2023 Diary of a Vintage

Author: Brian Croser
Source: WBM
Review Date: May 2023

On 11 April we were yet to begin the harvest for all but a young block of Foggy Hill Pinot Noir that was harvested on 5 April.

In an average year we would have harvested all three of our vineyards by April 11.

After 54 diverse vintages, none the same as any other, I do expect the unexpected but 2023 was destined to be the latest of those 54.

 193 days before, the first stirrings of the vine buds in our three distinguished sites, initiated a season of anxiety. After a winter of above average rainfall, the soil profile was saturated and cold as the buds tentatively began their new season’s journey in mid-September, two to three weeks later than average.

The die was well and truly cast for a late harvest after the spring months’ (September, October and November) day temperatures were 1.3C colder than average, inhibiting the growth of the new shoots after their late emergence.

Consistent with bud burst, flowering was attenuated and 2 – 3 weeks late.

The culprit was SAM again! The weather engine of the south coast of Australia is SAM (Southern Annular Modulation) and it has remained in positive mode throughout the spring and summer of the 2023 growing season. Positive SAM means the weather systems arriving from the west are crossing the Great Southern Ocean to the south of the Australian continent, delivering cool Antarctic air onto the southern coast. 2023 growing season is now the fourth in a row of SAM being positive.

The cool winds of the front edge of the slow easterly moving high pressure systems, have consistently blown into our vineyards from the southeast inhibiting the flowering process and delaying berry development. The result is a small late crop. Given the lateness of the season and the low ripening temperatures, a small crop is better than a large one.

A peculiarity of this late and cool season is that we harvested all three vineyards at the same moment. Normally the Pinot Noir from Foggy Hill is harvested in mid-March, followed by Chardonnay from the Tiers Vineyard at the end of March then finally Cabernet Sauvignon from the Whalebone in early April.

Never have we harvested all three vineyards at the same time. This coincident harvest-imposed allocation stress on manpower, machinery and picking bins. 

On 12 April, we removed the bird nets from the Tiers Chardonnay in preparation for harvest, there were rain showers around and the air temperature was 12C.  I was very grateful to see some fruit arrive at the winery door.

The positives of a cool late growing season are the moderate sugar levels ensuring moderate alcohols, the fine intense fruit flavours and the high balancing natural acid. 2023 is likely to produce a Chablis like version of Tiers Chardonnay.

I had to make a decision on the night of the 11th, in the hours that should be for sleeping not decision making. I had intended to harvest Foggy Hill Pinot Noir on the 13th and had arranged for bird nets to come off in preparation.

The maturity curves for each vineyard reflected the natural terroir driven sequence of ripening between our distinguished vineyard sites. I would expect Foggy Hill Pinot Noir to be harvested two weeks ahead of Tiers Chardonnay and that in turn two weeks ahead of Whalebone Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2023 exceptionally late harvest has jammed all three vineyards up against the wall of the end of vine function as the autumn temperatures closed the vines down. 

Then, on the night of the 11th, sometime after midnight, I noticed the Australian Bureau of Meteorology began forecasting a major low pressure system wet weather event for the next weekend, impacting the Adelaide Hills. The Tiers Chardonnay would be detrimentally affected by heavy rain at its state of advanced maturity.

I had a decision to make, harvest Foggy Hill or Tiers, leaving one vineyard at the mercy of the weekend’s weather event?

After hours of agonising, in the predawn hours of the morning, I rang my vineyard manager and arranged for the net removal and picking crews to be at the Tiers Vineyard, instead of Foggy Hill, redirected as they arrive for work. Tiers Chardonnay was harvested in dry autumn conditions on the 13th.

The fate of Foggy Hill Pinot Noir hung in the balance, but I was hopeful for less rain on the weekend at Foggy Hill at Parawa on the Fleurieu Peninsula, the steep slopes of the vineyard would allow better runoff, there would be drying winds from the ocean and Pinot Noir has tougher skins than ripe Chardonnay. That was my rationale, and I was committed.

The loose bunch, small berry Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in Whalebone Vineyard would hang through the rain intact. In the end we harvested all of Whalebone before the rain.  The plumper berried Merlot was harvested on the 12th and the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc on the 13th and 14th . 

On Thursday the 13th we harvested the beautiful Chardonnay from the Tiers Vineyard. We completed the harvest of another of our Piccadilly Valley vineyards, Pat and Ted’s on the 14th before the predicted rain event on Friday night materialised. Whew!

