Vintage 2011 — rain, disease fail to dampen grape output

Widespread predictions of a dramatic, disease-driven collapse in grape production this year proved way off the mark. The Winemakers Federation of Australia estimates a total wine-grape intake of 1.62 million tonnes in 2011 – one per cent up on 2010 and marginally short of the five-year average of 1.63 million tonnes. Production remained well short of the 1.8 to 1.9 million tonne peaks of vintages 2004 to 2006.

Winery intake of sauvignon blanc of just 86 thousand tonnes (up nine per cent on 2010) underlines New Zealand’s dominant role supplying Australia’s top selling white variety.

For the first time since 2007, white production outstripped red – perhaps reflecting greater disease damage to late ripening red varieties. Intake of red grapes declined from 858,111 tonnes in 2010 to 779,283 in 2011; white intake increased from 744,901 tonnes to 839,453 tonnes.

Paralleling white’s overall resurgence, chardonnay (404,610 tonnes) shoved shiraz (322,676) aside as our number one variety. Chardonnay intake increased around 23 per cent from 329,441 tonnes. Shiraz intake plummeted 84 thousand tonnes, or 21 per cent, from 406,775 tonnes in 2010 – almost certainly a direct effect of disease.

Thick-skinned cabernet sauvignon, our second most popular red variety, proved more resilient than shiraz, its intake increasing from 227,197 tonnes in 2010 to 231,869 tonnes in 2011.

This comparative success supports anecdotal evidence of a strong cabernet vintage in, among other places, the Barossa, Canberra and the nearby Hilltops region.

Winery intake of merlot, our number three red variety, mainly a blender, increased marginally from 111,684 tonnes to 113,1190 tonnes.

Intake of pinot noir, used in production of both red table wine and clear sparkling wine, declined by eight per cent from 38,830 tonnes to 35,790 tonnes. But the preliminary estimates don’t indicate which style is likely to be most affected by the shortfall.

Volume of Australia’s surprise fifth ranking red, petit verdot, dropped from 19,789 tonnes to 17,359 tonnes. You’ll see this Bordeaux variety occasionally as a straight varietal. But it’s generally a blending component with the cabernet cousins – cabernets sauvignon and franc, merlot and malbec.

After petit verdot, a comparative newcomer to mainstream Australian winemaking, comes another of our great survivors, grenache. It succeeds in fortified and table wines. It’s part of the warm-climate grenache-shiraz-mourvedre trinity, and appears increasingly in its own right. Grenache intake rocketed 53 per cent from 10,497 in 2010 to 16,069 tonnes in 2011. Such a big leap suggests new plantings coming into production. But we don’t know the answer at this stage.

After grenache, production of other niche varieties falls away markedly. For example, winery intake of mourvedre, subject of three reviews today, totalled only 4,437 tonnes in 2010 and 5,296 tonnes in 2011. Like petit verdot, it’s mainly a blender – but we have some wonderful old vines in our warmer areas and it can make a marvellous wine in its own right.

And that much-talked-about “alternative” variety, tempranillo (two reviews today), seems just a blip on our vineyard radar at 2,422 tonnes intake in 2010 and 3,045 tonnes in 2011. I do, however, predict a much bigger future for this variety given the high quality, distinctiveness and easy-drinking appeal of the wines it makes.

Another niche red attracting attention, sangiovese, increased from 3,526 tonnes to 4,150 tonnes.

The white side of our ledger looks decidedly weaker than the red side – in that we have not a single big mover and shaker after chardonnay.

While intake of number two ranked sauvignon blanc grew nine per cent, from 79,053 in 2010 tonnes to 86,043 tonnes in 2011, the variety’s suited to only a small portion of Australia’s current, comparatively warm producing areas. We have neither a Marlborough nor close runner to chardonnay as cabernet is to shiraz.

Our old workhorse, semillon comes in a tad behind sauvignon blanc at 82,243 tonnes in 2011 – up on 2010’s 78,960 tonnes. Semillon’s a great partner to sauvignon blanc in blends but has only limited appeal in its own right. Despite all the talk, and unquestioned quality and uniqueness of Hunter semillon, it remains a niche regional specialty.

Perhaps the surprise among white varieties is pinot gris (or grigio) at a respectable 43,217 tonnes (down from 44,778 tonnes in 2010) – putting it ahead of pinot noir.

The great, noble riesling maintains its perennially niche position, popular taste blithely ignoring wave after wave of publicity for it. Volumes changed little, from 32,188 tonnes in 2010 to 32,720 this year. It remains Australia’s great wine bargain.

Another surprise, albeit on a small absolute scale, is the near doubling intake of muscat-a-petit-grains-blanc from 13,952 tonnes in 2011. The Winemakers Federation attributes this to growing popularity of moscato styles.

Two varieties widely used in cheaper popular blends made solid contributions to the national grape crush, even if their names seldom appear on labels. Muscat gordo blanco contributed 54,459 tonnes and colombard 58,694 tonnes this year.

Widely talked of savagnin (originally misidentified as albarino) fails to rate a mention in the federation’s estimates. But its aromatic sibling, gewürztraminer, contributed 12,116 tonnes.

That useful warm region white, verdelho, grew from 13,588 tonnes to 14,323 tonnes in 2011, while viognier (sometimes blended with shiraz) declined from 12,464 tonnes to 10,729 tonnes.

Sultana, once the sultan of our cask wine industry, continued its long-term decline, with winery intake falling from 2,575 tonnes in 2010 to 1,713 tonnes in 2011.

But chenin blanc hung in there, declining marginally year-to-year from 6,857 tonnes to 6,770 tonnes.

Anecdotally, the late, cool vintage seems to have produced some marvellous wines – intensely flavoured and high in natural acidity. This promises to be very good for regional specialties. On a large scale, though, writes WFA president Stephen Strachan, “the vintage is too big. It may seem harsh, but a harvest in excess of 1.6 million tonnes (despite the rejections) is out of step with the realities of sustainable production and the market opportunity for premium Australian wine”.

In other words, there was little rejoicing in many quarters at the bigger than expected crop. And for growers who lost everything to disease, the pain is severe.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011
First published in The Canberra Times 29 June 2011