Volume down, but 2018 Hunter vintage shows signs of greatness

Vintage 2018: Winemaker Andrew Thomas (no hat) checks the picking bins at Cot'e D'or vineyard. Picture: Daniel Honan
Vintage 2018: Winemaker Andrew Thomas (no hat) checks the picking bins at Cot'e D'or vineyard. Picture: Daniel Honan

Early start, early finish.

In the wine industry, an early start can put the pressure on planning and preparation in time for when the grapes are ready to be picked. Lucky for wine lovers, experience comes as standard in Australia’s oldest wine region.

“I’ve never experienced a year where we had everything picked before February,” Tempus Two winemaker Andrew Duff says. “But, essentially, wine production wasn’t affected by much more than a shift in the harvest window and I think we will taste some outstanding wines from the 2018 vintage.”

While much of the Hunter has been experiencing drought conditions, the wine country’s underground irrigation system has kept thirsty vines alive and well.

“While most vineyards have the ability to irrigate, nothing replaces rainfall for refilling parched soil,” Vitibit viticultural consultant Liz Riley explains. ““We have had a very dry season, which has come off a very dry winter, so the vines have generally had smaller canopies and lighter crops.

“The early start to vintage 2018 was something we had an inkling of right from the start of the season, with budburst being quiet early. And, while this unprecedented dry spell and hot weather has impacted yields, with fruit quantity being down on previous years, the quality is marvellous.”

Worth smiling about: Grape picker Lisa Hambly in the Hunter Valley. Picture: Daniel Honan

Worth smiling about: Grape picker Lisa Hambly in the Hunter Valley. Picture: Daniel Honan

“I think 2018 will be quite a strong vintage in the Hunter Valley,” says Chris Tyrrell, CEO of Tyrrell’s Wines. “Semillon always performs well here, but this year I think we’ll see richer examples with softer acids – similar to 2014. Chardonnay will be the star of the white varieties, shiraz is looking spectacular, sublime even, with the lack of rain over harvest and the cooler nights during the end of January really helping to keep the fruit in pristine condition and allow plenty of flavour to develop.”

Over in the sub-region of Broke, winegrowers like Andrew Margan were surprised at the precocious nature of the 2018 vintage, but, ultimately pleased with the result.

“January 5th is the earliest I have ever picked,” Margan says. “Semillon, chardonnay and verdelho are all outstanding, with lovely ripe flavours and balanced alcohols that should let them live long, but will also drink well early. This year marks my third vintage of albariño [white, Spanish grape variety] and the first one where I reckon I got the vineyard management right. I’m really excited about this wine.”

It seems the alternate varieties, like albariño, vermentino, touriga and tempranillo are coming into their own in the Hunter.

“Tempranillo can be a challenge to grow in the Hunter, but this year, in particular, it’s demonstrated its potential as an alternate variety, capable of producing some unique and delicious wines” says winemaker Daniel Binet, from Domaine De Binet in Lovedale.

“We started picking on the 4th of January, our earliest vintage ever,” says Linda Keeping from Two Rivers, near Denman. “The long dry summer impacted our expected tonnages, but overall we couldn’t be happier with how the harvest has progressed. All our fruit was clean with great fruit flavour and intensity, particularly our whites; semillon, chardonnay, and verdelho.”

The 2018 vintage in the Hunter Valley will be remembered as one that was short, hot and dry, with a fast start and early finish, low yields but high quality, with plenty of fine wine to look forward to, as the year unfolds. In the meantime, we should all pray for rain.