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May 20, 2010

While vineyards in the U.S. and Europe are just flowering, there's juice fermenting in the tanks down south, in the Southern Hemisphere, that is. Australia enjoyed a break from the record heat and wildfires of 2009, allowing most winemakers an easier harvest. In New Zealand, yields were down again this year, and that made winemakers happy after surplus wine in 2008.


It may not have been a perfect growing season, but Australian vintners are generally happy with harvest. Yields are below average in some areas, especially among certain varieties, but are up compared to the tricky 2009 vintage. Last year vintners had to contend with reduced crops due to a severe heat wave in South Australia and wildfires in Victoria. "2010 was a very good harvest when compared to 2009 with all its difficulties," said Stephen Chambers, winemaker at Chambers.

In South Australia, which accounts for the majority of the nation's wines, optimism is high. Some producers are comparing the harvest to the very good 2006 vintage. "The wines look similar with great aromatics and mineral tannins," said Chester Osborn, chief winemaker for d'Arenberg wines in McLaren Vale.

Vintners reported a less eventful harvest in McLaren Vale and Adelaide Hills than in 2009. Bud break was earlier than normal and the grapes enjoyed mild temperatures and cool nights during ripening. Vintners are very excited about their reds. "2010 is going to have a finer tannin structure because [the growing season] was so even," said Sparky Marquis, winemaker at Mollydooker. There were some challenges though. A heat wave hit McLaren Vale during flowering, reducing the Grenache crop and impacting Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in some vineyards.

It was a similar story in the Barossa, well-known for its dense and distinctive Shiraz. Hot conditions in November led to a low crop set for Grenache, Chardonnay and Viognier. But the drought-prone region received some much-needed rain in the winter and spring, which helped set the tone for the season. Louisa Rose, chief winemaker for Yalumba, which produces wines throughout South Australia, says the rain was the best the region had seen in five years. She is particularly happy with her Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.

Further south in Coonawarra, located in the larger Limestone Coast zone, vintners experienced an even growing season that started early and finished early. Kym Tolley, winemaker at Penley, says yields were lower than average for the year but considers 2010 to be a "classic" Coonawarra vintage.

Further east, the weather was an issue in Victoria's Rutherglen region, home to some of Australia's greatest fortified wines. A series of frosts in late September and early October affected vineyards. Chambers reports that the Muscadelle shows good character but that there may be some dilution in the region's Muscat grapes due to rain in February and early March.

On Australia's western coast, winemakers had to deal with intense heat and then rain during the harvest. Margaret River, home to some very fine Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, experienced one of the hottest summers on record. "Crops were higher than average and harvest was fast and furious when it hit," said Vanya Cullen, managing director for Cullen. She thinks the wines tasted excellent as long as the grapes were harvested before the rains arrived.

With several recent challenging vintages under their belts, including persistent drought conditions in South Australia, most vintners were able to take the mild 2010 harvest in stride. And despite a few bumps in the weather, they consider the overall quality of the harvest to be successful. "All in all, some great wines, many very good wines and very few inferior wines," said Osborn.

New Zealand

New Zealand vintners are optimistic about the 2010 vintage, a relatively easy harvest with significantly lower yields. "This is the easiest harvest I've had yet," said Matt Thomson of Marlborough's Saint Clair Family Estate, who worked his 35th crush this year.

The growing season offered few challenges to vintners in the North and South Islands. Both Islands experienced a cool spring. In the country's largest and most famous wine region of Marlborough, a cool spring and summer only seemed to delay harvest slightly. Stuart Smith of Fairhall Downs said that a cool flowering period meant lower yields. Clive Jones, winemaker at Nautilus, said there were, "a few frost events but nothing to cause any significant damage—just a few sleepless nights." On the North Island, Antony MacKenzie of Te Awa in Hawke’s Bay reported that the spring was cooler than average, with some rain at flowering.

Mild weather continued throughout the growing season until autumn, which by most accounts was warm and dry. Most vintners indicated they started harvest slightly later than usual, by a week or so. The dry weather meant an orderly harvest, with plenty of time to get everything in. "Harvest 2010 would be one of the most laid-back harvests I have experienced for a very long time," said Allan Scott, of Allan Scott Family Winemakers.

The big story of 2010 is that yields were down for the second year in a row. Growers reported yields that were as much as 30 percent to 50 percent lower than normal, even lower than 2009 despite increased plantings coming online. The cool spring weather all over the country was partly responsible for the drop, but low yields were also the result of planning, as vintners were more selective about thinning. Scott said the 2008 vintage was a "wake-up call" for vintners, with volumes exceeding expectations, creating a surplus of grapes. Growers pruned more in 2009 and 2010.

Some vintners predict that the cool 2010 growing season will result in more elegant and complex wines. Others feel the warm harvest conditions mean riper flavours and higher alcohol levels. Lower yields will give the wines more concentration and aromatics.

Several winemakers report that the country's star—Sauvignon Blanc—is exhibiting ripe and concentrated tropical fruit flavours, while still maintaining good acidity. Some concerns about higher alcohols seem to be outweighed by the expected intensity and exceptional flavours being reported.

Thomson of St. Clair reports that Pinot Noir skins seemed thicker than normal, due to extra sun after veraison. "The Pinots have excellent colour, concentration and tannins. I think it's the best that I've seen in Marlborough. I think they will have more substantial structure than the 2007s, a similar perfume and perhaps a little more concentration," he said.

Jones of Nautilus agrees. "I think Pinot Noir may be the star for us," he said. "Our crops were ideal and we have great balance and structure."