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Copyright © Ric Einstein 2009
The Big Picture - The 2006 SA Tour Diary (11October)
Tradition dictates that I normally go to South Australia for approximately 10 days in May, straight after vintage, and provide an introduction to my Tour Diary with an early vintage report. Unfortunately this year I was unable to make it in May, but did a week's tour in September.
What I started trying to make appointments with winemakers, obviously the word got out that I was coming to town, and the winemakers were leaving in droves. I subsequently found out that my deodorant was working and they weren't trying to avoid me; apparently many winemakers are out there beating the drums in September, trying to shore up the Christmas trade. Therefore, it was much more difficult than normal to gain an accurate vintage assessment, but nevertheless I will do the best with the information that was available. In addition, some of the most important issues and findings will be summarised here too. Please bear in mind, in a report such as this, a large number of generalities are used and there will always be many exceptions.
Before we look at 2006, it is worthwhile going back and seeing at how previous vintages are progressing. If we start of with 1998, which was heralded as the vintage of the decade and then the century, with more hype than Barnum and Bailey could put together, this vintage is no longer looking quite as flash as many people first thought. Whilst the wines achieved a high level of ripeness, in a number of cases the big blockbusters, instead of being in the middle of a long sleep, are starting to look like they would have been better consumed in their youth. Many of the wines are holding up, but are not gaining much in the way of age characteristics, so whilst they are lasting and softening, they are not really improving as much as many people would have hoped.
Because of the hype of 1998, the 1999 vintage was overshadowed by its predecessor. As things are now looking, many of these wines are ageing gracefully and will do very well in the medium to longer term.
Not to put too fine a point on it, 2000 was a dog of the vintage in much of South Australia but there were some pretty good wines that came out of Coonawarra.
The weather in 2001 was incredibly hot and the vintage finished in record time. Ripening fruit was not the problem, although ripening it evenly did cause some issues and many of these wines, especially from hotter parts are incredibly ripe, showing dead fruit characters or prune spectrum flavours. Whilst I do have a number of 2001 wines in my cellar, they will need to be watched as I have a sneaky suspicion that once they start going south, they will do so quickly.
Ask most South Australian winemakers (with the exception of those in Coonawarra) about 2002 and they will be extremely happy with the wines they produced. The incredibly long slow ripening period did the fruit the world of good and many of these wines will be very long lived.
Those same producers would not be as happy with 2003. It was a very difficult vintage. A large percentage of the wines I have tried have tannins that are a very firm, some on the point of being hard. Like all tough vintages, there are some wonderful wines but they required careful selection.
In many ways 2004 was a terrific vintage, but in some ways it was a nightmare. Basically everything ripened at once, something that was exceptionally unusual at that point, and it caused a huge strain on logistics. Many wineries had difficulty in coping with the amount of grapes coming in at once. Growers in Coonawarra were ecstatic about 2004, especially after the nightmare of 2002 and extremely challenging conditions of 2003.
On this trip I started to see the results of the 2004 vintage in bottle. The results are very interesting. Many of the wines from 2004 from McLaren Vale seemed to be a lot less generous in fruit than the previous few vintages, but seem to be very well structured. Clearly this is a vintage where many wines will take years for the fruit to emerge from below the tannins and for the wines to show their true potential. The weight of the wines also seen to be lighter than in previous vintages; they also show more plum and spice spectrum flavour (and less overt blackberry), and that combined with judicious and moderated oak influence, have produced wines that are less bombastic and in your face than many previous vintages; a very positive step in the right direction.
The 2004 wines from the Barossa was stylistically similar to those found in McLaren Vale, but if anything the fruit was slightly more generous and as a generality, many people will find the 2004’s from the Barossa more appealing in the short term.
The 2004’s we tried in Clare were generally sound, solid, clean and well made wines, and most were very fairly priced. Whilst that all sounds very positive, and it is, the flip side is that many of the reds would not stand out in a crowded line-up; and this may or may not help when marketing the region. It's great to be safe, but safe can be boring.
Although overall 2004 was basically a very good vintage, one factor more than any other shows up in the finished wine. That factor is directly related to viticulture and cropping levels. Those with good viticultural practices and reasonable cropping levels produced good wine. Those that overcropped or had inadequate viticultural practices either had difficulty selling their grapes, or produced very ordinary products.
