From floods to fires, and outstanding Cabernets to sadly soggy Sauvignons, this extreme El Niño year was a vintage that certainly covered the full gamut of styles and emotions. Simon Woods casts an eye over what we can expect from Southern Hemisphere wines in 2016
Australia – you little beauty
A very good to excellent year from coast to coast, with only the Hunter Valley being a blip on the radar. And, thanks to decent quantities, no price rises on the horizon. Ripper!
South Australian Shiraz: The bush fires that made the news last November seem to have had little effect on the vineyards, and thanks to well-timed rains and cooler conditions as the summer progressed, the vines were able to produce a healthy crop of small grapes which means intensely flavoured wines.
Eden/Clare Valley Riesling: Thanks to a drop in the mercury from January onwards, there's enough zesty acidity to make this a good and possibly great vintage for Riesling, particularly in Clare, where it could eclipse the Shiraz.
Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon: Another in a succession of good vintages dating back to 2007, and with a healthy crop too (the same is true in Australia's other Cabernet stronghold, Coonawarra). And while Cabernet is looking good, the cool nights throughout the season mean that the whites should be excellent too.
Cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir: With sun and rain when needed, and neither to excess, this was a close to ideal vintage in Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley. And despite concern about smoke taint from early summer bush fires, Tasmania has had a good vintage too.
Hunter Semillon: Heavy rain from December through to the middle of January was a challenge, however the vintage was thankfully saved from total disaster by the warm and windy conditions that followed. Even so, this will be one of those years to pick your producer with care – TLC in the vineyards and careful sorting of fruit was essential.
Look out for…
Julie Mortlock of De Bortoli says we should expect 'a tsunami of pale, dry textural rosés' from the Yarra Valley. Pét-nat wines too (pétillant naturel) are on the increase. Among the new varieties – often Mediterranean in origin – that are popping up throughout Australia, Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg has high hopes for Sagrantino and Mencia.
New Zealand – Cautious optimism
2016 was a harvest of reasonable quantities, and good-to-excellent quality for New Zealand. In some places (Gisborne especially), humidity was an issue, but overall the weather pattern was a cool, dry spring, a much hotter early summer then more gentle conditions around harvest.
A bad case of wind: What exactly is El Niño??
Normally, so-called trade winds push warm surface waters across the tropical Pacific Ocean towards Asia, leaving cooler water along the coast of the Americas. Above the warmer water, heat rises, creating an area of unsettled weather with extra cloud and rainfall, usually centred to the north and east of Australia. This creates a cycle in which cooler, drier air then descends further east towards South America.
Occasionally however, due to the movement of ocean currents, this cycle is disrupted, leading to a drop in the trade winds. The cooler parts of the ocean, normally in the eastern Pacific, warm up, and those warm surface waters – and the unsettled weather above them – are then drawn eastwards. That's the weather pattern known as El Niño, the little boy.
It results in the American west coast being wetter, and often cooler, while in Asia and Australasia, it's drier and warmer. And it's often followed by a reversal in which the trade winds get even stronger, resulting in a reversal of the cycle: that's called La Niña.
Marlborough Sauv Blanc: Warm weather from spring meant the vines were set for a large crop. With early summer heat, it looked as if they might suffer, but rains from January onwards, followed by an Indian summer, meant SB (and most other varieties) could be gathered at a leisurely pace. Quality is solid rather than stellar, and after the smaller 2015 vintage, many wines could hit the market sooner than normal.
Central Otago Pinot Noir: A cool winter and spring delayed growth in the first part of the season, but a settled late summer and autumn – February was the hottest on record in many vineyards – resulted in a crop of ripe, healthy grapes. 'It's the fifth year of high-quality vintages in a row,' said Nigel Greening of Felton Road. (As for Pinot from elsewhere, Marlborough had its fourth consecutive good vintage and Wairarapa looks positive.)
Hawke's Bay Syrah: The growing season took a while to get going, but consistent warm weather from summer led to a trouble-free harvest. Thanks to the slow start, the grapes were ripe and flavourful, but still had freshness, and the resulting wines could be among the best the region has ever made. The conditions were also kind to other grapes, with Chardonnay looking to be another standout.
Look out for…
Albariño, which is increasingly appearing in portfolios – Nelson's Neudorf Vineyards released their first this year. And get used to the idea of the sub-division of Marlborough, with Pinot and Chardonnay gaining traction in the clay-based soils of the southern valleys, and the stonier Wairau and Awatere valleys being favoured for Sauvignon.
