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With the last of our wines tucked away for the year, its time to reflect on the vintage that was.
Impact of climate change
In the vineyard the impacts of climate change are becoming more evident. We are noticing more extreme weather events, such as the devastating frosts of 2007, and our average rainfall over the past 10 years is about 100mm per year down on the long term averages. It seems to rain less often, but when it does, the falls seem much heavier. As well, the hotter days are becoming more oppressive.
Many of you will recall that most of our crop was lost to frost in 2007 and only one wine – the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc was produced. So 2008 was looked to with much anticipation as well as trepidation.
Rainfall remained low through the winter of 2007 and it looked as if the drought would continue to hold. At the end of August the dams were only about 20% full. Thankfully we cruised through the frost danger period of early October without any frost damage, and then on the first weekend in November the heavens opened and we received over 100 mls of rain (about 4”) in 24 hours. As well as putting lots of water in the dams, the vineyard soil received a much needed recharge, and the vine flourished. A further 80 mls in December ’07 set us up well for the harvest period ahead.
In a moment of madness I also decided to plant another 2 acres of vines because I want to produce a 'sticky' wine – a dessert style wine made from botrytis infected grapes. We set up a new block and, imaginatively, called it the 'sticky block'. The vine rootlings arrived in late December and were planted either side of Christmas. While the timing wasn’t great, the rainfall that occurred at the same time certainly helped with the planting and the settling in of the new vines. For those of you interested, the 'sticky block' is 80% Semillon, 15% Sauvignon Blanc and 5% Muscadelle. This equates to the variety and % blends used by the French to make their famous Sauternes, so seemed a reasonable place to start. Botrytis is a naturally occurring fungal infection that covers the grapes in a mould. (With the other grape varieties we spend a lot of time each year trying to prevent the infection; in the 'sticky block' however, we will do everything possible to encourage it!) The fungus causes the moisture to evaporate from the berry, thereby concentrating the remaining sugars and acids to produce luscious wines of great longevity. If you looked at an infected bunch covered in grey botrytis mould, you would never dream of eating it, let alone trying to make an elegant dessert wine from it!
With things still so dry, it will probably be another 3 or 4 years before we can expect a crop off the block. Will keep you posted.
That now brings us to 14 acres of the property under vine – sheer lunacy if you ask me.
This is a bit complex, but bear with me. Grape growers measure temperature in units, called “growing day” degrees. This is calculated by subtracting 10oC, everyday, over a whole, seven month growing season, from each of the average daily temperatures. (In the southern hemisphere, a standard growing season is the time from the beginning of October to the end of the following April – more or less, the time between spring bud-burst and late summer harvest.) Add up all these figures (again, for every day across the growing season), and convert the total to “growing days”. Each variety needs a different number of growing days to ripen. For example Pinot Noir needs a lot less than Cabernet Sauvignon.
You can see this tracked for 2007/08 against a 5 year average figure on the chart below. The Chart helps to understand how the ‘growing heat’ is distributed over the season.
While October ’07 was a cool month, things quickly warmed up, with November and January ’08 recording above average summations of growing day degrees. This pushed the vine ripening ahead of schedule, though things returned closer to normal in February. It became very hot again in the first two weeks of March, and then suddenly cooled for the remainder of the growing season. As it turned out, most of the available heat occurred prior to the fruit ripening, which then made it very difficult to ripen the fruit satisfactorily in April. We achieved the required number of growing days (just) for each variety, but most of the heat came at the wrong time.
Added to this, it hardly rained at all from January onwards and with the heat in March, the vines began to stress badly. A difficult vintage suddenly loomed – just like the last few.
Early Harvest Riesling
I think the only way to be truly successful in the wine game is to produce high quality distinctive wines. During the year I tasted a German Riesling (Dr Loosen) with an alcohol level of just 8.5%, which I thought was just amazing. It got me thinking about giving it a try. Wines like these are very difficult to make as the fruit has to be picked as it is just beginning to ripen. Pick it too early and the wine tastes of vegetables rather than fruit. Leave it too long, and the higher sugar levels will produce a wine with the 12% alcohol levels we are accustomed to.
There are very few vineyard sites in Australia capable of producing a wine such as this where the fruit is physiologically ripe at the very low grape sugar levels required.
Producing a wine such as this required careful planning in the vineyard. A section of the vineyard block was singled out for the wine and in November ’07 we went through and thinned the number of shoots on each vine. This reduced the crop load, and also created longer shoots with more leaves (energy sources for each bunch). The following February we went through the block again and removed more of the fruit to make the job easier for each vine.
Then we waited for the berries to begin to ripen.
