It’s only taken me a couple of months to be ready to talk about this, I’m surprised it’s not longer.
I want to be clear, and what I need to cover sounds negative – it is in fact positive. Or least, it is, and therefore is beautiful in it’s way. Please understand as you read this that the perspective behind the words is not negative, but one of reverence for nature’s beauty, and not pessimism but instead the enthusiastic welcoming of challenge, and opportunity to craft wines that can exist in no other way.
All of the shit I keep going on about regarding Upper Yarra being amazing because it’s colder and slower ripening than the rest of the Yarra, basically this is the type of vintage where that bites me in the arse.
As an industry we spend vintages with baited breath from the point of veraison onwards, if not sooner for some. We are at nature’s mercy. We are not fully out of the equation, there are always things we can do, but it’s with similar futility as trying to control the ocean.
We battle disease pressure, every year and every winery. Think if you pick a bunch of grapes from the vine, from that moment onwards the bunch is decaying matter. It’s a petri dish for every disease that will cause you problems in the winery. If you’re a very commercial winery, you’ll be at a point where you can press the wine off of those skins in 10 days… if you’re trying to make more interesting wine, it’ll be longer, and in some examples may be up to a month. We’re walking on a tightrope the entire time. Even that bunch’s last days on the vine are it’s most vulnerable in the vineyard, but you can’t rush getting it off the vine to keep it safe, or you’ll miss crucial flavour and phenolic development.
The only rational answer is to grow a spine, and hope you pick the right deity to pray to. I’m not above doing a rain dance (although usually in reverse), if it might help.
In the Yarra our biggest issues are Powdery Mildew, and Downey Mildew.
There’s also eutypa dieback (can be controlled through quarantine and sterilising equipment if using it across multiple sites) and phyloxethera (rootstocks or quarantine are necessary to deal with this), but they’re largely controllable. There are also some virus issues kicking around, but moderate concern for quarantine and hygiene is enough to resolve that. Powdery and Downey come from wet, humid conditions though, and a climate like ours, just begs for them. The most common control is called Bordeaux mixture, it’s just copper and sulphur and can be sprayed even with an organic certification. A regular spray regime with something like this is almost essential, and you also really need good canopy management. Basically you want air movement through the vine, but canopy management is always a matter of balancing total leaf area and wind movement.
Even then. Sometimes you’re just shit out of luck.
That was this year.
Everything was looking good, until a break of about 5 days of rain in early April. After all of my rambling about Powdery and Downey, it was actually something different that likes the same conditions that ran through both sites I was working with. A thing called Grey Rot, which is essentially a parallel to Noble Rot or Botrytis in conditions that it likes, and basically a coinflip will decide if you get one or the other. Noble Rot or Botrytis can be advantageous (for any style of wine, to some extent). Grey Rot will strip flavour, and basically your wine will taste like wet carpet. Not even nice wet carpet, think old mouldy, house built in the 70’s and carpet that’s been there the whole time wet carpet.
Yes you should still buy my wine. Because I’m low-key a badass sometimes, and have the freedom to take risks and do smart things in the winery.
That’s why I loved this year.
All of this is only relevant to the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese. The Pinot Noir was already off the vine, but that had a turbulent life of it’s own, and showed me for the infant child I am playing with things beyond my understanding. But we’ll cover that another day.
Essentially Merlot was halfway off the vine by the time disease pressure became worrying, and was largely rectified with a little bit of fruit selection. The Cabernet I’d honestly have liked to leave on vine for another week, and the Sangio another 10-14 days. But we had that bracket of rain and everything started going nuts.
One thing you’ll hear me ramble about a lot, is not to pick immediately after rain, unless it’s a forced decision. After any noteworthy amount of rain, the grapes will swell up and you’ll get more juice, but it’s diluted because it’s just water that’s adding to the volume. You don’t want to be working with this. Mind you, some guys who pick by baume will see the baume drop and hold off for this reason, I strongly believe this is wrong as you’re still dealing with the same level of physiological ripeness, and your baume will skyrocket in 5 minutes anyway. You should hold off for dilution, not baume (this is relevant sometimes).
The reasons you may be forced to pick, are basically fruit burst (happens after substantial downpours) or disease pressure (and sometimes this is worth white knuckled holding out to achieve the flavour and phenolic development you’re after, basically like choosing to amputate a toe rather than a leg but risking losing everything).
I was lucky, the Cabernet was very close to ripeness, and Sangiovese looks almost perfectly fine like 3 weeks before you actually pick it. Once I got them into the winery, again the techniques I was leaning towards, were very applicable here. I’ve always erred to using wild yeast, mostly just because that’s an almost necessary path to making more interesting wine, but also honestly partly because at this point I have a much better understanding of wild yeast, than I do of commercial strains.
Still, inoculation makes a ton of sense, as long as you do it midway through the ferment.
The real benefits of wild yeast are in the earlier stages of the ferment, it’s that slow drawn out start (although this has a ton of negatives too, if you want to make good wine, it’s a gauntlet you need to run) and all of the incredibly unique strains of yeast adding their intricacies to the wine. By the time you have any appreciable amount of alcohol by volume, most of those strains are dying off and being out-competed by more potent strains. The liquid has also become wine, rather than juice, and at this point you need to start really protecting it from air (most likely by having a very active ferment generating CO2). You also never want yeast to struggle, as when it does it’ll throw unpleasant flavours. You want it alive and thriving, or dead. It’s at this point in a very hostile environment with it’s nutrients and food source depleting, and increasing ethanol which is literally poison to it. This is a time where I’ve been planning for a few years to start inoculating, but have always fallen back on the comfort of using wild yeasts. So this year, 4-7 days into the ferment all of the later ripening grapes were inoculated with commercial yeasts.
Prior to that inoculation, I was plunging 6-7 times per day (2-3 more than logic could justify) to prevent build up of aecetic acid (volatile acidity, smells like nail polish remover and strips the wine of flavour, oddly despite this description it is by far the most common problem in the winery, and every wine has some of it). And from about 2 days in, all ferments were given small nutrient additions, primarily in the form dried yeast hulls, essentially making more of the yeasts’ food source high nutrient amino acids rather than ammonium which doesn’t carry as much in the way of micro-nutrients (but that yeast will gravitate to if given the choice, kind of like you with chocolate). From the point of nutrient addition, you see a drastic change in productivity of the yeast, which is why I was holding off for a couple of days to let it macerate and breathe.
I also did do acid additions for most things.. my background heavily teaches me that acid additions are a taboo thing, in anything but a warm climate. If you need to add acid, you should be looking at canopy management, yields, and picking date, the problem should be resolved there, and not with a knee jerk reaction in the winery. That being said, this was a year dancing on a tightrope made of razor wire.
Essentially you always want the pH to be close to 3.2, if it gets any higher then your risk of bacteria issues skyrockets. Normally being Upper Yarra, 3.2 is cruisy as hell to hit naturally, but in this year, yeah I had to do some small acid additions. We’re taking corrections of .2-.4 pH, and additions done immediately on crushing. Basically trying to keep impact on the wine non-existent, but keep it healthier in the winery.
That’s the real key for everything winemaking related for me: to as gently as possible keep everything healthy (but not too comfortable). Provided everything is healthy, flavour will follow.
I always rant about how showing the truth of a vintage is enough, and even allegedly bad vintages are perfectly fine when handled well in the vineyard and winery, keep it healthy and show the truth of that time and place, and it will be intricate and balanced and beautiful.
This year was my first chance to really show that, and I’m pretty happy with the way it’s going so far.
Thanks for reading, and I look forward to sharing these wines over the next few years.