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Wet Weather Drives Down Quality in 2011 Australian Vintage

July 26, 2011

As we search for the first signs of harvest in the US - growers in The Plains tell us some of their hybrid varietals may be just a week away - we came across this data driven article from The Sydney Morning Herald about the recent Australian harvest:

Winemakers are wringing their hands over the 2011 harvest, branding it absurdly large for a nation still grappling with too much wine. After early estimates suggested a moderate-sized harvest was on the cards (say 1.3 million to 1.4 million tonnes), it's weighed in at 1.62 million tonnes, a fraction more than 2010.

This, in the worst harvest weather conditions in most winemakers' memory. Almost every state and region except Western Australia and the Hunter Valley experienced drenching rain throughout the harvest, from late summer to autumn. Those old enough to remember 1974 say they hadn't seen so much rain and rotten fruit since that annus horribilis, 37 years ago. Even then, old winemakers tell me, there was the occasional break in the rain. Not so this year.

And yet, a leading Adelaide wine broker, Jim Moularadellis of Austwine, reckons we are in a state of ''mild under-supply'' of high-quality wine. The problem with 2011 is a lot of ordinary- to poor-quality wine - wine no-one will want.
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Most of this year's blow-out in yields is due to rain filling grapes with water and delivering heavier-than-usual bunch-weights.

It's happened mainly in the lower-quality areas along the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers, with chardonnay and merlot worst affected.

Some growers will effectively lose most of their income for a year - at a time when they are already very tight financially.

Trying to save the day, many winemakers added concentrate to poor-quality wine in a bid to boost alcohol levels and add richness.

Concentrate is grape-juice that's had its water content reduced by evaporation, reducing its volume while increasing its sugar. The usual process is low-temperature vacuum concentration. Juice that measures between, say, nine and 12 degrees on the Baume scale at picking can be concentrated by a factor of between three and four, to 38 degrees Baume. Just a few per cent of this can be added to juice before fermentation to boost the finished alcohol strength, say, from 12 to 14 per cent.

Adding concentrate to wine - a legal form of chaptalisation - was common this year because the unrelenting rain meant vines had difficulty ripening fruit.

According to former Winemakers' Federation of Australia president and well-informed wineman, Alister Purbrick of Tahbilk, concentrate was the big hidden factor this vintage. ''Industry estimates are that about 150,000 tonnes of grapes were made into concentrate: much more than usual.''

Moularadellis estimates 100,000 to 150,000 but accurate figures aren't available. ''I'd say it's at least 150,000 and could be as much as a quarter of a million tonnes,'' Purbrick says.

Concentrate is neutral in flavour and can even be made from rot-affected grapes: very useful in years like 2011. ''Yes, a lot of grapes were harvested this year, but a lot of red grapes went to concentrate. Those grapes still count in the harvest but if you ask how many tonnes were actually converted into wine, it could be more like 1.4 million tonnes instead of 1.62,'' he says.

The thing that caught winemakers by surprise in many regions was the bunch-weights.

Bunch weights in Mornington Peninsula chardonnay, for example, varied from extremes of 84 grams to 150 grams between the 2010 and 2011 vintages, according to winemaker Geraldine McFaul of Willow Creek.

Much water-diluted and rotten fruit should never have been picked, most observers agree. Picking costs money and people such as Neil McGuigan, chief executive of Australian Vintage, believe many people who picked the rubbish had no idea how bad it was.

''There were a lot of rejected grapes this vintage. But there were also a lot of people coming in [afterwards] and saying [to growers] 'Well, this fruit's been rejected but we reckon we can make good wine out of it,' and buying it for a very low price. But people didn't realise how bad laccase is to deal with.'' Laccase is the enzyme produced by bunch-rot that turns grape juice brown and completely wrecks red-wine colour.

The result, he says, is that instead of bulk Riverland shiraz being valued at 95¢ to $1 a litre, it will soon be as low as 65¢. It's wine no-one will want.

Read more, The Sydney Morning Herald

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