Rich pickings: the Hunter's grape harvest 

FERTILE GROUND: The view west from McDonalds Road near Lindeman's Estate this week. Picture: Marina Neil
FERTILE GROUND: The view west from McDonalds Road near Lindeman's Estate this week. Picture: Marina Neil

WHILE many staggered out of bed bleary-eyed on the first afternoon of the new year, renown vigneron Bruce Tyrrell had by midday notched up a couple of hours on his quad bike inspecting his 100 hectares of Pokolbin vineyards.

"This is when it really starts," he said, referring to the few weeks remaining until harvesting begins in late January.

"From about a week ago to when we pick is when the flavour and the structure in the fruit that's going to affect the wine really happens.

"Up until then we're just growing grapevines."

From the Hunter Valley to the Barringtons, eyes are on the weather forecast, tongues are tasting sugar levels daily while conversation is heavy with expectations and hopes for the 2013 vintage.

Helen Gillard of Stroud's Mill Creek vineyard said she liked the analogy that compared the current state of play to a woman being eight months pregnant.

"Everything is just going beautifully, but it is that analogy of going through all those months of developing a baby and suddenly realising it's all going to be sorted in the next few weeks," she said.

Hunter winemakers and vignerons who endured three years of less than ideal weather conditions - and in some cases soggy vines - are not underestimating the significance of the next four weeks in either making or breaking the vintage.

Gillard said since her first harvest in 2002 there had been two years she didn't even pick the grapes.

"That was probably almost exclusively to do with the last month. So if we get rain, what is - at the moment - looking like the best I've ever had, could fail.

"You can still go ahead and pick those grapes but they'll potentially have some problems and you'd be forced to just turn out an ordinary drop and it would hardly be worthwhile doing that.

"Two years out of nine we've just cut them and we've had to let them drop to the ground, which has been really sad."

Andrew Margan of Margan Wines in Broke said last-minute rain close to harvest in 2012 led to a dilution of grapes and difficulty in picking, while Tyrrell's Wines did not produce any red last year.

"Last year we didn't have much rain during vintage but we had sunshine and no wind [with the result being a lot of humidity] so everything just sat, it was wet and humid and damp and it went soggy and collapsed," Tyrrell said.

So far, all indicators point towards ideal conditions for harvest.

Hot and dry weather since the mid-December ripening - known as véraison - has virtually eliminated disease and pest pressure, with Margan saying this would be his winery's first vintage in three years without disease.

Gillard said she had noticed some monolepta beetles in the past few days but had managed to control their population. Her main concern is birds, which she has fought by draping five kilometres of netting across her vines.

The downside of the dry conditions, however, is smaller berries.

While they boast a more intense flavour, their size will also translate to a smaller yield at a time when Tyrrell said the valley needed to be producing more semillon to keep up with demand.

Weather is tipped to remain warm and dry over the next few weeks, with Tyrrell saying customers can expect wines similar to the dry seasons of 2005 and 2007.

But opinions remain divided about the apparent lack of rainfall, which is particularly important for dry grown blocks - especially those with roots in heavier soils instead of river flats - which were established before the introduction of drip irrigation that is used by most wineries in the valley.

Margan is crossing his fingers for a continuation of current conditions, as is Peter O'Meara of Lovedale's Adina vineyard and olive grove.

"I'd much rather have a dry season than a wet season," O'Meara said. "Good grapes come from drier seasons."

But Bruce Tyrrell would like to see a couple of inches of rain.

"The young winemakers will be saying 'Oh, he's gone mad again!' but it needs a drink," he said. "There's a north-westerly wind blowing, it's bloody hot and dry and its sucking the moisture out of everything."

"These hot dry summers like '75, '85, '95 and 2005 we have stinking hot nights, then we get a change and the temperatures drop right down.

"Each time those changes come through every five to seven days we'll get a bit of rain with them or we'll get a fly-in storm.

"That will do a world of good, freshen things up and because normally there's not a lot of humidity about when there's wind. If we get those fly-in storms through now we'll get a very high quality vintage."

Senior winemaker at Pokolbin's Bimbadgen Estate Sarah Crowe agreed, saying the 40-degree heat of January 1 made the vines shut down and stop accumulating sugar and ripening the fruit.

"The heat of around 40 degrees is too much stress on the vine and it always take a bit of time to bounce back," she said.

"We're keeping water up with irrigation because it's been so hot, making sure we're not losing any vines, to make sure they're not stressing from the heat.

"We could easily take 20 to 40 millilitres of rain right now, you get a different lift in the canopy after rain than from irrigation."

Gillard said while a few days of rain doesn't pose a problem, sustained and heavy downfall could be dangerous.

"Direct rain will cause the vine to take in a lot of water itself that ends up making all of the cells turgid, including the grapes - which can burst," she said.

"Hail could take the whole crop in an hour - I've lost mine once from that."

ADINA is likely to be one of the first vineyards to start its picking, with O'Meara expecting his contractor to start mechanically harvesting the grapes from his 53 hectares in a week or at the latest, in the third week of January.

Ultimately, Adina's winemaker Daniel Binet, from Saltire at Lovedale, will have the final say.

"At the end of the day it's Dan who makes the call as to when to pick. As soon as it is ready, it's off," O'Meara said.

