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Too much weather and not enough climate


Philip White casts an eye, and a nose, back over vintage 2016, which will be pretty much over before Easter, thanks to climate change.

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Casa Blanca stands on a vast slab of solid ironstone in the Ironheart Vineyard. It is, indeed, built of ironstone. It’s a true cottage in the sense of it being a small dwelling containing a cot, safe and snug. But I can tell when vintage is coming to its end by the temperature of that old rock beneath the pineboard floor: when it’s cold enough underfoot for me to begin thinking about firewood and casting sideways glimpses at the axe-grinder, I know the vine roots will soon be shivering themselves into a long winter’s hibernation.

The wee beasties of the field don’t like the chill. They’re not stupid. My stoic hero, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, wrote of the country mouse and the city mouse, and “the consternation and trembling of the latter”. The bumpkin rodents round here know none of that big metropolitan trepidation: once it’s cold, and worse, wet, they simply move inside with Unca Philip and my Jesus they make a din, rattling and rustling and making nests in rare books and old boots.

There’s always a stretch of autumn when we still see the odd sunny, warmish day. On these, if I open the doors, the whole damn lot of them dash back out for a frolic on the range, but soon these days are fewer, the traps will come out of their bag, and my magpies will begin to hang about their table, waiting for my offerings of those tiny fresh carcases.

The other major change is the pattern of the birds. The itinerant grape-eaters enjoy a short orgy of delight after harvest, cleaning up the ratty bunches the pickers chose to leave once the nets came off. Then they begin to thin out, leaving the cooling sky empty for those measured souls who stick about all year.

In other words, vintage is nearly done. If the wineries weren’t brimming, there’d be little of this worry about getting the last of it off before the crucifixion. There’ll be some ultra-ripe jam slopping about the bins after the resurrection.

Just as there was in the hot areas months back, when that early sizzle brought vintage 2016 on before 2015 had expired.

2016 was a vintage with too much weather; not enough climate. The realisation that those freak bands of weather, with record heat and record wet coming through like waves, actually build up to make climate is the scariest thing facing most Australian vintners. It’s more threatening, for example, than the slightly more realistic dollar which marginal exporters in particular hate. There’ll be no point in worrying about the degree of the Aussie dollar’s parity with its bullying Yankee neighbour when whole vignobles finally discover, or admit, that they can no longer produce such high-quality fruit.

It’s not so many years ago that Easter was usually the time to celebrate the beginning of vintage.

I bumped into former Hardy’s chief winemaker Peter Dawson in the village yesterday. He said that even the Tasmanian harvest is finishing six weeks early.

Cool Tasmania being the last bastion of those vignerons wise enough to plan for the possibility of the hotter mainland moving to the point when it’s simply too hot for premium winegrowing.

When I find myself uttering lines like that bastard I feel the politicians who denied this possibility and keep pumping taxpayers’ money into coal and fracking and other gross vandalism should not just be voted out on their arses, but locked up in bloody prison.

Time to sharpen the pitchforks and pikes as well as the axes. There’ll be more tractor action like our demonstrating brethren on the threatened Liverpool Plains have been forced to engage in.

One confronting pattern I see evolving with this heightening of climatic extremes is the broadening quality gap between fruit from beloved, well-placed, well-tended and understood vine gardens and that from the mindless industrial grapeyards with their mechanical petrochem spray regimes. There’s a bloody great quality hole developing there in the middle range, where most of the $15 to $20 bottles grow.

Below that realm, in the sickening lakes where the bladder packs swim, is a gloopy murk to which I dare not plunge. In fact, reports from the irrigated hinterland suggest many of those who’ve persisted with viticulture in that sunbaked Mallee are finally beginning to give up. Even big harvesting and pruning contactors along the rivers have complained at their dwindling number of clients. Their vast machinery fleets have begun to expensively lie idle.

Having travelled and chatted, kicked tanks and barrels, and plunged my snifter into musts and mixtures in some favourite wineries along these South Mount Lofty Ranges, I can report some really good wine somehow arising from all that chaos. Wines of exceptional colour and fragrance: perhaps some of the best I’ve seen in many years.

One repeating aspect of the best 2016 fruit is its large degree of pulp: the juice seemed to contain a higher amount of solid, as if that short burst of record heat before Jesus’s birthday conspired with the wet January and then more record heat to see the vines put on more lignin, the stiffening scaffolding that holds all plants together. This makes the musts thicker and more viscous, providing the beginnings of what may become a fuller, more unctuous texture in that eventual glass.

This pulp, with its preserving tannins and aromatic terpenes, can be beneficial early in the wine’s life, adding character, bouquet and flavour, but it can also help the wine live much longer than the fruit of more ordinary vintages. I’m game to suggest there will be 2016s which will be lauded long after my return to the great silence, dammit.

As for this Easter orgy and the end of lent? While I still await evidence that he actually existed, it’s worth considering the sadism of (a) the heavenly father who sent Jesus here, or (b) those latter scribes who invented him, for insisting that when he thirsted in his death agonies, all they’d give the most famous winemaker in history was vinegar through a reed.

For some reason, there’s a big crossover of folks who believe this yarn and also deny climate change.

Give them vinegar. There’ll be good supplies from 2016.

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