"It’s a hat-trick,” declares Hunter Valley winegrower Andrew Thomas. “2019 is the third of three consecutive warm and dry vintages, which has given us beautifully clean and ripe fruit; both whites and reds.”
A trifecta in Wine Country is no mean feat. It doesn’t happen all too often. The last time Hunter winegrowers experienced three good years in a row was over a decade ago; ’05, ’06, ’07. This year, however, the 2019 vintage rounds out a series of hot and dry years that proves, once again, les cochons peuvent voler! (pigs will fly)
“2019 is the best of the three for semillon, which have returned to a more classical style, with reduced alcohols,” Thomas says. “The shiraz looks amazing, but we will need to wait and see how they go in the coming months to find out if they can hit the lofty heights of ‘17 and ’18.”
Winemaker Gwyn Olsen of Pepper Tree Wines reckon 2019 might just beat out the last two vintages, with regards to overall Hunter consistency and quality.
“I think ’19 is better than both, judging from what I’ve seen in come into the winery over the last couple of months,” Olsen says. “In 2017, we had two days above 50˚C, which we didn’t see this year . . . I think 2019 has given us brighter and fresher aromatics in our whites, and finer, lengthier tannins in our reds, compared to other years.”
It’s no secret that Australia has just experienced a summer of extremes. Floods, bushfires, and the ongoing drought in NSW is severely impacting farmers, including winegrowers. The BOM declared last summer the hottest ever recorded. The Hunter has been warmer and drier than average for some time, despite welcome rain just before vintage.
I think 2019 has given us brighter and fresher aromatics in our whites, and finer, lengthier tannins in our reds, compared to other years.Gwyn Olsen, Pepper Tree chief winemaker
“It’s been fairly similar to ’17 and ’18, but a lot drier, with just 88mm of rain in January and February, which is less than 50 per cent average rainfall,” viticulturist Liz Riley says. “It definitely was hot and dry, and the heat did knock us around a bit . . . The use of sunscreen [kaolin clay sprayed onto vines to reflect heat off the canopy and cool the vines down] in some cases helped the fruit ripen more efficiently, which helped with vintage compression.”
Vintage compression is when the timing between ripening of different wine grape varieties, say chardonnay and shiraz, is reduced. This putts pressure on processing back in the winery. Vintage compression is a direct result of global warming.
“The ongoing hot and dry conditions mean hard and fast compressed vintages are now the new normal,” says Hungerford Hill winemaker Bryan Currie. “That’s made life more difficult for wineries like us, due to the other regions we make wine from also being hotter, drier and earlier. We’re almost picking three regions simultaneously, which is challenging.”
This week, Hunter winegrower Alisdair Tulloch wrote an opinion piece in the Newcastle Herald criticising plans to develop two coal-fired power stations near Kurri Kurri, on the outskirts of Wine Country. Tulloch pointed out winegrowers like him and his family are ‘seeing the fingerprints of climate change all over [the Hunter Valley]’, of which, vintage compression is one of them.
“I heard reports of over-ripe fruit coming into some wineries because it was ripening so quickly and they didn’t have any free space to process it,” Gwyn Olsen says. “Thankfully, due to our size, we were able to get everything in safe and sound when the picking window was right.”
Picking decisions can make or break a winery’s vintage. Pick too early to avoid rain or an impending heat wave and the grapes might not yet be ripe enough. Pick too late, and the fruit might be too ripe. Either way, you can taste it in the finished wine.
“Picking decisions are always determined by number of factors, like fruit flavour, lab analysis, canopy condition and any impending weather [heat and rain, mostly],” Liz Riley says. “Reds shot up quite quickly at the end thanks to the ongoing dry conditions, which caused some berry dehydration. That saw a flurry of harvesting right at the end.”
Nonetheless, the good news is that the Hunter Valley’s winegrowers and winemakers are celebrating a rare third consecutive vintage of high quality wine.
“If I had a gun to my head and had to pick one, I’d say whites fared better,” Chris Tyrrell says. “But, we’ll just have to wait and see . . .”.