Australian winemakers certainly had it tough the last couple of years — there were bushfires, there was a pandemic and there were floods. As we read news reports predicting La Niña will continue through winter and into October, this will officially be Australia's wettest year since 1974. This crazy weather doesn’t go without ramifications on Australian agriculture, and while for some areas it may have brought much needed water into drought exhausted areas, in much of Australia the water is just too much.
For industries such as grape growing and winemaking, rain can be the biggest friend or foe, depending on which time of the year the wet weather decides to present itself.
It’s interesting that some of the worst irreversible effects rain can have on grapes happens at flower burst. Heavy rain, wind or hail can damage the delicate flowers. The beaten-up blossoms then never develop into grape bunches, resulting in very low to no grape yields for affected areas. Luckily, this year didn’t have the super heavy rains this early in the season to wipe out the crops completely. So, while many vineyards have seen a significant reduction in yields due to some storms coming through the country, Australia won’t be left without wine due to shortage of grapes in the country. In some cases, a reduction in yield can be a good thing for the final flavours in the berries — the grape plant concentrates its resources in fewer bunches resulting in sharper, more pronounced characteristics.
As summer went on, the mood in the industry lifted. This season offered some of the better growing conditions, with stable and mellow temperatures throughout the summer months and just enough rainfall to keep the plants happy.
The biggest La Nina whammy came towards the end of the season, right in the middle of picking. As some parts of the country were battling the worst floods in decades, winemakers were watching the fruits of their hard labour dilute in the endless system of rainfall.
Let me rewind a bit and explain what I mean. One of the worst times for heavy rain to fall in the vineyard is when the berries are ready to be picked. The plants soak up the water from the ground and deposit it in the berries, in best case, causing a dilution of flavours in the grape which then result in watery wine; in worst case, the berries burst from too much water, causing an all-round spoilage of crop, which then cannot be used.
One of the measures of control for this is the timing of picking. It is to avoid the dilution of berries, that a vineyard manager watches the rain radar like a hawk (if you want a correct weather prediction in April, ask a winemaker). Quite often, when heavy rain is on the radar, the producer will decide to pick a little earlier, rather than risk too much water dilution or crop spoilage and complete loss. So, what does picking early mean for the wine? It’s not all bad news. Generally, slightly unripe fruit will have higher acidity levels and less of the juicy, ripe fruit characteristics, which is something I often quite like. There will be a lot of savoury characteristics, spice, tannins, leather and the wines will be great candidates for aging due to the higher acid slowing down the process. For this vintage, these will be the wines I will look forward to tasting when they hit the shelves in a couple of years.
If you’re a white wine drinker, you’re also in luck this year! The March storms didn’t have any ramifications on the whites this year mostly because white grapes ripen faster and most of the white grape varieties were already picked when the crazy weather hit.
Much worse off will be the wineries that haven’t been able to get their red grapes off the vines in time before March storms. For many regions across the country, once the weather front came there was no breaks in rainfall, which meant no opportunity to save the crops. We will see a large reduction in volumes for red wines produced. We will also see large inconsistencies in quality of wines, which will be the result of how reactive the winemakers were to the weather forecasts in scheduling their grape picking. Unfortunately, there will be some watered-down diluted flavour wines coming off the back of this year's vintage. And there will be some really good quality premium wines, which will have a much longer aging ability. Once we see the reds from this year hit the shelves, my advice to everyone will be to taste the wines you’re buying, pick wisely and you might just be able to discover some gems.