Grapes for pinot grigio - a white wine from a red grape - will be picked first, then for chardonnay and semillon.

Pinot noir will be picked for sparkling, followed by shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, the Italian variety sangiovese and its first crop of Spanish variety tempranillo.

"It won't be a commercial drop, but we'll make some for our own enjoyment," he said. "Next year it's going to be a good drop."

He expects to produce 5000 cases.

Tyrrell said he would make a firm decision on picking in about two weeks but expects January 18 or 20 to be the starting date.

His motley crew of pickers includes backpackers and locals, with the bulk made up of grey nomads that find the winery on the National Harvest Trail.

The group of between 60 and 160 will start at first light to about 11am, with another shift if it is too hot starting at 9pm and going to about 9am.

"The vines and the fruit are often cooler at nine in the morning than it is at nine at night, if it's too hot you've got to hit them too hard with the harvesters to get them to come off, so you can do a lot of damage."

Pinot noir will be picked first for sparking base, followed by chardonnay.

After a seven-day break picking will resume at the end of January on the rest of the whites, followed by the reds.

"With things like semillon our handpickers will go at least 50 per cent quicker than they did last year because there's not as big a crop and secondly all the fruit is clean, where last year every bunch was handled twice and inspected twice to get any bad fruit off it.

"This year they'll just be picking them and dropping them in the buckets."

He said he would collect about three tonnes of semillon and chardonnay to an acre and a figure for reds of one-and-a-half to two tonnes per acre, which is above his average yield.

"The reds are probably the best looking crop we've had size-wise for quite some time."

Margan expects to collect from his 100 hectares about 500 tonnes over six weeks, down from his initial estimation of 600 tonnes.

He is hopeful his team of 20 - made up of employees and casuals that return for the harvest each year - will start picking on January 21.

Handpickers will pick during the day while machine harvesters will be used at night.

White grapes for semillon, verdelho, chardonnay will be picked first, with the red grapes that require more sugar next.

Shiraz, merlot, barbera, tempranillo and mataró will be picked with the cabernet sauvignon the last grapes to ripen.

Bimbadgen's Crowe said she estimates the contractors the winery employs to do handpicking and machine harvesting will start on the 25 hectares around Australia Day, beginning with semillon for sparkling, then chardonnay, semillon, verdelho and from the second week of February, shiraz.

"We aim to pick everything at the best time for flavour but sometimes we need to prioritise the better blocks or start to process 24/7 to keep up with the fruit that comes off," Crowe said.

She said the vineyard was likely to produce about 30 tonnes of semillon, 30 tonnes of chardonnay, 50 tonnes of shiraz and eight tonnes of tempranillo.

Gillard of Mill Creek Vineyard usually runs out of wine before she makes the next lot and expects her more than two hectares will produce slightly less than last year.

She hopes to have the first grapes off the vine in early February.

"You can't force things along, I like to let the grapes do the talking and let it do it at its own pace," she said.

Gillard enlists the help mostly on weekends of about 40 family and friends whose names she includes on the back of her bottles.

She staggers the picking in three stages, to ensure she doesn't "have all my eggs in one basket- or my wine in one bin" with the first picked being grapes showing berry flavours to make rose.

A week later she will pick grapes for her Beaujolais-style soft red, while a month later she will pick grapes full of plum and spice flavours for shiraz.

A total of about two tonnes of grapes in four picking bins will be collected.

Gillard expects her soft red and rose to be ready for the market by June or July, while the full-bodied shiraz is expected to hit shelves after 12 months in oak.

Margan's whites and rose are booked to be bottled in April, while reds won't be bottled until 2015.

Tyrrell said he could have whites including traminer and verdelho in bottles "by the end of April if we need to".

Bimbadgen will bottle its whites from about May, with reds not ready for another 12 to 18 months. Its shiraz will spend 18 months in oak.

O'Meara said Adina's reds will spend up to two years maturing.

"The semillon and the pinot grigio are great guns sort of wines for us and we'll aim to get them bottled by the middle of the year."

It appears Australian buyers will be the big winners of the 2013 vintage, with exports still under pressure because of the high Australian dollar.

Adina's O'Meara said continuing to explore and diversify with alternative varieties, could help to avoid a wine glut into the future.

"The pinot grigio and sangiovese set us apart and we only make shiraz when we know it's going to be outstanding," he said.

"For us, we've been able to weather the storm.

"Tempranillo is a long-term bet but we are of the opinion and view that it will grow well in the valley - we think it will be an interesting and popular wine in Australia."

He is not alone, with tempranillo also embraced by Margan - which has also forayed into barbera and mataró - and Bimbadgen, which went so far as to take out its cabernet vines to replace them with the tempranillo it will bottle for the first time this year.

But for now, the players in this waiting game are focused solely on the reward they can almost taste for the past year of hard work.

Bimbadgen's Crowe said she was experiencing a heady combination of exhilaration and stress.

"It's the beginning of a new season and we're creating new wine so its super exciting, but at the same time it's long hours and hot and sweaty and sticky from the grape juice. Still, I don't tend to think about that at the time - it's amazing what the body can do when it's excited about something.

"After a couple of weeks when you take a step back you say, that was fast and fabulous, how much of a blast was that?

"The tanks of fermenting juice smell just beautiful in the winery."


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