Whoosh! There goes 2011

Whoosh!  There goes 2011. What a year. Foster’s decided grape and grain didn’t mix; Constellation Brands USA sold the historic Leasingham winery to Clare winemaker, Tim Adams; Woolworths and Coles share of domestic wine sales hit 79 per cent; and winemakers across eastern Australia endured the coldest, wettest vintage in over a decade.

Under these conditions mildew and late-season botrytis flourished, destroying some crops. But the total volumes were higher than anticipated. Many in the industry believe opportunistic buying of rotten grapes below production costs resulted in much poor quality wine being produced and likely to be exported. This is a concern for our reputation, say the critics.

Despite the conditions, many outstanding whites have been produced, including botrytis-infected stickies – and even some dry rieslings showing botrytis aromas and flavours. The best riesling, pinot gris and sauvignon blanc seem outstanding. The top chardonnays won’t appear until next year, but might also be excellent. We’ll have to wait before delivering a verdict on the reds, too.

As a consequence of the cool conditions, makers across eastern Australia reported high than normal acidity and lower sugar levels in grapes. Where grapes achieved full flavour ripeness, the higher acidity and lower alcohol (a consequence of reduced sugar levels) could be beneficial. However, there will almost certainly be wines out there with the telltale green flavours of under-ripeness. And we’ve heard of some instances of winemakers having to reduce acid levels – rare indeed in Australia.

Canberra and surrounding districts felt the pinch of the cool wet season as much as any region. While we won’t know until next year how good the reds are, some of the whites look brilliant, if a little restrained and austere when first released.

Riesling, for example, always shy and unrevealing at first, seemed this year even more closed than usual – a phenomenon explained in this email from Brindabella Hills proprietor, Dr Roger Harris:

We understand your concern about the variability of show results, and we think that this is in part due to the early date of the Canberra Regional Wine Show.  Current vintage whites are only just bottled (in our case 25 July) and are still in cold storage conditions (<10degreesC) and have had no time to recover from bottle shock. Dissolved gases (CO2, SO2) have yet to equilibrate, and release of important aroma producing terpenes has yet to happen.  The rieslings in particular appear dumb and neutral.  The filling out of flavours as temperatures warm in spring is quite amazing. For the record, the 2010 riesling missed a medal in the 2010 CRWS but was rated five stars by James Halliday (December tasting)”.

The district wine show, held in September, once again poured praise liberally over shiraz from Canberra and surrounding districts, while remaining somewhat more subdued about our other established specialty, riesling – perhaps for the reasons explained above by Roger Harris.

However, riesling and other varieties – notably Clonakilla viognier, Lark Hill gruner veltliner and Mount Majura tempranillo, shiraz graciano – received their share of praise from numerous critics around Australia. James Halliday, for example, rated Canberra the leading riesling district in New South Wales, and its best on a par with those from Clare Valley, Eden Valley, Great Southern and Tasmania.

And if our regional show might better display our new-vintage whites if moved back a few months, Canberra’s National Wine Show of Australia finally achieved one if its key objectives – attracting entries from high-quality small producers. The show’s credibility soared in November when small-maker wines of the calibre of PHI Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2010 and Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay 2010 cracked the big trophies.

The year also saw changes in vineyard ownership around the district. In November 2010, Peter Wiggs, of Archer Capital, and Peter Howland, winemaker, acquired the Lake George vineyard, established by Dr Edgar Riek in 1971, from Theo and Sam Karelas. Unfortunately, the vineyard suffered badly from disease in 2011, so we’ll have to wait and see how they fare in 2012.

In May, Chris Coffman’s Eden Road Wines took over Doonkuna Estate, one of Canberra’s oldest vineyards. The purchase lands Eden Road plum in Murrumbateman’s reputation-making shiraz and riesling belt – giving the vineyard perhaps its best hope in nearly forty years.

And in August, the Carpenter family’s Lark Hill Winery bought an established 3.6-hectare vineyard at Murrumbateman, securing long-term supplies of shiraz and viognier.

On the retail front, Coles and Woolworths increased their grip on the national wine trade, seizing around 80 per cent of domestic sales, according to Nielsen figures. Sadly, one of Canberra’s strong independent retailers, Jim Murphy, died in May, but his family continues to run Airport and Market cellars. Long may they prosper.

Two months after Murphy’s death, US-based Costco opened in Canberra, injecting stiff competition to the majors, at the top end of the wine market, with its eclectic, well-chosen and low-price wine offerings.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011
First published 21 December 2011 in The Canberra Times