Canberra 2012 – vintage of a lifetime, or a washout?

As I write in the opening days of autumn, a potentially great Canberra vintage hangs in the balance – threatened by a massive band of rain moving across southeastern Australia. If it hangs around too long, mildew and botrytis could threaten the crop; if too much rain falls, berries might split, increasing disease risks and reducing yields. Should mild, clear weather follow the big wet, however, the district may yet produce some of its best wines ever, say several producers. By the time you read this, we’ll have some idea of the outcome.

Never short of enthusiasm, Murrumbateman’s Ken Helm sees beyond the steady rain and drenched vineyards. “It’s a once in a lifetime season”, he declares, “and we still have a chance. I’ve seen nothing like in 40 years. We’ve had only four days over 30 degrees”.

Mild conditions leading up to the rain favoured flavour development at low sugar levels, report growers across the district. Helm says, “riesling in particular is outstanding. Even at nine Baume [a measure of sugar content] it tasted ripe. Normally your face would be like a chook’s bum. There’s a green tinge about riesling berries, like they have in Germany, and no sign of sunburn.”

Helm’s other specialty, cabernet sauvignon, still appears disease free and set for a normal crop. Helm says because it buds late, cabernet missed the poor weather that disrupted flowering in many shiraz vineyards around Murrumbateman.

Fellow Murrumbateman vigneron, Greg Gallagher, said rain and windstorms around flowering time resulted in “loose” shiraz benches ­– meaning less grapes to the bunch and lower yields overall. Perversely, laughs Gallagher, those loose bunches make the weather-hardy shiraz even more disease resistant.

A couple of days before the rain, Gallagher’s chardonnay, destined for sparkling wine, looked in beautiful condition. But he now waits anxiously for the rain to end. He says pinot noir for bubbly, harvested from Pankhurst vineyard, Hall, before the rain was spectacular.

At Long Rail Gully, Murrumbateman, Garry Parker, described a wait-and-see, edgy situation. Until the rain, everything appeared perfect, with good yields expected for all varieties – except shiraz, because of its small bunches. “Richard [Garry’s son and winemaker] said pinot gris and riesling will be the first we pick. He looked at them in fear and trepidation, but so far they’re unaffected by the rain”, says Garry.

With both white varieties close to ripening, a seven-day withholding period means no more spraying, even if disease appears, says Parker

At Jeir Creek, Murrumbateman, Rob Howell reports a savage hailstorm two weeks before the rain arrived ripping through several vineyards. It wiped out a quarter of Jeir Creek’s grapes and damaged the neighbouring Ravensworth (Bryan and Jocelyn Martin), Dark Horse (Carpenter family, Lark Hill) and Nanima (Wayne and Jennie Fischer) vineyards.

After the hail, Howell “went into drying-out damaged berry mode. But the rain’s not helping now”, says Howell. He expects to harvest chardonnay and pinot noir for sparkling wine immediately after the rain and says overall fruit quality appears very high. “Viogner looks superb, shiraz is down and cabernet’s looking good, because of its thick skin”, Howell says.

Winemaker Alex McKay (Collector and Bourke Street brands), owns no vineyards but sources grapes from growers across the district. He’s distinctly upbeat about the vintage, despite some similarities with last year’s cool, wet conditions.

He recalls lots of nervousness about the outcome this time last year. But despite some disease-related crop losses, Canberra enjoyed a fantastic vintage. McKay reports, “better disease control this year, with very little botrytis [botrytis cinerea, a destructive fungus] and vineyards still looking very clean”. He attributes lower expected yields across the district in 2012 to the lasting effect of last year’s wet conditions.

To date he sees, “Excellent vine health and berry size, very good flavour building, still natural acids and attractive tannins developing in the reds”. He expects to harvest Rhone Valley white varieties (the viognier looking very good) late in the first week of March and shiraz from mid March. He says Nick O’Leary’s began picking very good riesling in mid to late February.

McKay believes the healthy vines should resist disease pressures from the present rain. He believes mildew presents a greater risk earlier in the season as new foliage emerges and that botrytis outbreaks are more likely.

Heavy rain followed by warm weather also presents a risk of berry split as vines suck up water and grapes swell. But McKay believes the risk to be lower this year thanks to previously well-watered vines.

Jennie Mooney, an owner of Capital Wines and its Kyeema Vineyard, Murrumbateman also sees berry split as less likely this year. She says, “In 2010 we came out of drought into a massive downpour, followed by hot sun. The vines transpired heavily, took up water and the berries split”.

But as insurance this year, says Mooney, husband Mark encouraged weed growth under the vines. When the rain stops they expect the weeds to compete with the vines, limiting water uptake and risk of berry split.

