Southern stars: Southern Hemisphere vintage report

Simon Woods

29 October 2015

Which Southern Hemisphere wine regions will look back on 2015 with fondness and which will do their best to forget? Simon Woods runs the rule over the winners and losers of this year’s vintage


Australia

Overview
A slightly lower than normal crop in most regions, but quality potentially very good, with only the Hunter Valley having a difficult vintage. Prices should remain stable.

Essential styles
South Australian Shiraz
An excellent vintage for the Barossa, with a bigger crop than in the previous two years, despite some frost problems earlier in the season. Good for Clare Valley too, with a slightly reduced crop of ripe but fresh wines.

Eden Valley & Clare Valley Riesling
Thanks to an early start to the growing seasons and a cool January, which also provided much needed rain, most of the Riesling had been harvested before the heatwaves of late February. ‘Fantastic’is the word being bandied about by many wineries for their Riesling.

Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon
Spring storms reduced the yields, but warm, sunny weather from mid-summer onwards produced some excellent fruit, and there are high hopes for the wines(of all colours).

Cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
Not too much rain nor heat combined to make 2015 a very good year for Chardonnay and Pinot in the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula. However, volumes may be reduced as there is increased demand for both varieties from sparkling wine producers.

Hunter Valley Semillon
A challenging year in which summer rain and hail reduced the quantity and threatened the quality. Semillon, the earliest grape to be picked in the Hunter Valley, seems to have fared better than the red varieties, but it’s far from universally successful.

Look out for...
Australia has a growing number of wines made from Italian varieties such as Fiano, Vermentino, Nero d’Avola and Montepulciano, and they’re improving with each vintage. Also, many vineyards will deliver their first crop of Grüner Veltliner in 2015.


New Zealand

Overview
Looking promising at this early stage. A reduction on the record crop of 2014, but still the second largest harvest ever. Even so, there are noises that some prices could rise due to increased demand.

Essential styles
Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc
Spring frosts followed by the driest summer in decades led to a harvest of small, healthy grapes, with fewer green flavours and more in the stone fruit/passion fruit character. An improvement on the sometimes dilute 2014 – and there should be some good oak-influenced cuvées.

Central Otago Pinot Noir
While some producers may not have welcomed the snows that fell in April while the harvest was still in progress, in general the news from Central Otago is positive. The crop was slightly smaller than in 2014, thanks to a warm, dry growing season, but the wines should be ripe and balanced.

Hawke’s Bay Syrah
Maybe not quite up to the standards of 2013 and 2014, but this was still a good year for Hawke’s Bay’s producers, with only a few periods of rain in March spoiling the party. Ripe aromatic Syrahs will be the order of the day, although some sources say that in 2015, Merlot may be the stand-out grape for the region.

Look out for...
New Zealand Chardonnay has never caught on in the way that the Sauvignon has. However, the recent Farr Vintners tasting in which the Chardonnays from Auckland winery Kumeu River ‘beat’ several white Burgundies in a blind tasting, plus the increased attention the grape is receiving in other parts of the country, suggest that it could be time to look again at New Zealand for the Chardonnay slot on wine lists.


Argentina

Overview
A challenging vintage, with a warm, wet growing season causing rot in many vineyards, and significant hail damage too. Early-picked varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir escaped the worst of the bad weather, but overall, quantities are down and quality is erratic. With inflation running high in Argentina, producers are under pressure to raise prices in order to keep afloat. Interesting times ahead…

Essential styles
Mendoza Malbec
The key to finding the best Malbecs in 2015 is to look for those wines from vineyards that are sheltered and steep, meaning they avoided the worst of the excess rains; and at high altitude, where it is cooler. Conversely, in flatter vineyards at lower altitude, sandier soils that often yield the top wines, many vines became waterlogged, and rot was a persistent problem (although it was even worse for Cabernet Sauvignon).

Look out for...
There’s some excellent Cabernet Franc, some superb Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and a renewal of interest in Bonarda, but the most exciting aspect of Argentine wine at the moment is perhaps the diversity of styles of Malbec now being made. The producers seem to have shaken off the American-led fad of bigger is better and are turning down the volume of their wines, allowing the vineyards to have more of a say. Many are using little or no oak, and concrete eggs for fermentation are appearing in some cellars. If you think you know Argentine Malbec, think again.