After a very high yielding 2004, the last thing the industry needed was another great year, but in terms of quantity and quality in 2005, that's exactly what they got. In many respects in the Barossa and McLaren Vale 2005, was similar to 2002 with the long slow ripening period. However, once the grape started to ripen it all happened at once, and those who picked the weather correctly will make some pretty good wine. There seems to be much debate as to whether 2004 or 2005 will wind up being the better vintage, but both of them will produce quite a number of stunning wines. Coonawarra had a terrific 2005 and producers in Clare also seemed particularly happy with it.
Clearly, there will be an embarrassment of riches to choose from, from both the 2004 and 2005 vintages in South Australia.
2006 was an interesting year and whilst it was hard to gain a lot of accurate information because so many of the winemakers are away, and it is early days, there seems to be mixed feelings about the vintage. The weather was not as kind as it had been the previous two years with rain causing some real issues. In the case of the Barossa, those who picked before the rain started around Easter time are convinced they did the right thing and are happy with the resulting fruit. After the rain, as in 2004, everything seemed to ripen at once, and did so in a hurry. This has left Barossa produces a little divided as to the quality of the vintage.
McLaren Vale had uneven temperature and rainfall conditions which required constant vigilance and work in the vineyard, and those with good viticultural practices are reasonably happy with the results in 2006.
Coonawarra was similar to the Barossa in that it also copped a bucketing of rain, but from reports, those that actually picked after the rain may have wound up with better fruit.
In summary, it looks like 2004 and 2005 will both be superior vintages, the difficulty will be picking the best wines from the best regions, as there will be so much choice.
Now I know that the 2007 vintage has only just commenced, and in many areas bud burst was only just starting to occur, but that does not mean that some early predictions can't be made. The situation can be summed up in one word "drought”. The solid winter rains that normally fill the dams and the aquifers in McLaren Vale, Clare and the Barossa simply did not happen. The ground cover whilst green, is essentially showing the effects of small amounts of surface water, but unfortunately the deep water which the vine roots rely on to get through summer, is simply not there. Those (without good irrigation and a plentiful water supply,) that are trying to crop at normal levels are probably going to be in trouble, but those who are thinning out their crops already, and will continue to do so throughout the growing season will probably produce some good-quality fruit.
Whilst in some ways this is not good for the growers income, it could be nature's way of addressing the imbalance and oversupply situation.
Looking back on this trip, the first and most obvious thought that comes to mind was the high quality of wine tasted. I'm not sure if this is as a result of careful selection of wineries visited, vintage conditions, good luck, or good management, or possibly a combination of all of them; but no matter which way you look at it, overall the quality of our wine seems to be improving. More importantly, there seems to be a noticeable shift in style with many wineries moving away from over-ripe dead fruit, intense blackberry characters and highly-toasted, coffee infused oak notes.
That's the good news. The bad news is corks. Unfortunately I didn't keep track of the percentage of corked wines that we encountered on this trip, but it was truly horrendous. One more occasions than I can count, even when a bottle of wine had been freshly opened, I took one sniff and thought "this is mildly tainted” or “this has a touch of random oxidisation." In many cases, when I first pronounced the wine to not be as good as expected, and probably suffering from a cork related fault, many of the winemakers look at me strangely, thought the wine was sound but were prepared to open another bottle to humour me. In every single case, without exception, the subsequent bottle showed a better aroma and more lively fruit on the palate, frequently to the dismay and surprise of the winemaker/proprietor.
This raises a number of points. First and foremost, in many instances where the wine is just a little flat, whilst 99 percent of wine drinkers won't pick it up as being "not to the standard that the winemaker intended," the chances are they would find the wine a little ordinary; and if it's a premium, disappointing and certainly not worth purchasing again. Those using traditional corks are clearly at a disadvantage in this situation.
Whilst the cork industry is for ever banging on about the improvements made to the processing of cork and the reduction of the level of cork taint, based on what I found on this trip, in relation to “normal natural corks,” these claims appear to be vaporous promises and flatulent rhetoric. (Diam corks may be the exception.) A number of large producers test every batch of corks and those that don't pass muster are returned to the supplier. From what I have been able to find out on the quiet and figures provided to me in confidence, the percentage of batches that fail and are returned to the suppliers are horrendous.
For obvious reasons, no one is prepared to talk about this publicly. The wine producers, because they don't want their customers losing faith in the products that they still seal with cork, and the cork producers because it would be madness for them to admit it. Unfortunately many small producers don't have the capacity or facilities to test of batches of corks, and in many cases, despite playing top money for reference one corks; there is absolutely no guarantee that the cork taint rate will be any less than the lower cost corks.
