Good wine from Canberra’s difficult 2022 vintage

It was a tornado’, says winemaker Ken Helm. January’s violent hailstorm swept north from Hall, cut a swathe through Murrumbateman vineyards, then split in two near Helms Wines before heading east and west. ‘It broke steel posts, flattened vines and uprooted trees. If you’d been driving on our access road you’d have been killed’, says Helm.

He’s still replacing bent trellising posts. But the storm merely sideswiped Helm vineyard, destroying only 10 per cent of the crop and leaving overturned vines undamaged and in good shape for 2023. Others around Helm lost all. The casualties included all the prized cabernet and half of the riesling Helm usually takes from the neighbouring Lustenberger vineyard.

Clonakilla’s Tim Kirk says the storm, ‘Bruised us, but didn’t smash us like some of our neighbours.

The 12.5-hectare Four Winds Vineyard lost everything, says Sarah Collingwood. But her family’s nearby 5-hectare Kyeema vineyard escaped damage.

Other Murrumbateman vineyards reporting major crop loss include Poachers Vineyard, Dionysus Winery and Wayne and Jennie Fischer’s vineyard, currently leased by Alex McKay and Nick O’Leary.

Jennie Fischer calls 2022 vintage, ‘the most difficult I’ve seen in 21 years’, while Eden Road winemaker Celine Rousseau sees it as, ‘The worst in 25 years, worse than 2011’. Even without the damaging hailstorm, fungal disease, rain, wind, and low temperatures took their toll across the district.

Consecutive La Nina patterns in 2021 and 2022 paused a long-term trend to higher temperatures and earlier grape harvests, pushing harvest dates back about a month on recent norms.

Below average temperatures and absence of heatwaves across the October to April growing season allowed grapes that dodged other seasonal bullets to ripen, albeit with significantly lower than normal sugar and higher acid levels. But in the end, the district produced smaller volumes of good wines reflecting the cool season.

Shaw Vineyard Estate, Murrumbateman, suffered an almost complete wipe-out, harvesting just 13.5 of a potential 200 tons.

Graeme Shaw says, ‘Things looked good in late January and early February, but the fruit was ripening slowly and wasn’t ripe enough when botrytis hit. I wasn’t happy with the fruit and left it on the vine. The birds have cleaned it up now’.

From his meagre harvest, Shaw made a malbec–shiraz rosé, due for release in July, and topped up the cellar with riesling from South Australia’s Eden Valley, and reds from nearby Gundagai and Hilltops.

Mount Majura Vineyard produced a smaller than average crop says winemaker Frank van de Loo. Under the cool conditions grapes ripened with high acid and low sugar levels. On first taste of tank and barrel samples, that translates to delicious, fresh reds, some on the leaner side, and bracing, intensely flavoured whites of modest alcohol content. Van de Loo’s riesling, tasted from tank, appears particularly promising.

Even the late ripening graciano, mondeuse, and touriga ripened, as did tiny amounts of the recently planted red variety parraleta and the white ansonica. White albarino and red mencia planted this year are yet to produce fruit.

Ravensworth owner Bryan Martin reckons the district’s signature red, shiraz, ‘Needs a good roasting, a run of over 35-degree days, to stop vegetal growth and ripen’. In 2022’s cool conditions he made a ‘herbal, spicy’ shiraz.

Eden Road winemaker Celine Rousseau agrees, ‘2022 was not a shiraz kind of vintage’. The company’s Murrumbateman vineyard lost its crop, while on its Lake George vineyard, ‘shiraz grew like trees’. Shoot thinning, green harvesting and leaf thinning curbed the vegetal growth and the vines successfully ripened their fruit, making a peppery, lean red, says Rousseau.

Jason Brown and Alicia Brown own Kerralee vineyard, Murrumbateman, Moppity Vineyard, Hilltops, and Coppabella Vineyard, Tumbarumba. The three regions produced healthy fruit in the end. But Jason Brown rates 2022 ‘The most difficult vintage in 18 years and I can’t believe we’ve come through’.

Timely sprays, and non-stop work opening canopies against humidity, protected fruit during the wet period. Then a dry, late summer and autumn meant, ‘great hang time and a long, even ripening period across the three districts’, he says.

Lark Hill’s Chris Carpenter reports good, healthy fruit from his family’s Murrumbateman vineyard, despite significant losses of shiraz, sangiovese and marsanne to hail. Lark Hill’s home vineyard, high on the Bungendore escarpment, produced good riesling, sparkling wine base, and smaller volumes of table wine. Carpenter also sourced ‘some great fruit from Hilltops’.

Lerida Estate’s Andrew McFadzean says he’s pleased with the wines after a challenging season, including a total loss a Murrumbateman vineyard to hail, low fruitfulness and wind damage to the northern end of the Lerida vineyard, Lake George.

At Yarrh Wines, Murrumbateman, Fiona Wholohan calls 2022 a challenging vintage with disease hard to control and volumes down 20–30%. She’ll be bottling white wines in July. Reds will be on the light, fresh side, she says.

At Wallaroo, Nick O’Leary, says rain in November and December 2021 affected flowering and reduced crop levels, but a dry February helped ripening.

O’Leary says he sourced shiraz from Hilltops and ‘went hard on chardonnay from Tumbarumba. It’s some of the best we’ve seen’.

Fruit from his Heywood vineyard, Wallaroo, produced good wine. He says tempranillo performed well as it seems to like humid conditions, where sangiovese struggled and in the end made rosé, not red wine.

In 2022 Canberra vignerons made good wines under some of the most challenging conditions yet experienced in the district. It’s a remarkable achievement, and we can look forward to a diversity of 2022 vintage wines to be released over the next few years.

© Copyright Chris Shanahan 2022
First published in The Canberra Times 4 July 2022