David Pike continues to find out that the journey from vine to bottle is a long one, and gains new-found respect for those who make the grape into wine.

MY champagne body managed to come through my first week of vintage work unscathed.

Week two introduced me to parts of the day that I haven’t seen for many years. In my time down south I have witnessed more sunrises than in the previous decade, with the uniqueness of these sunrises added to by the fact I viewed them with clear sober vision.

Much of this week revolved around more preparation in the winery, which primarily was to ensure that all the stainless steel tanks were cleaned and ready to see the first juice (or must) from the 2002 vintage, which came into the winery on Thursday.

Before a team from the vineyard could be dispatched to begin harvesting, more samples of the berries were taken from various blocks and rows from throughout the vineyard. This is a process that is repeated five or six times during the ripening period, which at Devils Lairs starts to hit its straps around the end of February.

On Tuesday, Devils Lairs assistant winemaker Justin Knock and I started processing the berry samples and re-recording the levels of beaume, which approximates the potential alcohol, the pH, which looks at the strength of the acids and their concentration, and the Ta (Titratable Acidity), which primarily gives an indication of the acidity levels we can taste in the berries (see table). Basically, the winemakers are looking for balance within these three indicators. Once satisfied they send for the harvester or hand pickers. This year, as we are all very aware, it has been a mild summer. To not have a day over the old 100 degree mark is just not cricket. Comparing the three indicators mentioned above of Devils Lairs premium chardonnay block A1 you can get an indication of how the grapes are affected by the difference in weather conditions.

The first harvest of this premium block was harvested nearly a week later than the 2001 vintage, which is a general result for much of the Margaret River region. The final verdict of the Devils Lair Chardonnay is quite a way off at present, however the first of the juice I tasted showed encouraging results.

Once the winemaker is happy with the results and has tasted the juice sample, the harvester (or hand pickers) are summoned. When machine harvesting you need to prepare yourself for an early start, as most harvesting takes place in the cool of the night. The berries start coming into the winery in the dawn hours, which is why I am seeing so many early mornings. The fruit from a machine harvester is stored in one tonne plastic bins until it is ready for processing. Generally the fruit gets tipped from these bins into a receiving hopper and fed slowly into a crusher/destemer, where the stalks are removed as well as the mice, frogs and other non-grape matter. Then the juice heads off to the press, but more about that next week, as right now I am heading of to yet another cleaning task. This time I am pulling apart the crusher and giving the little blighter a thorough cleaning, which means every seed and stalk.

The northern areas of Margaret River are in full swing and many seem quite happy with the fruit they have taken off. The southern areas of Margaret River are only just beginning their harvest, taking off sauvignon blanc and chardonnay fruit with some encouraging results. Semillon has stalled on the blocks and, with a little more sunshine, will get past the post over the next couple of weeks, depending on the weather.

Judi Cullam from Frankland Estate says that they are running about three weeks behind their normal schedule. They are, however, encouraged with small cropping levels and the fantastic flavours in the riesling and chardonnay they have seen over the last few days, which will result in the picking of the first of their riesling over the weekend. They’re excited the flavours are looking very good but added that some of the reds look like they will be lucky to get picked by Christmas. Crops are very low across the board in and around Frankland.

The Porongurups and Denmark are progressing well and, if the weather remains fine, then from all reports the area will have a very good vintage.

As for the rest of Australia the talking grape vines say that much of Tasmania is having trouble getting fruit to ripen and could face a challenging year, with parts of Victoria in the same boat. Looks like good old dullsville could prop up the country yet again.

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