Firstly I apologize about the glum photo, but this was the view that confronted me all too often this season. If I had to sum the season up in three words they would be WET, WET & WET, and I’m not talking about the Wine Equalisation Tax. My neighbour who has lived in Leongatha for 60 plus years says he has never seen a season like it in terms of the mildness, quantity and timing of the rain. When people ask about what diseases and pests that grapes are susceptible to and the conditions that favour them I tell them, “Public enemy number one is moulds or mildews.” I ask if they have ever seen a poorly ventilated bathroom with mould growing on the ceiling, well this year has been the soggy bathroom from hell year!
We have roughly spent double the amount of money on fungicide sprays and sprayed nearly twice as much, as compared to an average year. We got in early with removing excess shoots and removing leaves in and around the bunch zone, which creates a micro climate less favourable to disease and also improves phenolic ripeness (more supple tannins). As a general rule, following Christmas I tend to back off on spraying, expecting lower rain fall and higher temperatures, conditions that are less conducive to disease. Climatically the reverse happened this year and my confidence of hot dry weather being around the corner was rather misplaced. It was as if someone had drawn a line through the vineyard canopy, below the line where we had been vigilant with our sprays, the canopy and fruit was vibrant and free of disease. Above the line was a rather more dishevelled looking. I took the approach of hedging the canopy back hard and surmised with the moisture in the ground and the hot weather around the corner, new growth would replace the growth that I cut back. But the hot weather didn’t come, no problems with the moisture though! Finally the spray cart was put back into action but there was no erasing that line.
Emotionally it’s been a rollercoaster ride, the high being mid-December, as I said before the canopy was vibrant and disease free, also both the berry and bunch size was very small, filling me optimism about vintage and the quality of the wines to come. So optimistic in fact I decided to purchase a large wooden fermenter/tank, the merits of which I shall discuss at another time, needless to say, a rather extravagant and expensive purchase. The low would have to be when we put the bird nets out, (my least favourite job), we had delayed the netting in order to apply more sprays follow more unseasonal weather, the crows and Indian minors were encircling the vineyard keen to feast on the now sweetening grapes. I was walking behind the tractor regulating the unspooling of the net , to ensure good coverage, as I looked at the bunches of grapes, I wonder what had happen to those small berries, that weeks ago had excited me! As I looked closer I could see that berries had swelled to the point, where competition for space meant that berries where being dislodged from their stems. Without their umbilical cord, they would wither and rot, attacked by fungus (botrytis) and become a launching pad from which it could attack other berries. Needless to say my sense of despair deepened as the day continued so much so, that in the afternoon I cancelled all my new barrel orders convinced the grapes would not warrant picking let alone spend time in new oak.
Had we been a newspaper editor watching a story unfold, one of the mooted headlines may have read, ” Rollercoaster derailment – South Gippsland Vigneron in Critical Condition”. Alas finally some good weather, the next three weeks brought dry warm conditions. The grape berries returning to equilibrium. A little Melodramatic? Perhaps, looking back now it was definitely a tipping point, one that we thankfully came back from. One more heavy rain event and it could have been a different story.
In the end we suffered some crop losses, Chardonnay with powdery mildew and Shiraz with botrytis mould. In the main we yielded a good crop of average to above average quality grapes. Given how some of my fellow vignerons fared, some losing their entire crops I’m extremely happy with end result. The grapes are now in the somewhat more controlled environment of the winery, having completed their fermentation and aging in oak, and yes that does included the new oak barrels I cancelled. Astute winemaking decisions (future blog discussion) and preliminary tasting has the rollercoaster carriage of optimism inching slowly upwards.