From the series “Vines and Vintage: Tales from a McLaren Vale Vineyard.”
We’ve recently released the 2013 vintage of Braydun Hill Premium Shiraz, and can take time out to reflect not only on what’s made our vintages so good, but also to reflect on the little differences in each one, year by year.
Of course in a consistent world, each vintage would be identical to the last and the next, which is what the large wine producers can largely achieve through detailed chemical analysis and the art of blending.
But that’s not what a single vineyard premium wine is about, and although shiraz lovers can tell a Braydun Hill Shiraz from others in the region, it’s the subtle differences each year that make the vintages so fascinating. It’s a fact that although Braydun Hill shiraz comes from the same vines in our own vineyard, each vintage is slightly different from the next. (And just in case you were wondering, it’s the year in which the grapes are picked that give the wine its vintage, rather than when it was bottled, which can be up to 2 or 3 years later.)
What Differs Between Vintages and Why?
A glance at the tasting notes of Braydun Hill Shiraz shows that although the nose and palate both feature spices and richness of berry fruit with hints of choc-mint, the prominence of different fruit notes and degree of spiciness can change from one year to another.
In our museum classes, the 2005 vintage for example has chocolate and spearmint with a rich mid palate of boysenberry and raspberry, while the 2007 vintage features freshly ground black pepper, dark chocolate, blueberries and plums, and the 2008 features spicy blackcurrant with dark plum and a hint of spearmint. Same but different.
Last year’s release (2012 vintage) retains the fruit flavours, featuring plum and dark cherry with dark chocolate and liquorice, while the 2013 vintage features pepper, liquorice, choc mint and red berries. The same but each in their own unique way.
So given that determinants like the soil, the orientation of the rows -which in our case run north-south – and the slope of the land remain constant, why the differences?
Well, when the grapes are picked will make a difference. It’s something of an art as well as a science, and variations in the ripeness of the grape seeds – we like it when they taste like nuts – will make a difference, as will variations in the skins, the sugar content, acidity and of course the overall flavours of the grapes themselves. Time of day you pick can make a difference, especially in the heat of summer if the grapes have to sit in a truck before they can be crushed and then fermented. That was one of the reasons why we changed from hand picking to machine harvesting.
Differences in pruning from one year to another can affect how many grapes the vineyard produces, and for some reason which no-one has ever been able to explain satisfactorily to me, that impacts on the quality of the grapes.
High yielding vineyards tend to produce low quality fruit, and low yielding vineyard like Braydun Hill produce high quality fruit, and hence premium wine. Sad but apparently true. Personally, I’d like to see high tonnages of top quality fruit but viticultural specialists insist it’s not possible, so we keep the tonnage well below the local average.
The Aging of Wine
Of course there are also differences in levels of maturity according to the age of the wine, and to complicate things, these don’t develop in a uniform way as the wines age.
Some of the vintages are beautiful – like some babies – right from the start. Others are plain ugly ducklings , such as our 2007 Premium Shiraz which as a youngster was as sulky and difficult as a recalcitrant teenager, but which has blossomed into a smooth silky dinner party wine of excellence.
A quicker maturing example was our 2008 vintage “Shimply Shiraz”, ugly as a baby but within a year developed into a gold medal winner. So the rate at which each vintage develops varies, and that depends as much on the quality of the wine as it does on its chemical structure.
And of course differences in the growing season weather, particularly temperature-wise will make a difference between one vintage and another.
A long, mild summer without much heat will produce slow ripening fruit that has lots of complexity to it.
Rain in the winter and spring is ideal, but is the last thing you need once the berries have swollen to ripeness, as it’ll make the berries split. Then you have grape juice oozing out of the fruit and nasties oozing right in.
Too much sunshine and the berries actually get burnt, turn to sultanas and fall off, too much cloud cover and too little sunshine and they don’t ripen properly.
Canopy management also comes into this too – you need lots of leaves to shade the berries when it’s hot, and not so many to ripen the grapes when it’s not. But the canopy won’t save the little dears during some of those ongoing 40+ degree days we’ve had. 2009 was a year in question – it had been over 45 degrees for almost a week and the grapes had been sizzling on the vines.
So we reluctantly walked away and left the bunches for the local birdlife.
And the 2015 Vintage?
Down on tonnage, but high on sugar content, seeds like nuts and lashings of fruit driven flavours with spicy choc-mint. They say the more things change, the more they stay the same. Good one!