One also has to wonder what happens to the corks that are rejected by those that have batch tested them. Does the cork industry seriously expect us to believe that they are reprocessed and used in other products, or are they just resold to other wineries that don't have testing facilities?
The oversupply issue is also blindingly evident as you drive through the vineyards. We passed quite a number of vineyards where grapes had not been picked last year, have been left to rot on the vine, and the vines left unpruned, so they won't be harvested again this year. In some cases, the vines were in well-established vineyards so readers may wonder why these grapes couldn't be sold. The answers are fairly simple.
About two and a half years ago I wrote an article titled, “All Things to All People – Smart Marketing or Stupidity?” and even prior to that, in other articles I have touched on the subject of growing the right grapes in the right area. At Wine Australia, the Tasmanian stand was doing a roaring business with people trying Pinot and sparkling wines. The Rieslings were very popular with the Clare Valley wineries, Cabernet was king at the Margaret River and Coonawarra stands, and naturally, Shiraz was very popular at the Barossa producers’ booths. But let's face it, how many people really want to drink Chardonnay from McLaren Vale or Sauvignon Blanc from the Barossa Valley. The producers who planted inappropriate grape varieties, like the last two mentioned, are the ones that couldn't give the grapes away at the end of last vintage, and it is unlikely that this will change anytime soon.
According to one grower, a plot of land with inappropriately planted vines is worth no more than a plot of land with no vines in the same area. So, for those who find themselves in this position, and wish to sell their vineyards, the capital improvements are seen as worthless.
The second major reason producers had trouble selling their grapes was because basically what they produced was below standard. That could have been caused by over-cropping, poor site selection, or bad viticultural practices. No matter the reason, its tough out there for all growers and producers and those that don't measure up, won't survive.
Quality versus price, which in some ways is related to the oversupply situation, is also now heavily weighted in the consumer's favour. Australian consumers have never had it so good. Some of the wineries’ clean skins are absolute bargains. Many producers who are bringing out new labels, realise the only chance they have of those brands being successful is to significantly over-deliver on value. At the same time, many supposedly well-established and respected brands from top producers are languishing on the shelves. Some vintages are taking years to sell out as savvy consumers realise there is no point in paying $95 for a bottle of wine, when they can get exactly the same level of quality for half that amount. Many of those companies that have got greedy over the last five years, and have doubled the prices of their premium wines, are now having trouble selling them. The chickens are coming home to roost.
The Emerging European Varieties that have been planted all over the place are certainly gaining traction. If “variety is the spice of life,” Australian wine lovers certainly have a lot of good living to do. In an attempt to gain some differentiation in the marketplace, many wineries are planting the "food friendly" European varieties, in abundance. Slowly, year on year, the finished wines are improving, but Australia still has a long way to go with these varieties before they could be considered world-class.
As the winemakers gain more experience with these grapes, the quality will continue to improve, but two other factors will need to keep pace. The first concern is site selection. In the same way that you can't give away Sauvignon Blanc grapes from the Barossa, some growers will be planting inappropriate European varieties for their own climates. Clone selection will also be critical, and only time, and experience, will tell what is going to work best. Finally, good viticulture will also play an important part, and once again there is no substitute for experience.
In summary, it was a great trip and I hope you enjoy reading the forthcoming Tour Diaries. Hopefully they will start appearing next week.
Feel free to submit your comments!
From: Andrew Shipway10/11/2006 07:43:27 I work in the wine industry and rely on big vintages to make my money.However I can't help but wonder if the drought and potential downturn in intake for the 07 vintage may be beneficial for everybody in the longterm.Having said that I also agree with your comments about growing the right varieties in the right areas and growing them properly.Let's face it ,we will never have an oversupply of top quality grapes making top quality wines.
From: Mark Lyovic11/01/2006 15:15:49 Hi Ric,
I am just heading over to the Barossa for 'our long weekend without kids'. Was looking forward to the tour diaries for some pointers of where to head. Will they be out soon? if not is it possible to get some pointers on good wineries to visit (current releases) over Sat-Mon this weekend.
We are currently planning:
From: TORB11/01/2006 16:05:20 Hi Mark,
The list is a good starting point. Unfortunately the Tour Diaries are delayed and I hope to have the first one out in two weeks, provided nothing else goes wrong with my staff.
I would add Burge Family to your list as well as St Hallett, Turkey Flat, Rolf Binder, Grant Burge (which are all open) and try and make an appointment at Winter Creek.
Copyright © Ric Einstein 2006