South Africa

Overview
A warm, dry and early vintage, with high hopes for quality. Quantity is down a fraction on the record 2014 crop, in part due to bad weather at the flowering of some varieties (especially Cabernet Sauvignon). Despite this, some incidences of drought and a serious bushfire in Constantia, producers seem happy with the results so far.

Essential styles
Chenin Blanc
Seems to have performed well wherever it is grown, with the warm weather promoting ripeness and the early harvest ensuring that the grapes had sufficient acidity. Yields were good too, in part due to good weather at flowering and the lack of disease pressure.

Look out for...
The Swartland region has been flexing its wine muscles for a number of years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if five years from now it came to be seen as an essential style, both for whites (often based on Chenin Blanc) and reds (based on Shiraz). Another one to watch is the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, likely to muscle in on the Pinot Noir territory currently occupied by Central Otago in New Zealand.


Chile

Overview
Despite floods in the north and volcanic activity in the south, Chile had a vintage of reasonable quality and good quantity. The growing season was generally warm, leading to an early harvest. There was some concern that later-ripening varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère would lack acidity, but autumn rain slowed the ripening down, resulting in better balanced grapes.

Essential styles
Maipo Cabernet Sauvignon
There was some initial concern throughout the Central Valley that the early harvest would produce Cabernet (and
Carmenère) that would either be picked too early while tannins were still green, or too late by which time the acidity would be too low. However, timely autumn rains slowed the ripening down, resulting in better balanced grapes. Maybe not a great year, but a good one still.

Casablanca Sauvignon Blanc
Perhaps a bit too warm for this to be a classic vintage for Casablanca whites, and styles will vary depending on when producers picked. Where grapes were harvested early to maintain freshness, the flavours may not have fully developed, and where the harvest was later, the wines may veer towards tropical rather than crisper citrus fruit characters.

Look out for...
Most people have picked up on the old-vine movement that has been blossoming in Chile in recent years. Ancient
vineyards of Carignan, País and Cinsault in the southern reaches of the Central Valley are now being pressed into use for some of the country’s freshest and most quaffable wines. While their yields may not be high, in dry vintages such as 2015, these veterans are better able to stand the heat. And there are also some old plantings of Malbec that are now being pressed into service, too – watch out Argentina…


AIN’T NO EVERYDAY HITCH

Some problems are common to vineyards throughout the world. Some are not…

Volcanoes
2015 saw the Calbuco volcano in southern Chile erupt a number of times in late April. While this had hardly any effect on the vineyards on the western side of the Andes, a number of producers on the eastern side in Patagonia brought their harvest forward to avoid volcanic ash falling on the grapes.

Floods
The climate in the Elqui Valley in northern Chile is close to desert-like. So when the equivalent of three years’ worth of rain fell in three days in late March 2015, the ground was too dry and baked to absorb it. Result? Heavy flooding, causing several deaths and extensive damage. Much of the harvest had been completed by this point, so the impact on wineries was minimal.

Snails
A serious problem in many vineyards, with South Africa seemingly getting more than its fair share in 2015. The remedy? Some use pesticides, others prefer to let ducks waddle round the vines and eat them. One producer coats the trunks of its vines with a gloopy mixture of porridge and a strong sleeping draft – the slumbering creatures can then be picked off the ground before they wreak havoc on the more tender parts of the vine.

Cyclones
In mid-March 2015, the north eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island braced itself for the arrival of Cyclone Pam, which just a few days earlier had devastated the Pacific island of Vanuatu. In anticipation of this, many producers picked their white grapes earlier than they would have liked. In the end, Pam just brought a wet weekend, and subsequent dry weather allowed the vines to recover.

Bushfires
In arid climates, bushfires are a perennial problem, and in 2015, they struck several southern hemisphere vineyards. In South Africa, several parts of the Constantia region south of Table Mountain were hit by serious fires at the end of March. Meanwhile in Australia, bushfires were reported near vineyards as far apart as the Granite Belt in Queensland and the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, with the worst damage occurring in a week-long blaze in the Adelaide Hills in January. There were fires in Chile’s Casablanca region as well, although well away from most of the vineyards. The destruction of vines is only one aspect of bushfire damage. In places where the fire doesn’t reach, the smoke can still settle on unpicked grapes and ruin their flavours – no one wants wine that tastes of ashtrays…

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