Hunter winemakers and vignerons are extremely positive about this year’s vintage which commenced around Boxing Day for most wineries, although those picking Chardonnay grapes for Sparkling Wine started picking fruit in the middle of January despite a dry Winter and delayed budburst.
After back-to-back stellar vintages in 2017 and 2018, winemakers all seem to agree that the current conditions point towards another top- quality harvest with high quality fruit and good yields.
Tintilla Estate Chief Winemaker James Lusby said that all is on track for a good vintage thanks to a few days of rain in December followed by some great, hot weather.
“The fruit looks good and we’ve got very healthy canopies protecting the fruit from the hot sun’’, he said.
“So far it’s all positive, we just need the weather to stay on our side for the next few weeks, and the result should be another great quality harvest with a fairly good yield.”
But as with all Hunter winemakers at this time of the year, nobody wants to come across overly optimistic with so much depending on the weather over the next few weeks.
In the past winemakers have had to endure years of less than ideal weather conditions and are therefore not underestimating the significance of the next few weeks in either making or breaking the vintage.
In a region that has notoriously wet vintages, many were concerned that the December and January heat would damage the grapes but the damage has been minimal.
Very high temperatures - such as the 40-degree temperatures that can occur at this time of the year can place too much stress on the vine and can make the vines shut down and stop accumulating sugar and ripening the fruit. In addition, sunburnt grapes can have a terrible impact on the juice – making it taste bitter like burnt sugar or toffee. To avoid this, winemakers and vignerons let the leaf canopy grow longer on the vines to give the grapes increased shade protection from the hot afternoon sun and even spraying the vines with a type of sunscreen.
While a few days of rain often do not necessarily pose a problem, a sustained and heavy downfall could be dangerous to the crop. Direct rain can cause the vine to take in a lot of water, making all the cells turgid, including the grapes - which can burst. Hail, on the other hand, could destroy the whole crop in less than an hour.
What is Vintage?
In wine making terms 'vintage' is the process of picking grapes (harvesting) and creating the finished product. In some parts of the world it is also known as 'the crush'.
January - February is when harvest of the fruit typically occurs in the Hunter Valley. At this time of the year, the winemakers and growers work closely together to determine the optimum time to pick the fruit to ensure the best wine quality. White grapes are pressed off the skins, the juice chilled to prevent oxidation, and inoculated with yeast. Red grapes are crushed and inoculated with yeast, and the ensuing fermentation on the skins allow for colour and flavour extraction.
March can be a continuance of harvest, depending on the temperatures and how the vintage year developed over the summer. Fermentations are monitored by checking how rapidly the grape sugars decline as the alcohol level increases.
April is typically the completion of harvest. All the wines are now in the tanks or barrels. The winery crush equipment is thoroughly cleaned and put to rest until next year. In the vineyard, the grower may perform some post-harvest irrigation and fertilization of the vines before they go dormant.
In the Northern Hemisphere vintage normally takes place between August and October while in the Southern Hemisphere it typically occurs between February and April each year. However, taking into consideration the various grape varieties that need to be picked at different times, the wine styles and climate conditions – the harvesting of grapes no doubt takes place somewhere in the world every month of the year.
In the Hunter Valley, because of the warmer conditions, vintage can commence very early in January with Semillon being one of the first varieties to be picked – being low in alcohol (between 10.5% and 11.5% alcohol), followed by Chardonnay and Verdelho. The red varieties are picked after the whites - which generally takes place from the second week in February.
The harvesting of the grapes is understandably one of the most critical stages in the wine making process. The timing of the harvest is determined by the ripeness of the grape which is measured by the sugar content as well as acid and tannin levels. Currently tasting is the only way to measure tannin ripeness. The decision when to pick the grapes is also made in conjunction with the decision of what style of wine the winemaker intends to produce (eg: dry vs sweeter). The weather plays a crucial role in deciding when to pick with the threat of rain, hail, humidity and heat potentially delaying vintage or at worst damaging the grapes and even bringing about various vine or grape diseases such as Botrytis (Grey Rot or Noble Rot).
In addition to having to decide on the timing of when to pick the grapes, the winemaker also needs to decide on what methods to use. Harvesting is done by hand or machine depending on site requirements and generally takes place in the cool of the morning or night to ensure optimum preservation of fruit.
The introduction of mechanical harvesting of grapes has to be one of the most significant changes in vineyard management with the primary benefits being the relatively low cost and far greater efficiency. A mechanical harvester can operate 24 hours a day and in extreme heat conditions picking up to 200 tons of grape compared to 2 tons by an experienced picker. However, mechanical harvesting is not without its disadvantages which include harvesters not being able to distinguish between ripe, unripe or unhealthy, and even rotten bunches or potentially breaking the skins of the grape which can cause oxidation and interfere with the aromatic qualities of the wine.
Despite the costs, some wineries in the Hunter continue to prefer picking by hand with the main advantage being the gentler handling of the grapes and inherent knowledge and ability of the picker to choose only healthy bunches.