Canberra vintage begins with an anxious eye on the sky

No vintage is all bad or all good. Even in the current cool, wet, mildew-riddled season endured by Canberra vignerons, bright spots and hope remain among the devastation, albeit with an anxious eye on the weather.

After a decade-long run of hot, early vintages, Canberra looks distinctly cool climate in 2011, with harvest times likely to revert to those experienced in the seventies, eighties and early nineties.

In the Nanima Valley, Murrumbateman, Ken Helm says he escaped the mildew losses and has a good crop on the vines. He expects to begin the riesling harvest in early April, several weeks later than in 2010.

At nearby Jeir Creek, Rob Howell says he harvested pinot and chardonnay for sparkling wine from Hall on 7 March – weeks later than similar material in recent years. Howell says the crop, being processed at his Murrumbateman winery, is for a commemorative bubbly to be released for Canberra’s centenary in 2013.

Kay Howell says the Jeir Creek vineyard remains in good shape, despite some minor fruit loss early in the season. Timely spraying against mildew did the trick, she says, nervously eyeing clouds building up to the east. “But we don’t want any more rain”, she adds.

At Lerida Estate, Lake George, co-owner Anne Caine laughs, “The application of large sums of money saved the day. We have a pretty good crop”.

Caine’s husband Jim Lumbers hopes their luck will hold. He says, “In August we looked at the long range weather forecast and planned for a wet, cool vintage.

We bought a year’s supply of sprays, a hedging bar for our tractor and hired more people. It’ll push our production costs from $800 to $5,000 a tonne”. “We’ve hedged, shoot thinned, fruit thinned and leaf plucked”, says Lumbers – all aimed at exposing fruit to the air and not overburdening the vines’ ripening capacity.

When I spoke to Jim on 14 March he was harvesting pinot noir for rose. He said, “it’s coming in at 10–11 Baume [around 11 per cent alcohol potential] with lovely fresh flavours. We’d normally be picking material like this in the last week of February”.

Like others in the district, Lumbers views botrytis as the main threat. “It’s heart-in-mouth stuff”, he says, grateful that recent rain fell at night. If it comes during the daytime “we’re sunk”, he believes,

But at the moment the vineyard’s looking beautiful as a result of all the work, neatly hedged, green and laden with big, fat bunches. Lumbers reckons the sheer size of bunches and berries could compensate for the fruit thinning they’ve conducted. He adds, “I’ve never seen anything like the merlot. The berries are as big as plums”.

Nick Spencer, winemaker at Eden Road Wines, in the Kamberra complex, describes 2011 as “bizarre – what looked like being a very, very scary vintage because of disease is now shaping up to be possibly stunning if we can avoid botrytis”.

More rain, says Spencer, brings two risks to quality: botrytis and flavour dilution. Botrytis damage, provided it’s not too rampant, can be mitigated by hand sorting fruit in the winery, discarding bunches affected by the disease. But nothing can be done about dilution. He’s hopeful the region may scrape through March without significant rain.

Spencer sees an atypical, but exciting, ripening pattern in Canberra and nearby Tumbarumba this year. “The flavours are ripe, but the sugar’s not there – it’s more like cooler parts of France and Europe”, he says.

Typically in Australia, sugar (and therefore potential alcohol content) develops early. This is one measure of ripeness. But as sugar builds, winemakers sweat on the arrival ripe fruit flavour, accompanied by ripe tannins.

This year, says Spencer, he’s tasted beautifully ripe Tumbarumba chardonnay and intensely floral Canberra riesling with potential alcohol of just 11 per cent. He expected pinot gris to be the first Canberra fruit he’d harvest, just after the Canberra Day long weekend, closely followed by the first of the riesling.

He believers the very ripe 2008 and 2009 vintages tended to blur regional differences, but anticipates in the cooler 2011 season “expressive wines, revealing regionality and site characters”.

Spencer estimates that by December 2010 Canberra district had already lost about 50 per cent of its crop to downy mildew. Subsequent mildew outbreaks and the potential for botrytis to develop could result in total losses of 60–70 per cent across the district.

At Brindabella Hills, Hall, Roger Harris expects a quiet time after processing fruit from his own vineyard. Harris makes wines for many other grape growers in the district. But this year, he says, “My clients don’t have any fruit”, mostly because of downy mildew.

The losses, however, are not uniform across the district. Stories of success and failure in 2011, he believes, had much to do with the timing of flowering, rainfall and spraying.

Like everyone else in the district”, says Harris, “we seemed to spend most of the year spraying”. And for Brindabella Hills, at least, the spraying proved effective. Harris says he expects a normal yield across the vineyard of 7.5 to 10 tonnes a hectare – with one exception. Cabernet sauvignon, a late flowerer, failed totally last spring, so there’ll be no crop at all.

By 14 March, Harris had already harvested a “good yield of sauvignon blanc of exciting quality”, with modest but normal sugar and higher than normal acidity. He says the high acidity really accentuates the fruit flavour.

Riesling, he says, shows the first signs of botrytis but it’ll be in the winery out of harm’s way by Wednesday 16 March. Samples of juice looked terrific, with acidity even higher than in the sauvignon blanc – a positive for flavour intensity and longevity, even it means reducing acidity in the winery.

This is rare in Australia, but common in parts of New Zealand. Harris says he’s done it only once before, to fruit from a grower in Tumbarumba.

Harris says the tropical rain pattern coming our way threatened outbreaks of botrytis. However, his remaining variety, shiraz, still a few weeks from ripening, offered some resistance to the disease because of its thick skin and loose, open bunches.

Harris expects the vintage to produce exceptional whites, with reds “very cool climate in style”. Like all of Canberra’s vignerons, he’ll be monitoring his vineyard closely and hoping for the best.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011