One of the most common questions we get from McLaren Vale wine visitors here at the Braydun Hill Wines cellar door, is what makes one vintage from your Shiraz vineyard different from year to year?
I think it’s a great question and now that we’ve safely gathered the 2015 grapes for a new vintage of Braydun Hill Shiraz, we can afford to relax, sit back and share some thoughts.
Just quietly, I’m writing this with a nice glass of the 2012 vintage [7 awards so far and counting].
Each vintage is at the mercy of the heavens
Of course, in McLaren Vale like all other wine regions, the weather conditions during the growing season are important, particularly the spring and summer temperatures.
Too much heat will stress the vines and can even cause them to shut down. If that happens, no further growth will take place – they just shut up shop and go into sulk mode until the weather cools down.
On the other hand, too much cool weather and the grapes have trouble ripening.
We have witnessed how frosts, heavy rain and hail at the wrong time can devastate a crop of grapes and impact on wine quality.
And when we have a dry spell, we have to judge when to help the vines with a nice long drink of water, and when to hold off.
Good grapes = good wine
That sounds like a simple equation but it is not.
Even with the weather on our side, we need to be vigilant when our shiraz grapes start to turn that beautiful blue-black-purple colour: the time that we call ‘’veraison’’.
To understand how we make the decision of when it is right to pick the grapes from the vines, I have to reveal that it is part art and part science.
It means going up and down the rows of the vineyard, looking, feeling and tasting, as well as doing the more scientific analyses such as measurements of ph and sugar levels.
To test the sugar content, we crush a representative sample of bunches, put the juice in a holder and drop and swirl a hydrometer in the juice. It then bobs up to the surface giving a baume level – a measure of sweetness.
But grapes aren’t picked on baume of ph levels alone.
The winemaker’s palate is crucial
Tasting the grapes when they have turned colour can give a good indication of ripeness and readiness for picking.
But as I’ve mentioned, It’s not just the sweetness of the grapes that makes the difference between a good vintage and a great vintage, but by the time the grapes are sweet enough to munch on, the complexity of flavours are beginning to come through, together with what we call the ‘mouth-feel’.
By waiting for an attractive mouthfeel, sometimes the sugar levels can start to soar too high so we have to try to slow the increase in sugar levels until the proper mouth feel is achieved. We can do this by giving the vines an extra drink or two of water, which can actually reduce the sugar content in the grapes.
You can judge a wine by its skin
Skins and grape seeds both contribute to the overall flavour of the grapes and of the wine, and particularly contribute to the levels of tannins.
Skins should be rich and full of flavour and you know the grapes are ripe when the seeds have lost any trace of bitterness and have a nutty richness.
And when all else is done, we have one more fail-safe taste test. We watch the dog and the chooks.
The chooks perform some hilarious balancing acts on the irrigation lines as they reach up through the leaves for the lower berries, while Daisy will delicately work her way through the higher bunches standing on hind legs if really necessary – she’s getting on these days and prefers all legs on the ground.
When that happens, we know everything’s ready. And we pick.
And it really is that simple.