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The leaves are turning yellow


After a year of contrary weather, Philip White reports on one of the trickiest vintages yet.

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“Nine mile skid on a ten mile ride, hot as a pistol but cool inside,” The Grateful Dead sang a mere 45 years ago in He’s Gone.

 So far, in my neck of the woods at least, vintage 2017 has been like that.

Now, sick of the jitters, some vignerons are wishing the whole damn thing was over and gone.

I hear of vineyards in bits of New Zealand, and odd bits of Australia, like the highish cool of Canberra, picking fruit that’s pretty much ideal. They’ve started harvest in the Southern Flinders; Clare and the Barossa will begin to kick in properly next week. Same in McLaren Vale. If we’re lucky.

As predicted here away back when the bunches had first set, the yields are high right through the Ranges, making many of the big commercial grape-growers smack their lips: there’s an international shortage of good-quality fruit these strange days.

I was at Tintara in McLaren Vale when winemaker Paul Carpenter quietly announced their first truckloads had just arrived. Chardonnay. Paul seemed, how you say, a tad underplussed. The Vales is hardly the best spot for Chardonnay, which originates in continental Burgundy.

Where it snows.

Carps, like all the others round here, was more keenly awaiting the ripening of Shiraz, and then Grenache, varieties originally sourced close to the temperate, maritime Mediterranean coast. Sunshine-and-lavender land, like the Fleurieu.

Touch wood. Bacchus knows, South Australians hardly need reminding of the year it’s been.

Since the grapes came off last vintage, and the sheep went in to turn the weeds to fertiliser pellets and make many fat jumping babies, returning the smart viticulturer an income where others find themselves writing fat cheques to Big Petrochem for their poison herbicides, well, since then …

The summer of ’16 was warm-to-hot, and led to record warmth in autumn. Temperatures were fairly normal during winter, then came a very cool spring. It’s confounding. Like we had the coolest year overall since 2012, and yet the state’s mean minimum was the seventh warmest on record: 0.73C above average. The mean maximum ended up 0.43C above average, yet we had the coolest days overall since the dreaded 2011 when we had the wettest vintage on record and everything went mouldy with mildews and botrytis.

Wet? 2016 was Adelaide’s second wettest year since records began.

Not to mention that friggin wind. I spent my childhood just below the snowline in the mountains of east Victoria, but I can remember no winter and spring as utterly, viciously threatening as that bastard. It was sinister.

Overlooking the little matter of a few torrid blackouts – pylons can be rebuilt in a few quick months – thunderstorms and winds ripped out tens of thousands of trees, including a huge proportion of our stock of mature, centuries-old red gums.

One can only wonder what weather these ranges will see in the few centuries it takes to replace those.

Since then, temperatures have been close to “normal” across most of the wine-growing regions, maybe a tad cooler, which had the vignerons quietly confident.

But all that water since last vintage saw vines everywhere stack on huge amounts of foliage. Too much, really: out-of-balance vines, with over-the-top ratios of leaf surface to total juice, often produce wines that taste green and astringent, like leaves and their petiols, or stalks.

Include the machine harvester factor, which invariably means leaves are picked and go into the hoppers with the fruit, and this flavour magnifies.

On the other hand, smart growers were on top of this: hand-plucking or mechanically hedging excess foliage and shoots, leaving neat hedgerows of vines instead of the more common sprawling mess that you’d have trouble driving a tractor through.

If you can’t get a tractor in there easily, there’s little chance of the odd drying breeze killing off aggro moulds, meaning you’ll need that chequebook again to pay for more poisonous spray, naïvely hoping the stuff can actually penetrate that forest of leaf you’ve let grow.

Sheesh. Who’d be a grape-farmer?

I reported before that the vineyards around Casa Blanca have all been neatly hedged: the Ironheart Shiraz across my front fence had three passes of deft leaf-pluckers through before the bird netting went up a couple of weeks back.

Since the grapes coloured, we’ve had breezy, warm-to-hot sunny days, and ideally cool nights, often a tad damp with dew or gentle misty rain, slowing everything down. Nice.

While some younger players have been saying the vintage is late, they should really be delighted that it’s closer to “normal” or traditional timing, after global warming brought on a string of much earlier crops.

As Peter Gago, Penfolds’ boss winemaker, has said after most of the last 15 vintages, it’s another year when he’s had to redefine his meaning of “extreme”.

Like in the second week of February, nine sites in this state had their highest temperature on record. Since then, some of them have recorded their coldest February temperature on record. It’s nuts.

Anyway, as I said, for those with the vision to spend money on human vine-dressers rather than petrochemicals, everything looked pretty good. The biggest crisis I could see in these vineyards was that the newly-released model of the calicivirus would be killing the hares that live here. There are no rabbits, and the hares rarely damage the vines unless they’re starving. Which they’re not.

I like having a few hares about: they are gentle, modest beasts. I had a bit of Twitter with local viticulturer Ben Lacey when I complained about the poor things dying from internal bleeding from the calici’s cutely-named rabbit haemorrhagic disease, suggesting hares were fairly harmless, gentle critters.

Ben retorted that in his vineyards they chew irrigation drippers off their lines and eat the shoots of baby vines as they protrude through the top of their grow-tubes; I retorted that the worst thing they do round here is eat my chillies, and I can’t blame them for that. Although I’d love to try a properly jugged one with its belly full of Carolina Reapers.

Ben caught another Tweet I’d innocently let fly on Saturday. That cursed summer flu had locked me cowering in the hut for a week, so it was a delight to step outside to hang my laundered sheets and discover the air was redolent with the heady sweetness of chamomile flowers. It seemed almost as sensual and swoony as lilac wine.

“Probably the smell of all the leaves turning yellow,” Ben responded. I shot back a contrary suggestion that there was no yellowing here, and no chamomile. But being sufficiently colourblind to find green very tricky, a pang of doubt sent me back out to check. Yep. The yellowing has begun.

A drive around the Vales reveals these autumnal hues magnifying daily, well before most of the fruit properly ripens. It’s the same through the whole of the Mount Lofty Ranges, right up to where they become the Southern Flinders.

So the current cause for wino angst is this: if the leaves continue to pale, will they be able to continue the photosynthesis required to get those grapes through to an ideal condition for picking?

Vintage 2017 could well be remembered as a ten mile skid on a nine mile ride.

We’ll know in a few short weeks.

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