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David Pike gets his hands dirty touring Margaret River’s wineries as they prepare to harvest their fruits.

My first week of “Vintage” at Devils Lair down here in Margaret River proved to simply be a warm up for my delicate champagne body that hasn’t seen a proper day’s work for some time.

In fact, my body hasn’t seen the early morning as much as it has this past week.

Much of the vintage work this week has revolved around preparation of equipment for the onslaught of grapes that will begin coming into the winery over the next few days.

Preparation is simply another way of saying that the majority of the week was taken up with cleaning. Much of the equipment that is used over vintage is only used during the five or six weeks that grapes are harvested. The rest of the time was spent collecting the elements that my fellow “cellar rats” left and cleaning off in readiness for the beginning of harvest this week.

Many of the northern areas of Margaret River have already begun to harvest Semillon and Chardonnay fruit.

Both Vasse Felix and Evans and Tate suggested that acid levels in the white varieties were very encouraging.

Other wine makers have suggested that some vineyards may have difficulties in ripening some of the white varieties as they would like, without a few more days of decent sunshine. Reds seem to be progressing well, with some of the same concerns with ripening, however.

Much of the Swan Valley and surrounding areas have got close to finishing the harvesting of fruit; many have now finished and everyone that I have talked to has has generally been very pleased with the fruit that has come off.

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Jason Conti from Paul Conti wines says that he has been pretty happy after one of the slower starts to vintage for a number of years. Those couple of weeks of constant warm easterly winds helped ripening enormously, however it led to most of the red varieties achieving ripeness at the time, which caused a few headaches and a hectic picking schedule.

The reds Jason added have excellent colour, acid and tannin levels with a level of ripeness we were very happy with. Yields were slightly down across

the board, but not detrimental.

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Winemakers Mark Warren from Lamonts and Paul Boulden from Sandalford were extremely happy with the fruit that had come in from the Valley. Paul said it was the best fruit he had seen come from the Swan Valley for a decade. Both winemakers explained that it was the excellent acid levels that made much of the difference with this 2002 vintage.

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There is not much more the vineyard workers can do to the vines until harvest. Bird nets have been in place since early January. This year, however, many of the trees surrounding the vineyards are full of blossom, distracting the birds, and thus many vineyards have not been affected by bird “Silver Eyes” damage, as has been the case in previous years, and the vine leaves have been tucked into the canopy to fully expose the fruit to the elements.

Now it is just time to ensure the harvester is full of juice and await the word from the winemaking staff as to when they want the fruit harvested.

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At Devils Lair the decision when to pick will depend primarily on the winemaker Stuart Pym, who is constantly receiving berry samples from the vineyard that are tested for ripeness. Early last week I spent a day in the winery’s laboratory with Karen, one of my fellow “cellar rats”, who is in her last year of her winemaking degree at Curtin University.

We ran tests on the berries to determine their sugar levels (beaume) and acidity. These tests are done several times over the next few weeks to assist the winemaker in his decision as to when they want to harvest the fruit. Sounds quite a high-tech chemistry-type task, but I can assure you that mulching up berries into juice and pouring it into a beaker takes away some of the romantic vision of winemaking.

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When I wasn’t cleaning I was sleeping, and even in my sleep I was dreaming of hoses and pumps and scrubbing the insides of stainless steel tanks.

My ever-helpful co-workers are always looking out for my best interests and, seeing that I still needed to lose a few of those Christmas kilos, got me cleaning the inside of a large stainless steel tank with steaming hot water. Halfway through my successful cleaning of this tank, it was suggested that if I open the top lid of the tank it may help to regulate the temperature of the sauna I had created.

So down here at Devils Lair things are in readiness to receive our first grapes. Meanwhile I continue cleaning.

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Over the next few weeks, I am speaking with winemakers from around Australia and will endeavor to bring you their comments on how they feel vintage 2002 is proceeding.

So far, reports suggest that yields are down across the country and

it has been a cool year all round, with the

possibility of disappointing results from Coonawarra unless the rays of sunshine don’t turn up the heat there very soon.

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