Before the rain, I travelled the 1.5 hours down to Foggy Hill to sample and inspect the Pinot Noir grapes hanging on the exhausted vines. The fruit was in near perfect condition begging to be picked. What would it look like after the weekend’s rain event when we start to harvest the following Monday? I was praying it would be resilient, and that the gamble I made on the night of the 11th would pay off.This is all part of a vigneron’s life.  Never the same, never boring, always providing a story to tell as part of the final wine in the bottle.   

The harvest was over by April the 18th, a gloriously typical autumn day in the Adelaide Hills. It was as if the Piccadilly Valley was a painted autumn landscape. Everything so still, not even a quivering leaf, the autumn green gold of the vineyards signalling their year’s work was done. The frenetic activities of harvest finalised a vintage year of high anxiety. The vineyards are saying leave us alone, let us rest before the winter takes over and the cycle begins again. 

We finished harvesting Foggy Hill on the 17th, the last of our three vineyards to be harvested. Perversely, it is usually the first. The expected rain on the weekend of the 15th materialised, as 40mms of rain in two short bursts that the Pinot Noir fruit hanging on the vines in Foggy Hill had to endure before it was harvested on the 17th. It endured heroically, with no detriment to the fruit.

The Tiers Chardonnay was harvested before the rain, on the 13th of April, and we had to sort about 1% of the bunches out from the picking bins because of the incipient Botrytis infection, a function of Chardonnay’s thinner more fragile berry skins, the very late harvest and the consistently moist conditions of mid-autumn.

Had the Chardonnay been left on the vine over the wet weekend, the level of Botrytis would have likely ballooned, to the extent it would have changed the taste of the wine, partially masking the native terroir flavours and aroma of the Tiers Chardonnay. Those Piccadilly Valley Chardonnay attributes are why we are here, growing grapes in this fickle environment.

The cooler coastal vineyards of Australia, including our three distinguished sites have suffered diminished yields. Our vineyards in the Piccadilly Valley (Adelaide Hills), the Southern Fleurieu Peninsula and Wrattonbully are all down on average yields by half. 2023 vintage has produced very expensive grapes from full vineyard expenses and half the crop.

The crops are down in our vineyards because of the very cool and windy spring flowering season, a function of our dominant weather system, SAM (Southern Annular Modulation). SAM’s cold south-easterly winds blowing through our vineyards at flowering inhibited fruit set and diminished the final crop. The quality of the small late crop of Chardonnay from Tiers, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc from the Whalebone, and finally the Pinot Noir from Foggy Hill is all very high. Higher than I anticipated and much higher than I feared.

We are vignerons in cool fickle regions because of our passion for quality.

The low crop level and impact on profitability will only be addressed much later, the primary concern of cool climate vignerons at harvest is monomaniacally focussed on the quality of the crop and the implicit quality and style of the wine produced.

In 2023 we have high natural acids and intense fruit flavours in our Tiers Chardonnay juice, the same in our Pinot Noir and Cabernet musts along with vibrant colours and grown-up tannins as we begin the fermentations. 

It is a moment of huge relief to have it all in the winery, sound and very promising.

What we do from here is almost mundane, as we shepherd the native fruit quality of the vineyard terroir through the winemaking process, losing nothing of the vibrancy and intensity of this unique 2023 vintage.

In the end cool climate vignerons are not gamblers, although we are sometimes forced to make contingent picking decisions based on weather. Always we have to accept what mother nature delivers and make the most of it.

We are optimists, always hoping this next vintage will be the very best of all, knowing it will at the least, be different from all the preceding others in unexpected ways. 2023 vintage in our three distinguished site vineyards perfectly answered the description of unexpected and unique. 

The final heat summation analysis of the three Tapanappa distinguished sites tell the story of the late and cool 2023 vintage;

  • Tiers Vineyard (Piccadilly Valley)-1093C-days-3.7% below the average, rainfall for the growing season 356mm versus the average of 330mm-Harvested April 13.
  • Foggy Hill Vineyard (Southern Fleurieu)-1261C-days-5.8% below the average, rainfall for the growing season 415mm versus the average of 282mm-Harvested April 17.
  • Whalebone Vineyard (Wrattonbully)-1410C-days-3.9% below the average, rainfall for the growing season350mm versus the average of 222mm-Harvested between the 11th and 18th of April. 

BJC. 4/5/2023


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