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.
I’ll remember 2016 as the year that Mother Nature gave us our best crop in 10 years and then came back and took it away. At home we had 30 mLs rain at the critical stage and another 20mLs a couple of weeks later. Unfortunately the rains did not magically drain directly into our rainwater tanks; instead it covered the land as is the natural order of things. The effect was loss of berries from split, particularly in the better sections where berries were riper at the time. Tough skinned varieties like Cabernet were less affected than Shiraz.
Early bud burst (there were traces in June!!), early flowering and early veraison provided unheeded clues about when harvest would start. Despite many of the vintage staff being yet to arrive, we ended up having almost finished processing whites before end of February - and yes I know we had an extra day, but still….
Further inland, the Limestone Coast regions such as Wrattonbully missed out on the rain that fell across much of this state and enjoyed an excellent vintage. Shiraz’s looks particularly nice and flavours are well balanced in spite of the warmer season. Yields were on the low side which contributed to the excellent quality, particularly with reds.
On the coast, crop levels weren’t quite what we were initially hoping for either. And, quality-wise 2016 was not the cracking vintage that 2015 was, but it was still very much above average. The young wines display bright and elegant characters reminiscent of a cooler growing season with very nice intensity and colour.
So, the 2016 vintage again reminds us that we are but simple farmers. We are at the mercy of Mother nature, of the tide, the wind, the sun and the unpredictability of life here out on the edge. We have no choice but to embrace each season, after all, as Chuck Tanner once wrote ‘you can have money piled to the ceiling but the size of your funeral will still depend on the weather’.
The 2015 vintage started two weeks earlier than the previous five year average which felt very early. While the timing of budburst was about on par with expectations, temperatures in Spring were consistently above average and soils were very dry. Weather conditions closer to harvest were very steady, with only three days above 35⁰C.
Yields varied across the region with some vineyards cropping slightly heavier than average and others reporting lower yields, albeit an improvement on last year by all accounts. Despite the early start, the heavier cropping vineyards ripened later in the season, meaning harvest lagged into cooler weather at the end of the season and finished about on time. A continuation of dry conditions throughout the season meant all vineyards were free from any disease issues.
The slow steady finish to the season rewarded us, especially in our coastal vineyards of Mount Benson. Both Cabernet and Shiraz are looking incredibly strong with bright fruit, silky tannins and great intensity. Expectations are that the wines from this vintage will evolve to be amongst the region’s best yet. Sauvignon blanc and Pinot gris are also looking excellent with very good natural acidity. Shiraz from both Wrattonbully and Mt Benson have beautifully elegant cool climate aromas but at the same time carry great intensity of flavour.
The 2014 vintage will be remembered for its volatile weather early in the season. Persistent ocean ‘breezes’ coupled with above-average rain in Spring, wreaked havoc with flowering leaving some blocks in the region severely under-cropped. The dismal quantities we received on the coast stood as testament to the cruel nature of agriculture. Being dependant on the timing of flowering certain sites and varieties seemed to cop a worse deal than others. As a result of the light crops (or perhaps the burgeoning reputation of the region), fruit was in very high demand.
Summer temperatures were very slightly average with a hot spell mid-January and, throughout the season, nine days above 35°C. Despite the low crops and warm conditions, veraison was very late pushing ripening back into the cooler Autumn months and this seemed to have a positive impact on flavour profiles. Clean, healthy fruit, extensive and manageable picking windows and cold nights made for an easy harvest. Growers welcomed a delayed break in the season with the heavy rain in April holding off until post-harvest.
Despite its ups and downs, 2014 seems to have created some excellent quality wines. Looking at the resulting styles, one might expect it had been a cooler than average vintage. Whites are looking very strong with good natural acidity and lovely texture. Black pepper seems to have found its way back into a few of our Shiraz parcels and the Cabernet achieved ripe flavours before baumes became excessive or berry shrivel occurred. Not such a good year for making reds without acid additions but all in all winemakers should be pleased.
The 2013 vintage has carried none of the stigma associated with back luck. Nature was kind, providing an effortless growing season and filling winemakers with enthusiasm. The favourable weather conditions resulted in low disease pressure all season. Very good grape prices linked to impressive vineyard grading scores have resulted in a successful year for our region’s growers as well.
Cropping levels, usually on the low side in any event, have varied across vineyards; general trend has been below average in reds but not whites and higher further inland. The season will be remembered by tourists and grape growers alike for lots of sunshine and ‘good beach weather’ extending right throughout March. Days above 35°C are usually very rare due to our cold ocean temperatures, however this year have occurred from time to time throughout January, February and March.
Rapid ripening of reds in March as a result of the heat meant the good natural acidity we enjoy in other seasons was a little lower than usual, meanwhile baumes have been in a desirable range across varieties. Quality-wise, reds look stylish, slightly lighter than average, but with ripe tannins and excellent structure and colour intensity.