The sun has set on the 2003 vintage. After taking part in his second consecutive vintage David Pike reports on the trials and tribulations of this season’s offerings.
OVER the past couple of years I have worked at the Devils Lair winery tucked away in a pocket just south of Witch-cliffe, in Margaret River during a period that is termed ‘vintage’.
For some it may conjure up images of purple-stained hands, and French voices yelling “saluté” while sitting around a long table surrounded by baguettes, fromage and bottles of vin d’ pays.
For winemakers, viticulturists, cellar hands and vineyard workers there are no romantic visions of the vintage period.
Vintage is the term given to the harvesting of the berries – in layman’s terms, the grapes.
Different countries call vintage different things – the French say vondage, the Americans call it the harvest and in Australia it is referred to as the vintage and begins in late January or early February and finishes in mid May in some cooler areas such as Victoria and Tasmania.
Vintage is the most frantic and stressful but also the most lively time of year for any winery. Winemakers can do all the planning they like but they’re ultimately still dealing with an agricultural product and are left open to the influences of the elements and any other disasters that tend to happen at inopportune times.
As cliched as it sounds, no two years are the same. You will always find a difference in wines from each new vintage or year.
Around the world wine enthusiasts are eager to find out first hand what vintage conditions were like in their favourite area.
People constantly ask what vintage conditions were like, which helps them to establish an understanding of how varieties performed in which regions and, therefore, what wines they should be looking at stocking up on come their release.
At this stage only a general idea can be given concerning the 2003 vintage.
Many of the wines will still be clumsy or out of whack due to fermentation processes or as they adjust to their new oak home for the next 12 or 24 months.
However, it would be fair to say that most winemakers have already gained a general idea from their past experiences on how they would rate 2003.
Given the commercial reality of the wine industry most winemakers I spoke to have carefully selected their words when describing this year’s vintage.
Getting an indication of how the different Western Australian regions have faired is an important indicator for many in the trade and dedicated punters, however, it is just as important to take into consideration that each property-vineyard site is unique. Individual sites are subject to differences that may or may not have affected the finished product.
One of the anomalies I have always found perplexing when reading reviews on the perception of vintage each year is that most are based on how well South Australia has faired.
You will need to make up your own mind and the best way to do that is to try wines from producers with a track record of making good wine. Wine show results will also help give you an indication.
Swan Districts region – (Swan Valley and Gin Gin)
Described by a number of the winemakers I talked to as a good vintage but not outstanding.
With consistent comments referring to low yields and better results coming from the fruit that was picked before the rain.
The season began with an extended run of cool weather which enabled ideal ripening conditions to begin, however, rain in late February and an extended patch of oppressive heat in March were the main concerns.
Conti Wines winemaker Jason Conti said “it was a good vintage with a couple of highlights and no disasters”.
“We managed to avoid any problems with the rain and had taken the majority of our reds off before the heatwave passed through.
“Shiraz and cabernet both performed well, the shiraz – we are extrem-ely happy with good concentration of fruit.
“Cabernet had great colour and ripe tannins with really obvious aromatics; timing was the key with cabernet.
“The only problems we encountered were with a few parcels of grenache after the rain. Being a thin-skinned variety we did get some splitting. If I was to rate the vintage I would say 8 out of 10. It was a vintage that was all about your timing.”
Perth Hills region – (Mundaring and Jarrahdale)
Similar conditions to the Swan Districts Region, with cool conditions during the early ripening period before rain mid-February and the same period of 40 degree days in early March.
Millbrook winemaker Tony Davis described the vintage as easily the best in the three years he has been in the hills.
“We had no disease pressure and aided by the mild growing season, ended up with some pristine batches of fruit,” he said.
“Birds started to become a problem as the blossom dried up and the heat caused nearly ready shiraz blocks to become really ready blocks.
“Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc came into the winery with very good flavours.
“Merlot was very vibrant with good tannins and cabernet was ripe with excellent tannins but in a different style to the grainy tannins seen in Margaret River.
“Our voignier displayed fabulous aromatics which was aided by the mild season and the hot conditions, it looks really good.
“At this stage I am leaning to whites being better than reds, however, many of the shiraz parcels looked good across the board.”
Geographe region – (Harvey, Donny-brook and Capel)
This relatively diverse region is producing some very exciting results.
Situated in the Ferguson Valley, Willow Bridge winemaker Rob Bowen remarked that he was continually impressed with the quality of fruit that the region was producing.
“2001 produced quite spectacular results but 2003 will be much better, the balance in the fruit is extraordinary,” he said.
