In the 42 years of my involvement in the Australian wine industry the bad wet vintages prior to 2011 have been, 1969, 1974, 1983 and 1989.
Including 2011 that’s one every 8 years or so.
It’s been 22 years since the last one so we have been treated well by climate standards, so much so that there are one or two generations of young Australian winemakers who have never seen a bad one until 2011.
“Get used to it!”, is all I can say. Read John Gladstones’s “Wine Terroir and Climate Change”, Chapter 13, “Current Climate Change and Viticulture”, pages 189 and 190, where the great man describes the PDO, the “Pacific Decadal Oscillation” which is “a low-frequency variability in sea surface temperatures in the extra-tropical Pacific Ocean with a period of about 50 years”. According to the authors of a definitive paper, G.V. Jones and Goodrich, (2008), “there have only been two complete PDO cycles since 1890, with warm phases spanning 1925-46 and 1977-98 (the end of this phase still being uncertain) and cold phases 1890-1924 and 1947-76.”
We are at the end of a warm phase reinforced by El Nino dominance up until last year, 2010. Gladstones warns we are about to or may already have entered a possible era of cool and more erratic vintages for at least a couple of decades, maybe until global warming catches up.
This reinforces my contention that the Australian wine community should worry and plan for weather cycles rather than climate change in the short to medium term .
Reluctantly back to Vintage 2011. The first thing to be said in its favour for hot regions especially, it was a cool vintage consistent with John Gladstones’s PDO thesis.
For Tapanappa with vineyards in some of Australia’s coolest terroirs the record looks like the following where the units used are the Degree Days of Heat summation, the useful heat received by the grapevine (above 10°C) through the growing season from October to April in 2011 versus the long term average,
- Piccadilly Valley, Tiers Vineyard-In 2011-1069C days versus average of 1172°C days (-9%)
- Fleurieu Peninsula, Foggy Hill Vineyard-In 2011-1118C days versus average of 1225°C days (Parawa weather station) (-9%)
- Wrattonbully, Whalebone Vineyard-In 2011-1288°C days versus the average of 1415°C days (-9%).
For all of our vineyard sites the vintage was 9% cooler than average which may not sound like much but it is more than 0.5°C cooler than average for every day and night of the 212 day growing season.
The coolness has its advantages in producing wines of finesse with lively fruit and savoury low alcohol, high acid structure.
It’s not the coolness that was the problem. The big problem was very like in 1989 (except that 1989 was warmer), a very big flowering and fruit set, producing big bunches compounded by rain, lots of rain between flowering in mid December and veraison in mid February.
The wet soil condition caused the roots to produce lower amounts of the essential ripening hormone and the berry cells to divide and swell more than usual retaining green pyrazine flavours.
The result was a recipe for lower colours and greener flavours and the tight bunches the inevitability of burst berries and Botrytis infection.
Now here I want to speak only for Tapanappa and I have heard claim and counter claim across the regions of one of the best and the very worst of vintages in memory.
Western Australia is certainly an exception with a dry warm potentially very good vintage.
My judgement is specifically for Tapanappa’s vineyards.
For Tapanappa the very close spaced small vines planted on root stocks in all 3 regions weathered the rain well and we have produced some very fresh and nervy Chabliseque Chardonnay from the Tiers Vineyard and some very aromatic, lively Pinot from the Foggy Hill Vineyard. Xavier has produced some fine tannin grained Cabernet from the Daosa close spaced small vine vineyard opposite the old wide spaced Whalebone Vineyard.
We did not pick the Whalebone despite the fruit looking as good or better than most in the South East even with 10% Botrytis infection. It wasn’t even the Botrytis that forced the difficult decision to not pick, it was the pre-veraison rain effect as described above and the inevitable reputation of the vintage resulting from that.
Meanwhile we watch and wait on the evolution of the the Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay and the Foggy Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir to make final judgements on their final fate.
If 2011 is to avoid being the worst vintage, its got something to prove, out of the barrel.