Chile – soggy in Santiago
Thanks to the El Niño weather pattern, Chile had a vintage best described as 'challenging'. The harvest was the smallest since 2010, and while those who harvested before heavy rains in mid-April will have made some decent wines, quality is erratic, and prices of cheaper wines in particular could rise.
Cabernet Sauvignon: The cool growing season delayed and lengthened the ripening cycle in many key Cabernet vineyards – a not unwelcome situation. However, record-breaking rainfall in Rapel (home to Cachapoal and Colchagua) and Maipo from 14 to 17 April, followed by a cool snap, created severe fungal issues and reduced crop levels in many vineyards. Cabernet harvest prior to this deluge could be excellent, otherwise be cautious.
Sauvignon Blanc: The weather may not have been ideal for the beefier reds, but many Sauvignons, along with other white grapes and the more aromatic reds such as Pinot and the cooler climate Syrahs, benefitted from the slower, gentler ripening cycle.
Look out for…
Chile has had Cabernet Franc for several years, but there's a growing enthusiasm for the grape. Look out for more versions as plantings in cooler climates come onstream. Watch out too for a move towards less irrigation.
Argentina – moist in Mendoza
A distinctly soggy vintage in Mendoza, home of 70% of Argentina's wine. Quantities are down by around a third, alcohol levels are down too, and quality is irregular, so expect
price rises. But the wines from further north in Salta and south in Patagonia should be much better.
Mendoza Malbec: The cool, wet spring set the pattern for Mendoza, with fruit being both late and sporadic. El Niño brought three times the annual average rainfall, with much of it falling during a cool April. Areas with poorer soils such as the Uco Valley were able to cope with the rain better than those further east, but few places were left unscathed. Those prepared to undertake extensive treatments in the vineyards, and sort through the fruit after harvest found themselves with a small crop of reasonable fruit with lower sugar and higher acidity than usual. Many, however, couldn't afford to take such measures. Mildew and botrytis were rife, and several vineyards were abandoned entirely. Expect fresh, light and spicy Malbecs from the good guys, otherwise watch your step.
Elsewhere, Patagonia and Salta both enjoyed a good vintage, with a warm summer bringing the growing cycle back on track after a chilly spring. But with producers in Mendoza looking to both regions (and to San Juan, which escaped the excesses of rain Mendoza experienced) for fruit to bolster their production, prices look set to increase.
Look out for…
More vineyard-designated wines, differentiated by soils rather than age of vines. A continuation of the move away from alcoholic, oaky and overripe styles towards more balanced, nuanced, textured wines.
South Africa – a country on fire…
The El Niño effect that brought cool, wet weather to South America had the opposite effect in South Africa. This was a hot, dry vintage, with bush fires causing extensive damage in several regions, and near-drought conditions cutting crop levels. But there's general optimism for the quality of wines from those who escaped the worst of the heat.
Stellenbosch Bordeaux-inspired reds: Simonsberg in Stellenbosch was one of the worst affected regions in the January bush fires, with major estates such as Kanonkop and Thelema Mountain Vineyards losing some of their vineyards. And while many sites here and in Paarl and Franschhoek escaped the fires, smoke taint was a major issue. The heat prompted many to harvest early to keep some freshness, although temperatures had cooled by the time much of the Cabernet Sauvignon was harvested. If producers were able to avoid jamminess, and their vineyards weren't so overloaded the grapes couldn't access enough water, the wines could be excellent, in a bold, fleshy style.
Chenin Blanc: Thanks to the rise in quality of Chenin, demand for South Africa's signature white grape is up. Supply is down due to the bushfires and drought, although quality – in those vineyards that escaped smoke taint – could be very good. Those looking to secure supplies might want to stock up on 2015s.
Elsewhere, some of the best wines in the Cape may be those from the south coast, where sea breezes and rain from the south east tempered the worst drought conditions. Fires hit parts of Elgin, but elsewhere here and in Hemel-en-Aarde, yields are typical and quality is good.
Look out for…
It's easy to get caught up in the clamour for the Swartland mavericks, or the progress with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Hemel-en-Aarde, but don't forget the traditional styles of Stellenbosch. A combination of better standards and a weak rand means they're excellent value.
Virtually all of Australia, but a shout-out
New Zealand reds. Central Otago Pinot Noir
Those in South Africa who lost vineyards in
Soggy South America – there was considerably