Famine Then Floods Now Mildew
God Smites Aussie Grape Cockies
Vignobles Limp To Later Vintage
by PHILIP WHITE
I slid into the Sevenhill pub the other day, it being the favoured watering hole for the thirstier breed of Clare winemaker, and Ned, its publican, being a reliable one-stop shop of information for the itinerant wine hack.
“Much mildew around, Ned?” I asked of the fluffy vine mould which thrives in the wetter weather we’ve been having.
“Nah Whitey, not too much”, he said.
“Anybody going broke?” I asked, broke being the status, declared or not, of many folks in the wine game at this peculiar point in time.
“Nah Whitey,” he said, “most of ‘em are telling me how much money they’re gonna make this year.”
And there we had it. No expensive public relations twister required. A vintage round-up in the time it took Ned to pour two schooners.
After my plate of fish’n’chips there on the veranda – close to bloody perfect – and a quick bottle of Crabtree Watervale Riesling 2010 – better than bloody perfect - I got to thinking about the conversation later in the day, when the winemakers would ease in and settle their bellies against the rubbing strakes of Ned’s cool bar.
“Anything happening Ned?” somebody would be asking.
“Aw, not much,” he’d say. “Pretty quiet. Whitey called in for lunch.”
“Oh really? What’d he want?” they’d ask.
“Oh, he asked about the mildew.”
“Shit! Did he? What’d you say?”
“I told him nah, not much mildew.”
“Ar good. What else did he ask?”
“He wanted to know if anybody was going broke.”
“ Bastard. What’d you tell him?”
“I told him how you blokes keep bragging about how much money you think you’re gonna make this year.”
“Aw, good. Caniva nuther Pale, please Ned?”
DOWNY MILDEW - CLICK ON IMAGE FOR LINK TO DJ's GROWERS BLOG, WHERE YOU'LL GET A MORE TECHNICAL EXPLANATION OF THE FUNGUS AND THE WAY IT WORKS - photo JAMES HOOK
And that’s pretty much it. That’s how it happens. I mean if James Halliday had rung up the Clare Valley Grape Wine and Tourism Association from Sydney or wherever he lives, asking for a vintage report, he couldna got a more precise summary of the 2011 vintage, and there would have been a great deal of fuss about what to tell him.
I mean, if he’d asked a McLaren Vale winemaker a similar question, the winemaker would have to explain that he or she had been forbidden to speak to the press about the weather, and that he’d have to ask Elizabeth Tasker in the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism office for the real truth. Again, there would be a great deal of fuss.
If there’s one thing I can tell you about Whitey, it’s that he’s your man on the ground. Intrepid, they used to call reporters of his ilk. Not like these sweaty poofters that can’t taste wine when their lappy batts go flat.
Anyway, I’m here to tell you that in the course of a week, I cruised around the hills from Kangarilla, where I live, up the eastern side of the range to Eden Valley, where I slept, and then on to Stanley Flat, up north of the Clare racecourse, where I surrendered to what the experts would probably call a coma.
It is highly unusual for a bloke to be able to drive, as we did, from Kangarilla to Eden Valley, in the middle of January, through fog. All the way. No sooner had we climbed over the Willunga Escarpment than we were in it, and my phone was beeping out its warning from James Hook at DJs viti supplies, telling me the conditions were ideal for mildew in the hills. It's stayed more or less that way for days.
Vintage will be late and low this year, even if we do get a summer.
Mildew is something that’s not too difficult to spot. It’s very topical this year, as there’s an acute shortage of the fungicide sprays required to handle it, and, as I’ve reported here before, it’s rife along the River from Blanchetown to Bourke, even before the vineyards fill up with houses washing down from Queensland.
But, you know, in the premium regions, you know the moleskin country, well, with, cough, proper vignerons, well, it just wouldn’t be an issue, would it. No. So a bloke gets in a car and takes a bit of a look around for himself.
Anybody who says that they have no mildew this year is a bullshitter. But, like at Yangarra (below), where I live in my cosy rented depot, responsible, calm, long-sighted vineyard management sees it kept to an absolute minimum, even within the spray restrictions of the organic certification organization viticulturer Michael Lane wisely chooses to observe. The big vineyard looks sweet, smells sweet, feels sweet, is sweet. The vintage will be strangely late, but here, it looks very very good. Sweet.
Up through the fog past Hahndorf and into Charleston, there aren’t too many Charlestons being danced, but there’s a fair bit of mildew, and a fair bit of belated panic spraying going down by those who’ve managed to secure the fungicide.
