Canberra’s vintage of a lifetime

Canberra’s vintage from hell, or vintage of a lifetime, turned out to be both, and bit in between as well. Canberra vignerons wrote off swathes of diseased fruit, adding to shiraz crop losses caused by poor fruit set early in the season. But by carefully handpicking healthy fruit, and in some cases weeding out diseased berries in the winery, the district now has its generally sound, albeit much reduced, 2012 vintage in the vat.

Riesling specialist Ken Helm, hopeful but apprehensive during February’s pre-vintage rain, emailed triumphantly on 16 March, “We are finishing our Riesling today. The fruit is outstanding and it is the vintage of my lifetime.”

A month later, the voice at the other end of the phone says, “It’s still the vintage of a lifetime. The wines are finished [fermenting] and they’re incredible. We will have a reserve riesling this year, but the crop’s down 50 per cent”.

Helm attributes the crop losses to berry splitting, caused by rain, followed by outbreaks of the mould, botrytis cinerea. However, the cool season, recording just four days over 30 degrees, encouraged steady flavour development and good acid retention in riesling grapes.

Helm says riesling achieved flavour ripeness at low sugar levels and exceptionally high acidity of 10.5 to 11 grams per litre. During fermentation and subsequent cold stabilisation, however, acidity dropped to a more palate friendly 7.5 to eight grams a litre – ideal numbers in dry wines of 10.3 to 10.5 per cent alcohol.

Helm expects to release his 2012 Classic Dry and Premium rieslings in August or September. And for only the second time in 40 years, he made a botrytis-infected sweet riesling. He says the 3.5 tonnes of fruit yielded just 800 luscious litres.

Helm’s other specialty, cabernet sauvignon, suffered less than shiraz in the adverse conditions. Nevertheless, he anticipated a 30 per cent drop in the coming crop from neighbour Al Lustenburger’s vineyard.

Clonakilla’s Tim Kirk says he’s “astonished at how it’s turned out. The fortunes of Clonakilla, and Canberra in general, hang on shiraz. We were worried botrytis would explode and lead to big crop losses. We saw this in some vineyards, which were unpickable. Not so in Clonakilla vineyard”.

Kirk recalls in the comparably cool, wet 2011 season leaving half his shiraz on the vine. The fruit had set with thin skins, making it vulnerable to disease. In 2012, however, the vines produced a small crop of disease resistant, thick-skinned berries – all successfully harvested.

Kirk believes the shiraz “may prove to be extraordinary, but we’ll wait and see”. Pressing the wine after three weeks post-ferment maceration on skins, Kirk observed, “very dark colour and fantastic flavours”. It’s high in acid, he says, but malolactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation that reduces total acidity) is yet to occur. Kirk believes cool seasons like 2012, where fruit struggles to ripeness but gets there, are potentially the greatest.

Kirk picked riesling early, ahead of the rain, looks to be “a very fine, bony style along the lines of 2011 – acid driven, fresh and appley, but delicious”. He held back unfermented juice which can be added back after ferment should the wine need rounding out.

Cabernet and merlot ripened fully but nevertheless show the herbaceous character of the cool year. Viognier developed good flavours at low sugar levels. There’s not much of it, says Kirk, and it’s definitely suited to Clonakilla’s elegant style – far removed from the syrupy versions made in warmer climates.

Sauvignon blanc and semillon, picked early to avoid disease, look a little on the green side, says Kirk, but a tiny pinot noir crop produced good looking wine, driven buy its tannin structure.

At Lerida Estate, Lake George, Jim Lumbers reports big drops in quantity. Merlot yielded better than last year and despite botrytis infections, “we have some very good fruit”, he says. “The whites are great, especially pinot grigio”.

Pinot noir looks glorious. We’re pressing it, it looks fantastic, and so does the 2011. But we never would’ve dreamt it”. Lumbers say he picked pinot very early, hoping to beat diseases, but feared green, unripe flavours in the wine.

His team used sorting tables to eliminate diseased berries. The juice appeared very pale at first, but after fermentation the wines show good, if not deep colours, delicate violet-like aromas and amazing ripe fruit flavours.

The much-reduced shiraz crop, says Lumbers, looks very good and should make the cut for Lerida’s flagship shiraz viognier blend.

Up on the Lake George escarpment, Lark Hill’s Chris Carpenter reports a reduced but healthy crop with no losses to disease. The family’s Murrumbateman vineyard, however, suffered extensive hail damage. The Carpenter’s lost all of the shiraz from the vineyard, but harvested sangiovese and small amounts of the Rhone Valley white varieties marsanne, roussanne and viognier.

From the slopes of Mount Majura, Frank van der Loo reports that after a long wait for reds to ripen, they did, showing “fantastic deep colours but very low quantities”. Crop losses resulted from a combination of disease and weather-related poor fruit set.

The whites, says van der Loo are “good to excellent, showing the vintage raciness – long, steely acid, even in pinot grigio [a notably low-acid variety]”. He says the reds will be lighter bodied but deeper coloured than usual.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 2 May 2012 in The Canberra Times