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2014: a vintage of extremes

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If the frisson of wine industry business is any indicator, it appears that vintage 2014 is over.

Winemakers hands are returning to their original colour; marketers are remembering to deliver promotional samples again, and all the post-vintage vendangeurs’ parties are done and dealt. Even the seaside of McLaren Vale is losing its annual influx of itinerant carpark residents.

These seem to have been promptly replaced by busy armies of food-and-wine hacks here for Tasting Australia, who trawl a wine region or two on their way out, and swarms of merchants, like the mob Tim Wildman MW brought to Willunga’s Russell’s for pizza on Sunday night: his James Busby Wine Tours group contained some dead-serious front-row sommeliers from China’s biggest five stars as well as a smattering of key Brits. They seemed to have had their minds blown by the intricacies and hidden wonders of our wine culture, and to a person declared that they’d be back.

So. 2014. What happened?

After the strangely drawn-out period of flowering, which took six weeks instead of the one, viniculturers across south-eastern Australia were handed a rough-riders’ lesson in weather extremes.  Drought, flood, bushfire, heatwave: Hughie threw the lot at ’em.

Among other records of extreme, be reminded:

Sydney had its driest summer in 27 years. Canberra experienced 20 days of at least 35C.  Melbourne experienced its hottest ever 24-hour period (average 35.5C). Adelaide had a record of 11 days of 42C or more, and even seemed to relish the fact that for one day at least, it was officially the hottest city in the world. Perth had its second-hottest summer on record.

The flowering was tricky because that long slow procedure left growers with uneven bunches, so hen-and-chicken was rife, with hard little lentil-sized berries hanging in the bunches with fat, extremely ripe ones which split when the rain came, leaving sugary juice exposed to the air to attract moulds,  bugs and birdies.

Like, when do you pick that mess? What do you spray on it? Angel dust?

But then the weather settled into a calm period of cool, breezy, frequently moist days, and those who hadn’t lost everything in the extreme opening to summer found themselves hypnotised as they watched those bitter green pellets edge towards ripening.

Some, indeed, did ripen.

One thing seems prominent in the shake-down. Rarely has the writer seen the gap between smart and lazy viticulture produce wines of such extremes of quality. For results like quality wine, like profits, vineyards run smart, with vigilance, far outshone those run by mindless industrial repetition this year. Whether the clever vine gardeners ran their superior vineyards using the moon; whether they used appropriately applied standard petrochem preps or mumbo-jumbo; however they did it, some did very well indeed.

Those who grew some sound fruit then had the choice of polishing their quality through careful bunch selection, whether by hand or machine. New harvesting machine technology delivers a better-looking bin of grapes; those with mechanical sorting tables even managed to remove individual raisins, and all the hidden slip-skin and split-skin berries, from hand-picked bunches that looked fit for a fruiterer’s window in the first place.

That’s a huge advance, this new capacity to sort bunches and, indeed, individual berries.

What’s in the wineries? Some parcels of rare wonder, and a lot, too much, that reflects that tricky, indeed horrid, start to the summer. It varies widely from cellar to cellar and region to region, but so far, 2014 looks like offering some true beauty and a lot of bullshit. It’s a vintage to stick with your tried and true supplier – stick with the winemaker you trust.

So what’s new? Those tumbling records of heat and dry and wet seem like old hat, but believe me, they’re new. It’ll take more than stoic bluff to keep a handle on that stuff.  See all those huge vineyards – wrong variety/wrong geology – bulldozed into heaps all the way from McLaren Vale to Willunga? That’s new. See the continuing concentration of ordinary booze in the Woolworths bins? That’s hardly new, but somebody’s gonna have to think up a new way of handling it if many of the small to medium-sized strugglers are to survive.

Then, just maybe, perhaps the nature of the beast is such that they’re not meant to survive.

When I started writing about wine over three decades back, I had a box of index cards on my desk: one card for each winery in Australia. About 260 of them. Very loosely, those 30-plus vintages have added a zero to that number. Some years, the winery boom saw a new licence being issued every 72 hours.

What’s new is that this surge has finally stopped. The last financial year is the first one in all that time when the year finished with the same number of wineries with which it started. So the growth has slowed. As a gross over-supplier of wine-grapes, maybe the next bit will see the number actually shrink as the duopoly continues its hungry, determined rampage.

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