Mooney says, “The fruit’s a bit like 2011 – flavours arriving at low Baumes [sugar content] with high acidity. Merlot’s the best Mark’s ever tasted. Merlot likes having its feet wet”.

Despite the rain and risk it poses, Mooney remains, “Nervously hopeful”. She says it’s a difficult year and in the end success will get down to good vineyard management. At Kyeema, she says, “we’ve done lots of canopy work, with disease management ongoing, all season”.

At Brindabella Hills, Hall (Canberra’s lowest vineyards), winemaker Brian Sinclair reports normal crops, even of shiraz, and “incredibly good” quality across the varieties. He says, “I haven’t seen sauvignon blanc or riesling looking as good as it is. It’s ideal. The riesling has no disease, a terrific canopy and no sunburn”. Sinclair believes, “things should progress well” despite the rain.

Up on the northern slopes of Mount Majura, Frank van de Loo reports 9.5 tonnes of a projected 52-tonne harvest safely in tanks. Mainly chardonnay and pinot noir for sparkling, van de Loo describes it as, “the best yet after five years’ experience [with sparkling material]”.

He says the cool season is producing light crops with exciting flavours and aromatics, arriving at low sugar levels. He rated one batch of chardonnay, pickable at a low 10.5–11 Baume – very rare in Canberra’s climate – and ripe-tasting riesling at 10 Baume. The red varieties, however, remain some weeks off.

Van de Loo rates berry split as the main risk, saying, “I’m worried about the duration rather the quantity [of rain]. If the vines are too wet for too long the berries could split”.

Jim Lumbers of Lerida Estate, Lake George, said “It was picture perfect until today”, “and now it looks like a re-run of 2011 – a ground hog day vintage”. Nevertheless, expects the early varieties to be fine – pinot noir for rose, pinot gris and chardonnay, despite “massive acids”.

He still sees the possibility of the vintage turning out really well. But even if disease takes it toll, Lerida has sorting tables. This allows us to take the hit of lower quantity while keeping our quality”.

Vineyard high up on the Lake George escarpment, opposite Bungendore, live in a different climate than most of Canberra’s other vineyards – some 300 metres higher than Hall, 200 metres higher than Murrumbateman, and more than 100 metres above Mount Majura and Lake George.

At Lark Hill vintage is still six weeks away, with the whites just through veraison [where the berries begin to soften] and the only red, pinot noir, just half way through.

Winemaker Chris Carpenter says 2012 may end up as the coolest on record at Lark Hill, having dipped below 1989, the previous coldest – though unlikely to match 1989’s 1000mm rainfall for the growing season.

He foresees a late vintage with intense fruit flavours and high acidity across the district. He wonders aloud what makers will do with high levels of malic acid in chardonnay – as fashion, in recent years, moved away from the secondary fermentation (malo-lactic) that reduced it, to more austere, high-acid styles.

At present, he says, Lark Hill remains disease free with good crop levels. The Carpenter’s recently acquire Dark Horse vineyard at Murrumbateman, however, lost half its crop to the recent hailstorm.

It smashed fruit on the vine and defoliated one side, impairing their ability to ripen the remaining fruit”, says Carpenter. To encourage new leaves, the Carpenters have added nutrition and intend to bunch-thin if necessary. Bunch thinning matches the fruit load to the ripening ability of the foliage.

Carpenter says Lark Hill began trialling biological control of botrytis this year – spraying vines with bacteria that compete with the fungus. In theory, supported by producer trials, says Carpenter, the bacteria become established, providing long-term protection.

While that offers hope for the future, Canberra vignerons keep an anxious eye on the weather and remain hopeful of healthy crops in the weeks ahead.

It seemed like forty days and nights, but after almost a week the deluge finally ceased on Sunday 4 March. On Monday 5 March, Canberra vignerons woke to a mild, mainly sunny day.

At Four Winds Vineyard, Murrumbateman, John Collingwood harvested riesling, anxious to beat an outbreak of botrytis. “It was just starting”, he said. But in the end he cut out only about five per cent, delivering 18 healthy tonnes (a normal-sized harvest) to winemaking brother-in-law, Bill Crowe.

Crowe says the riesling’s looking pretty good, with high acidity and even lower sugar than last year’s fruit.

While the rain slowed grape development down, Collingwood remains hopeful of a good red harvest in three to four weeks. He says there’s a little botrytis in the denser bunches, so success depends on the weather. Warm, dry weather should contain the fungus; but it could get running if it rains.

Sangiovese shows a little more fruit split than shiraz, says Collingwood. But the loose, open shiraz bunches are proving resilient. Tough-skinned cabernet looks in good condition, he says, and merlot’s travelling well.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 14 March 2012 in The Canberra Times and The Sydney Morning Herald