Coming back to the vineyard after even a short break over Christmas is exciting, but also daunting!
The growing season is now in full swing and the progress of the vine canopy is clear to see. We make sure that the fruiting area of each vine is clear of foliage on the southern side, where the sun exposure is at its lowest; and protected on the northern side, where it's at its highest. This area of the vine also needs to be clear for good air flow, to make sure that when there is rain or humidity, the breezes blow away as much moisture as possible. This leaves mildews and other diseases nowhere to breed.
We also need to make sure that the leaf canopy is full and healthy, so that there is a powerful engine to develop every bunch to full maturity. Leaf size and colour is the key: large, deep green, lustrous and consistent.
As we predicted in November, bunch size and density are excellent this year.
Our Chardonnay clone is Mendoza, which came to Australia from the University of California Davis (UC Davis), but originally from Argentina. The main home of Mendoza in Australia is in Western Australia. There has been much debate around the merits of Mendoza as compared to what are generally referred to as the "Davis" clones (I10V1 etc). Mendoza is low yielding and prone to "hen and chick" (where each bunch has a percentage of very small berries as well as normal ones), so is less interesting commercially because of its low yield. But it is loved by purists because it produces wine which has superior "Burgundian" flavours and aromas, and also mouth feel, than the normal Davis lineup.
To us, quality is everything, and we're very happy that our Chardy yield looks promising. The other varieties (we'll talk about those clones next time) are in step: so far, so good.
Donna and I paid a visit to Coonawarra during the Xmas break, and what a revelation it was. Nothing better illustrates the contrast between cool climate and warm climate viticulture.
Coonawarra is dead flat, and the immediate impression of the vines is that they are unruly and overgrown. In fact, the dense and untrimmed nature of the vines is needed to give maximum protection of the bunches from the exceedingly hot Coonawarra summers. Disease is only a mild concern because of the generally dry environment, and not a net is to be seen after veraison. What I wouldn't give for that!!
This area also brilliantly illustrates the value of terroir. Wines from the name Terra Rossa vineyards (Wynns, Leconfield, Orlando, Balnave, Parker, Bowen Estate) at 2-3 years of maturity are fine, but not exceptional. Leave them for 10+ years and they are utterly transformed, and in good years, compete well with all but a handful of wines in the world.
After coming home, we opened a bottle of 2005 Parker "Terra Rossa" Cabernet and it was one of the most delicious and satisfying wines I've opened for many a year. I can't avoid the impression that too many wines made nowadays have such an emphasis on fruit character, polished appearance and softness that their soul is being beaten out of them. They're pleasant enough, but, like filtered cigarettes, leave much behind.
Donna and I bought too much wine, as usual, although a lot of it was in magnums. One of the interesting developments since we were last there was the evolution of Coonawarra Chardonnay. With the improvement of warm-climate wine-making techniques and better clonal selection, the results are impressive. It was also obvious that the Shiraz wines had improved: more supple and juicy, with much less of the hardness that used to be associated with the variety in these conditions.
So, we watch and wait: we know the die is cast in terms of the basic crop potential, we have survived the onslaught of some dreadfully dangerous conditions in December.
If we have fair ripening weather and not too much rain from this point on, we could have our best vintage yet.
Hope is seriously stirring now!