“The surrounding forest keeps the birds occupied, so there were no problems with them. The rain during late February didn’t really cause us any problems as it warmed up straight after and we didn’t see any botrytis,” he said.
“I think that you could have a few problems if you left any of the reds out too long with the rain in the later part of the vintage, however, we had everything off before. In fact, it started raining as we were harvesting our last block of red.
“Highlights of the vintage are amazing sauvignon blanc, very good merlot and cracking shiraz. 2003 will be wines that show very good balance from around this region.”
Margaret River – (Yallingup and Augusta)
The 2003 Vintage in Margaret River was a tale of logistics and timing as all varieties seemed to reach ideal ripeness levels at close to the same time.
The vintage season was engulfed by unseasonable weather patterns that placed huge demands on both hand-picking staff and machine harvesters.
It will be a vintage that was one of the more difficult for most Margaret River producers with the better results coming from those who spent time getting things right in the vineyard.
There was disease pressure due to misty rain, still warm conditions in the early part of vintage towards late February and more rain toward the middle of April.
Of concern to many would have been botrytis, which affected chardonnay and also cabernet sauvignon.
A great deal of time (and money) was spent right across the South West through to the Great Southern in cutting out affected berries and there were also reports of some using sorting tables in their better batches to dismiss any affected bunches.
Talking with a number of winemakers (mostly over a cuppa at Winos’) the whites in general terms will be broader than previous years, displaying more tropical notes with individual parcels showing ideal results.
Evans and Tate winemaker Richard Rowe showed a line-up of semillon from several of their vineyards.
The result typified what most are saying – some batches were showing those broad characters, however, one particularly stunning batch was vibrant and displayed pungent true regional varietal characters.
Clairault Wine winemaker Will Shields described the vintage as difficult, although added that it was his first at the helm at Clairault and its fruit sources.
“I think it will certainly be a better red year,” he said.
“Cabernet in particular showed ripe tannins and overall performed very well.”
Devil’s Lair winemaker Stuart Pym also agreed that many of the red varieties performed well (subject to when harvested), in particular merlot, which showed a ripeness and vibrancy that it has not shown for a while.
Semillon and sauvignon blanc also performed well and although there was pressure on chardonnay there were certainly some very good parcels around.
Stuart is likely to rate the vintage 8/10 with reds looking stronger than whites.
Great Southern – (Denmark, Mt Barker and Frankland)
The Great Southern seemed to have it all this year, intense heat, which usually bypasses the region and a deluge of rain that was flood-like in some parts.
West Cape Howe’s Brendan Smith said that it was a short sharp vintage down Denmark way.
He said that although Easter was late, it was the first time in 17 years that he had not worked through the Easter period.
“We had the least incidence of botrytis since we started West Cape Howe,” he said.
“Some parcels of riesling had touches but the rest of the varieties had no pressure of disease.
“Above average cabernet and merlot, with shiraz being a stand out, the white will not have the pungency of the previous year mostly due to the hot weather during the early part of the ripening process.”
Plantagenet Wines winemaker Richard Robson said it looked to be a stronger year for reds than whites.
“The early hot weather played a very significant role in the outcome of most of the white varieties,” he said.
“It was also a vintage when cropping levels made significant differences to the outcome of several varieties due to the weather pattern, in particular unusually hot conditions.”
Riesling, for example, those who cropped thin experienced early ripening problems and the wines are showing broader flavours. Those who cropped higher faired better with more subtle citrus and mineral flavours.
Keep an eye out for the Gilberts Riesling. The heat also played its part with sauvignon blanc, which will not show those pungent aromatics that it showed last year.
Chardonnay and pinot noir both felt disease pressure.
The highlight, Richard suggests, is without a stutter the shiraz with strong colour and tannins, delicious fruit. Special.
In my mind the 2003 vintage will highlight the divide between good and poor vineyards.
It will produce a number of stunning wine highlights.
I will be looking at sauvignon blanc out of Pemberton, some southern sites in Margaret River and also out of Geographe.
High standards are set with chardonnay in WA and, while some might get there, they may tend to lack the freshness of past vintages.
Look for shiraz out of the Great Southern, in particular Frankland and around Mt Barker.
However, from comments made, shiraz seems to have been the star performer along with merlot, and cabernet in selected parcels.
The only way to really appreciate the 2003 vintage will be to make up your own mind.
Taste, nae, drink as many different wines from our State as possible and you will be bound to find more than a couple that will take your fancy.
2003 will likely be referred to in years to come as a good wine year but not outstanding.
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