2016 saw rainfall records crumble at Cape Jaffa, and the nearby weather station at Robe claims the highest annual rainfall since records commenced in the 1860’s. Coupled with a cool Spring and good crops, the whole growing season was far later than what we’ve come to expect of the warmer drier years that have seemed to be the new normal. Despite our prayers for sunshine as we moved into 2017, we had a wet January and approximately twice our average rainfall throughout April. Aaah the joys of agriculture! For those who waited for the high sugar (and therefore high alcohol), many still had grapes on the vine in May at which point vintage finished in a mad rush to pick before vines shut down for Winter.
It sounds a bit like a dog’s breakfast but funnily enough, there were still some very awesome grapes (and hence wines) from this vintage. The key to unlocking a successful 2017 vintage was curtailing our greed and keeping crop levels modest and recognising that grapes were actually tasting ripe at much lower sugar levels than what we’ve all come to expect over the last two decades. If we were prepared to trust our palates, we didn’t need to wait.
I arrived in the Limestone Coast in the nineties working a vintage at Hollick wines. During my time there, I boarded on a farm with one of my mother’s friends who had a cellar full of 1980’s vintage Coonawarra’s. Luckily for me this friend was prepared to share her collection with my keen mind and eager palate. It was these carefully cellared wines that made me fall in love with this part of the world and, at the time, I thought aged Cabernet was the bee’s knees.
Over the years, as I’ve learnt and developed as a winemaker, I now understand that like many of the better wines from 2017, these wines had a tendency to be lower in alcohol and led to much more civilised occasions than some of the ball-breakers we see on the market these days. They aged beautifully and, along with their hints of green vegies when they were occasionally picked (or drunk) too soon, these wines stood the test of time in a way that today’s riper styles often don’t.
There is fierce debate over why the old Limestone Coast reds, produced back in the 80s and early 90s, were so much lower in alcohol. Did winemakers do it this way by choice, knowing that the wines would be given the time to age by our more patient ancestors? Has it something to do with that stylistic swing in the new millennium to making riper, higher alcohol wines that powerful wine writer Robert Parker convinced the world to do? Or has a shift to warmer seasons accelerated sugar accumulation?
Well, after having been witness to the impact of a wet, cool lead up to vintage one might surmise that this season holds the answer to the lower alcohol levels of decade’s past. This vintage has in some ways taken us back to cooler times when Chardonnay ruled and Cabernet was King. And my thoughts are that its these cooler climate loving varieties that really shine from 2017. We can expect to see a throw-back to the stylish and ladylike wines with a slightly lower level of alcohol. The whites are looking great and reds are shaping up to look like approachable softer wines that you can probably squeeze in an extra glass or two of.