We sampled the first berries on 13 March, and as expected, they smelt of hay and vegetables, and were excessively tart. By the 22 March apple and citrus flavours started to appear, and the acidity was becoming more approachable. Our picking window was suddenly upon us, and we harvested on the 25 March ’08. We picked about 2 tonnes of fruit for this wine.
The wine making is painstaking as the ferment has to be closely monitored and then stopped at precisely the right time, leaving a small amount of residual sugar to contribute palette weight to the wine.
The wine was bottled in October this year and needless to say I am very excited by it. We’ve called it the Early Harvest Riesling and it was released to coincide with Toast2theCoast on the first weekend in November. It was easily our most popular wine over the weekend. You can read more about it in our tasting notes. While great drinking already, it’s a wine that will also cellar extremely well.
The next wine harvested was the Semillon / Sauvignon blend from our Nursery Block, which I picked with my daughter Rose on 11 April. Yields for both varieties were down a little this year (which pleased Rose enormously) however the fruit flavours were excellent. Feeling adventurous, I decided to do a bit more as a winemaker with this wine than I have in previous years. The Sem/Sauv wine was aged with French oak and left on its yeast lees for about five months. Leaving the wine on its lees for a short period of time has very little impact on flavour, but greatly enhances the mouth feel of the wine. It is hard to describe, but you notice the difference when you drink the wine. Enjoying wine is as much about the texture of the wine as it is about flavour, so enhancing the texture produces a more substantial and satisfying wine. The oak adds a subtle dimension also, and lengthens the palate nicely.
The balance of the Riesling was picked on 24 April, about 8 tonnes in all. All our fruit is handpicked on the one day, so the final batch of fruit wasn’t processed until about 9.00 pm that night. As you may expect we collapsed into bed exhausted and faced the joys of cleaning all the sticky equipment the following day.
With the slow ripening that occurred in April we have ended up with a wine of about 11 % alcohol. Again, I’m very happy with the flavours in the wine, but it needs more time to develop, so I won’t release it until early next year. It’s certainly consistent in style with the dry Rieslings I have produced in the past, which should please many of you.
The reds really struggled to ripen with the declining temperatures we were experiencing in April. Both the Shiraz and the Cabernets were picked on the 2 May. The pickers went through the Shiraz and selectively harvested the ripest bunches, leaving a proportion of the fruit on the vines for the birds. It’s now in barrel, and it will be a bit longer before I can fully assess the quality of the wine. Certainly alcohol levels are likely to be down slightly to 12.5 or 13 %, though fruit flavours remain strong. Will keep you posted on how it develops over the next 6 months or so.
The quality of the fruit for the Cabernets was very good, though yields were also down this year. For the first time the 2008 Cabernets will have a higher proportion of Cabernet Franc fruit than Cabernet Sauvignon, so it will be interesting to see how this influences the final flavours in the wine. As with the Shiraz, the Cabernets are now in barrel, and I will have a better feel for them early next year.
'The Bambra' Sparkling
Those of you who have visited the vineyard will know our Nursery Block which sits in front of the Cellar Door. It was planted about 20 years ago, as a trial plot while we assessed the most suited varieties for the area. It includes 3 rows of Pinot Noir as well as 3 rows of Chardonnay. Back in 2003 I thought I would have a go at making a Sparkling Wine from these two varieties, so I made the wine and put it aside to mature on its yeast lees. There it remained until this year when I thought I really must do something about finishing the wine. So over the winter we riddled and disgorged each bottle by hand (to remove the yeast lees from the bottle), topped them up and resealed them. And hey presto 'The Bambra' Sparkling was born. I’m really happy with this wine. It shows lots of yeasty complexity with underlying citrus characters from the Chardonnay and strawberry characters from the Pinot. The bad news is that we have extremely limited quantities available (it gets better for the '04 and '05 vintages) so you will need to get in quick if you want to see what its like.
Mates of the Estate
Reflecting on the loyal customer base that has developed over the past five years, I thought it was time we did something to acknowledge our appreciation in a practical way. So the idea of a 'Mates of the Estate' was conceived. It's a simple idea really. Anyone who has registered with our mailing list automatically becomes a member. All members become entitled to a 10% discount on all case purchases of wine, as well as privilege offers. The first of these offers is a mixed case of our dry Rieslings from the previous vintages – 2004, 2005 and 2006. It’s a great way to see how these wines mature, as well as to begin to appreciate the particular 'terroir' of the Estate and its expression through the Riesling variety.
I can't think of anything else to tell you about. The Cellar Door is open on weekends and public holidays from now through until May sometime, and is also open every day in January. If you are in the area, please call in to catch up and try the new wines. If you wish you can also order the wines through the website at www.dinnygoonan.com.au.
Have a very happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year,
In vino veritas,