Canberra vintage report 2013

After the cool, wet, disease-ravaged 2011 and 2012 vintages, the drier, warmer 2013 season saw a return to generally healthy fruit and reasonable yields across the Canberra district. Quality appears to be very good for both reds and whites, with lovely, clean, disease-free fruit arriving at wineries.

Hall vigneron, Allan Pankhurst, offers unconditional praise for the vintage, describing it as “fabulous, really amazing”. He continues, “We’ve had dry conditions, beautiful fruit, no disease and it’s all in except for semillon”. (He’s hoping for noble rot and a chance to make a luscious dessert wine).

Pankhurst’s neighbour, Roger Harris of Brindabella Hills winery shares the enthusiasm. He says, “the quality’s fantastic for reds and whites”.

Pankhurst describes grape yields as “more measured”, referring to a dry period during flowering that held back crops and vineyard management techniques aimed at improving fruit quality.

After heavy shoot and bunch thinning (literally cutting and dropping shoots and bunches on the ground), sangiovese vines, for example, yielded less than three tonnes to the hectare but produced “amazing fruit”, he said.

Overall Pankhurst rates 2013 as “one of the best for more than 10 years. The beauty of 2013 is that it had some cooler periods as well [as a heat wave in January]”.

Harris rates sangiovese from both his own and Pankhurst’s vines (he makes both wines) as “the pick of the lot”. He says, “ripening conditions for reds were fantastic”, delivering terrific sangiovese, tempranillo, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon – the latter completely ripe in the “fresh blackcurrant” spectrum, with no trace of green characters.

He says shiraz cropped perhaps a touch heavier than normal, with “lovely flavours not reflecting the heat of January”. Fortunately, the January heat wave arrived pre veraison (that is, before the grapes began to soften and change colour) and good water supplies prevented vine stress.

While riesling and sauvignon blanc ripened fully at fairly low sugar levels, a violent storm arrived right on harvest time – a year to the day after a comparable event in 2012. The storm destroyed half of Harris’s riesling and sauvignon blanc crop, but the surviving grapes remained in excellent condition.

At Murrumbateman, Clonakilla’s Tim Kirk, sidesteps fermentation pots littering the winery floor, and reports his biggest crop ever. Kirk’s winemaker, Bryan Martin, puts this year’s grape crush at around 290 tonnes (250 for Clonakilla, the rest under contract to other growers). Martin says in 2008, the previous biggest year, the winery processed 240 tonnes, 180 of it for Clonakilla. By my estimate, 2013’s 290 tonne crush equates to roughly 20 thousand dozen bottles.

Kirk estimates a 20 per cent increase in yields overall, with wide variation from block to block. He says, “the quality is amazing” with “close to perfect numbers [for acid and sugar levels]”.

After the challenging 2010, 2011 and 2012 vintages, the question has become where to put all the amazing quality fruit rather than where’s all the fruit?” he adds.

As we walk around the catwalks, the winery floor and even in the concrete driveway, fermentation vessels, including picking bins drafted to the cause, occupy every inch of space. Each has it thick cap of red grape skins at the surface. And the press dribbles its last precious drops of old-vine viognier juice, ready for fermentation.

Kirk says he expects the crush to remain at around 300 tonnes in future years and plans to extend the winery area by 50 per cent and add more fermenters before next vintage.

On vintage quality, Kirk says, “I struggle to think of a variety that didn’t look fantastic”.

While I’m there we seize the opportunity to try barrel samples of pinot noir, each of the four from a different clone of the variety. These are distinctive wines, a couple of them pretty exciting. But we’ll have to wait about a year to try the final blend – a follow up to the silky, juicy 2012 shortly being released to mailing list customers.

We taste, too, barrel components of the soon-to-be-blended 2012 Shiraz Viognier and the 2012 Syrah – Clonakilla’s two flagship reds. The Shiraz Viognier components point to a highly fragrant, elegant final blend, somewhat bigger than the lighter and pretty 2011. There was no 2011 Syrah. But anyone who tried and tasted the previous release will love the 2012, a real knockout.

Clonakilla’s O’Riada 2012, now blended and ready for bottling, like the shiraz viognier, offers a lift in body and depth over the charming but early-drinking 2011.

Kirk’s Murrumbateman neighbour, Ken Helm, reports exciting quality from a vintage that “will go down as one of the greats”.  Helm expected to receive 35–40 tonnes of riesling from his own vineyard and local growers. But he received just 25 tonnes, prompting a search for additional material in Tumbarumba, where he sourced six tonnes.

Helm says riesling quality in 2013 reminds him of the 2008. And the best parcel in his expanded winery, he says, comes, as it always has, from the late Al Lustenburger’s vineyard.

When I spoke to Helm, his red specialty, cabernet sauvignon, remained on the vine, ready for picking a few days later. He said the small berries were perfectly ripe and ready for picking, with the best material being on the Lustenburger vineyard.

At Mount Majura vineyard, winemaker Frank van de loo tempers enthusiasm with caution, commenting, “quality of course is excellent overall, because winemakers always say that. Actually I don’t usually rush to judge these things, but I’m pretty excited by the riesling and chardonnay already, so we’ll see how we feel later on when everything is in barrel”.

Like others across the district, van de loo reports a disease-free vintage, allowing him “to pick to ideal ripeness rather than rushing fruit off early as we had to last year”. But he adds, “The flipside of that is that with the very cool summer last year we had flavour and phenolic ripeness early/at low sugar levels, whereas this year we’re giving the reds some extra time to get phenolics and seeds ripe. Tempranillo is coming off today [3 April] and looks fantastic, though if we were to pick only on sugar we could have taken it a couple of weeks ago”.

He reports solid yields as “a relief after the small crops in the last two years”.

At Lerida Estate, Lake George, Jim Lumbers rates vintage 2013 as a cross between the outstanding 2008 and 2009 seasons, but leaning more to the warmer 2009. He expects to crush a record 100 tonnes of grapes after a previous vintage crush of around 85 tonnes in 2008.

From Lark Hill, Canberra’s highest and coolest vineyard, at 860 metres, Chris Carpenter calls 2013, “a pretty spectacular vintage”. However, yields at both Lark Hill and the Carpenter’s Dark Horse vineyard, Murrumbateman, came in at about 70 per cent of expectation. Carpenter attributes this partly to vines adjusting after delivering large crops in 2011 and 2012 and to “shaky weather during flowering”.

When we spoke, riesling and chardonnay had already been harvested from Lark Hill vineyard, along with marsanne, roussanne and viognier from Dark Horse. Pinot noir and gruner veltliner (an Austrian variety) and pinot noir at Lark Hill and shiraz at Dark Horse were about a week from harvest – and all looking disease free.

While winemaker excitement in 2013 rises partly from relief after two wet, diseased seasons, the ripeness and balanced natural acidity of the grapes harvested to date point to pretty good quality. But as the proof of the wine is in the drinking, we’ll have to wait to see if the promise turns to reality.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2013
First published 17 April 2013 in The Canberra Times and