecting the low sugar and high acid of the cool vintage.

Lumbers says unlike other recent cool vintages, 2002 and 2005, 2010 received far more rain. The combination of cool weather and moisture means big crops losses to botrytis and significantly later ripening for the red varieties.

Lumbers anticipates losing half of his pinot noir crop and sees his vineyard “sitting on the boundary of possibility” – meaning that when the chances of ripening fruit is marginal there’s also the possibility, given a run of slightly warmer days, of producing exceptional wine.

At this stage, he says, merlot and cabernet franc are “bursting with health, with berries like melons – but they need weeks to ripen”. And shiraz, says Lumbers, “is as green as green and needs ages. Perhaps Edgar Riek was right after all” (Dr Riek, founder of the neighbouring Lake George vineyard believed Lake George foreshore too cool to ripen shiraz).

At this stage, with the whites largely in the vat and the reds still on the vine, we can’t assess the vintage properly. What we do know is that quantities are down and the whites will be on the delicate side. The fate of our reds depends on weather conditions over the next few weeks. No rain dances, OK.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009