It’s 3 pm on the first of April, April Fool’s Day, but nobody anywhere in the world is in prankish mode.
In the Piccadilly Valley in the centre of the Adelaide Hills it is 17 °C, the maximum temperature of this mid-autumn day. A strong and gusting south-easterly wind, directly from the belly of the Great Southern Ocean, is swaying the tall white ghost gums at the top of Tiers Vineyard as if they were pendulums. That cold, dry south-east wind has defined the 2022 growing season for our vineyards and is the reason we are harvesting in early to mid April not the more usual mid March.
Tomorrow, we begin picking Pinot Noir on the Foggy Hill Vineyard and at the end of next week we will harvest Chardonnay from the Tiers Vineyard. The analysis and flavours of the fruit on the vines are textbook and the weather forecast ahead is for typical autumn dry, cool, still, clear air and blue-sky conditions.
What can possibly go wrong?
Having nurtured the crop through six months to the cusp of harvest, I am nervous.
Will the COVID-scarce labour force deliver enough pickers to do the job? Will the winery staff stay COVID-free at least until the wine is safely in barrique in about four weeks’ time? COVID among the very expert winery staff would necessitate closure of the winery – something that can’t be fixed with substitute labour.
This might be considered a first-world problem in the light of what is happening in other parts of the world, including the massive destruction caused by floods on the east coast of Australia.
There is a surfeit of menace, dread, disease, death and destruction for one small planet circling and rotating in a small solar system, part of a smallish galaxy in a far corner of an infinite universe. It seems humanity is striving to destroy itself and to sabotage our remarkably hospitable planet with its benign climates, breathable atmosphere, tempering oceans and the right mix of rock, soil, water and elements to sustain life comfortably if only its human inhabitants respected and protected it.
Slightly guiltily, I avoid the news cycle and focus on the 2022 vintage as if none of the other is happening.
As we are about to harvest Foggy Hill and Tiers, all is normal in that the weather is weird and unpredictable serving up another variation on the 52 preceding vintages of which I have been part.
As I predicted in an earlier article, all three of our vineyards are destined to be significantly cooler than average in the 2022 growing season. This follows the excellent-quality, if small, 2020 and 2021 vintages, both also slightly cooler than average. Oh, that this cooler trend should continue, eliciting the best qualities from our terroirs.
Some might wonder how the decision of when to harvest a vineyard is made?
Among winemakers there would be the full gamut of approaches from the vigneron who divines the harvest moment by simply walking and tasting the grapes in their vineyard to the winemaking boffin sitting in a laboratory analysing the grape compositional data on a weekly basis.
I use both approaches.
Most importantly I do the sampling, walking completely one in 20 rows, stopping at every 20th vine, alternating sides of the row and choosing two bunches from which to take five to six berries, from the outside of one and the inside of the other. The plastic bag contains from 200 to 300 berries at the end of each sampling.
By way of example, the 6-ha (15-acre) Foggy Hill Vineyard is divided into nine sub-blocks based on clone and topography. During the sampling walk, there is much to observe. Early in the season the task is to look for signs of the many pests and diseases that plague vineyards, determining the stage of vine growth by looking at growing tips and the distance between leaves on the shoot.
Later, after the grapes begin to soften, the woodiness of the stems of the bunches and the browning of the seeds indicate the final throes of ripeness. And of course tasting the grapes, not to be seduced by their increasing sweetness but discerning the real flavour of the variety.
Back at the winery, the juice of the grape sample is extracted and analysed for sugar (Brix or %), pH, total acid as equivalent grams per litre of tartaric acid, and malic acid.
The graph below is a typical 2022 maturation curve for the ripening of the Definitus block of Pinot Noir at Foggy Hill.
The things to note about this graph are the length of time from the beginning of ripening in early February to the pre-harvest sample on the last days of March, an eight-week period. On this curve, the sugar accumulates slowly in the cool conditions, from 15.3 Brix to 23 Brix just before harvest and the wine will finish with a mild 13% of alcohol.
The acid falls from 16.64 g/l to 7.04 g/l over the seven-week period depicted, partly because the malic acid falls from 6.99 g/l to 3.29 g/l. The extent and rate of the decrease in the malic acid is directly related to the heat the grape receives and in the cool 2022 season this has been a slow decrease that will leave a relatively high level of malic acid.
Also dictated by the cool conditions, the pH of the juice has risen marginally from 2.86 to 3.29. In a warmer year the final pH would be 3.5. This is a textbook ripening and the flavours and tannins of the grapes are cause for cautious optimism.
Given the presence of pickers and the absence of COVID, the pressed wine will be in barriques in about four weeks. Then the real quality of the harvest will be assessed.
In the current surplus of uncertainty, four weeks is a long time on this planet. Despite the many uncertainties, what is certain is the vineyard natural cycle will repeat itself for vintage 2023.