It was misty more than foggy by the time we lobbed at Vanessa Hall’s cottage in the Henschke Cabernet vineyard at Eden Valley, and my trusty warning from DJs Growers made chilling sense. Sousing ourselves in Mars Linke’s stunning Karra Yerta Riesling on the veranda, it was apparent that this was perfect mildew weather: shivery as much as misty. The sky cleared long enough for us to souse ourselves in a blazing Garden of Eden sunset, before retreating to the warmth inside.
ANNIKA BERLINGIERI AND VANESSA HALL: HANGING OUT FOR MORE OF MARIE LINKIE'S PRIZEWINNING KARRA YERTA RIESLING WHILE SHE TAKES THE PHOTO AND WHITEY POINTS INTO A STUNNING EDEN VALLEY SUNSET
But I woke to the gentle mumble of women chatting in the vines. They were addressing the vines, really, one at a time, plucking off the odd unwanted leaf, giving them a pat, and a word of encouragement. That vineyard looked schmick: thick of leaf, and clean. Sweet, see. Fussed over. Another of Prue Henschke’s biodynamic triumphs.
There are two obvious reasons for the better organically or biodynamically-managed vineyards looking better than the monocultural industrial grapeyards. The first is that people who care enough to do away with the petrochem regime will be spending more time in their vineyards anyway. There's a lot more hands-on TLC, making for a better-balanced garden.
The second is that vines which have grown, continually coddled by the mindless protection of chemical prophylactics seem to have no reason to grow tougher leaves, bunches and cell structures, and are vulnerable when something goes badly wrong, like when the spray runs out. The vineyards which have grown without these chemical carapaces tend to have tougher leaves, and thicker cell structures, and are more resilient from the start.
The tiny patch of determined bush vines which gave me my coma are on the northern edge of viable viticulture as far as the Clare Valley goes. Not much chance of a flood there: they slurped up their inch of rain so damned greedily I reckon they sucked their veins full of dust. A few wisps of mildew on the odd leaf there, but those grumpy old coots aren’t gonna notice. Even the crows give them a wide berth.
Sweet wouldn’t be a word I’d use in their case, but their fruit will be just runny enough to wet the specks of dust in their veins, and will ooze out a tincture flavoured mainly of determination. Dust is damn fine fungicide.
MINTARO, IN THE CLARE VALLEY: ONE OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA'S BEST-PRESERVED PIONEER VILLAGES, AND A GREAT SOURCE OF DRY-GROWN BUSH VINE FRUIT
Heading south, through the major Clare vignoble, well, there’s a bit of mildew here and there, and some of it would be a great embarrassment to the perfectionist. I sat on the grand veranda at the new café and tasting area at O’Leary-Walker, savouring their magnificent Drs. Cut Polish Hill River Riesling, gazing out across the Main North Road to that beautiful swathe of vineyards on Watervale’s priceless calcrete slope.
Somebody there’s sprayed so much copper sulphate on their vineyard it was turning blue: heading toward the colour of eucalyptus: Blue Hills. You wouldn’t want to be a mildew spore on that block.
And so on.
The Barossa’s full of locusts, but they’re concentrating their admirable feasting skills on the weeds and grasses pushed up by this very damp spring and summer, and so far, have left the vine tendrils alone. Yes, there’s a touch of mildew here and there, but most of it’s been sent skipping. Sensible farmers have it pretty much under control; the lazy and the forlorn and the ones who couldn’t afford the spray are still sufficiently confident to look at your shoes when they talk to you. You know it’s a bad year when they look only at their own shoes.
So there’s your vintage assessment from Whitey. Oh, I should say that the Barossa and McLaren Vale Shiraz crop will be rather short: the vines look happy, but pull those leaves aside and you’ll see the bunches are very scrawny and meager. I suspect this damage occurred away back in the terrible heatwaves of the previous summers, when the tiny buds were still forming in the wood, and the air temperature blasted into the fifties. Something’s gotta give, and, well, you know, if it’s not flood it’s bloody famine.
THE St ALOYSIUS CHURCH AT THE JESUIT WINERY AT SEVENHILL - THE OLDEST WINERY IN THE CLARE VALLEY
Anything else you need to know? Duck up to Sevenhill and ask Ned. Take a few days. Compare the essential qualities of the excellent regional platters at, say, Reilly’s in Mintaro, and the one at O’Leary-Walker. Compare the views from Reilly’s veranda (you’re looking straight at the Magpie Stump Hotel) and the Sevenhill pub (you’re looking at the track to the Sevenhill Winery).
Or just find yourself a cottage in a vineyard, lie back with a tumbler of Good Catholic Girl Riesling and a big ice block, and worry about the mildew until your coma arrives.