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Back-to-Back Harvests - Northern California to Southern Australia

This post was written by comrade Cellar Rat, Ryan Rugg C.S.W. (Certified Specialist of Wine), who has departed Deerfield's cave to chase the harvest across the globe! While the vines are just beginning to bud in the Northern Hemisphere the grapes have fully ripened in the Southern Hemispheres. For the love of winemaking, Ryan's followed the grapes to the other side of the Earth and here he contrasts his experience in Australia with making wine at Deerfield.

As a former colleague and current Cellar Rat/Harvest Chaser myself, I ventured from the depths of the Deerfield caves to the sunny outback of South Australia for a vintage “down unda” to see things done a different way and to learn a new perspective on winemaking.  The point of this story is to explain the differences between winemaking and viticulture styles in two very important, distinct, and completely different places on earth.   To begin, I must lead you into the past for a moment.  The year is 2010; the location, Sonoma Valley, California.  We never really had much of a summer due to cloudy overcast skies during our “normal” 180-200 day growing cycle with daytime temperature not reaching more than 80 most of this time.  To the layman, this makes for a fantastic Northern California summer; for the grape grower, a near disaster.  If there is no sunlight, we don’t achieve photosynthesis and the fruit doesn’t fully ripen.  To compensate for the cool summer, we made efforts to thin the canopy of the vines to open the grape bunches up to the sun for a bathe if you will.  Then, our worst nightmare occurred, three straight days of sweltering heat ranging from 103-111 degrees Fahrenheit.  Grapes on the valley floor and grapes facing west incurred the wrath of the sun and heat.  They shriveled to nearly nothing, looking more like raisins than grapes.  As if this wasn’t enough damage, we had some mid-harvest rains that brought botrytis cinerea and multiple forms of mildew to the grape bunches.  In turn, leaving most producers with a limited and reduced crop in 2010.  It is a pity, though Mother Nature has her ways and the wine industry must abide, cope, and carry on.   On the up-side, myself and several other harvest workers for Deerfield Ranch Winery saw light at the end of the tunnel when techniques instituted buy Head Winemaker (and Master) Robert Rex seemed to turn the idea of a “bad vintage” into a winemaker’s vintage.  This is what makes a great winemaker and winery stand out each and every vintage.  When great fruit comes in, it is said to almost make itself; when the year is a challenge, it is said to “separate the men, from the boys”.  There is no doubt in my mind that we made fantastic wines out of the grapes we processed due to the measures taken by Robert Rex and associate winemaker, Cecilia Valdivia, in 2010.

Now, let us switch gears to a place far removed from California.  It’s 2011 and harvest (vintage as the Aussies call it) is nearly on its way.  The summer has been moderate to warm at best with little full sunlight and temps only reaching 100 degrees a mere week total for the entire growing period.  But unlike California, the vines are “trained” much differently.  The canopy is full, heady, and leaves are a-plenty.  This is due to the extreme UV ray put off by the sun on this side of the world and the opening in the ozone layer.  Much to my surprise, they do not tend vineyards with “people” but with heavy machinery, so canopy thinning is only done on the smallest of vineyards.  As seen in the news, Australia from its middle to east has had record floods, bringing them out of a 9 year drought.  For vines that have been use to the stress of no water, and have buried their roots deep, they have no idea what to think as the rain soaks the earth and washes away the surface.  This left humid cool-warm temps that inevitably turned to powdery mildew, downy mildew, and latent botrytis (the bad kind).  Most vintners in the Barossa have never experienced such strife and most say it has not happened like this since 1974! 

As a wine professional (not an expert) myself, I have come to terms with what mother nature can do though I realize that bad years and bad weather come and go but wine will never leave.  We are steady making this year’s wine despite the odds.  Yes, quality takes a back seat to a year of this caliber but never write off a vintage entirely due to critique and commentary.  Let YOUR palate be the judge.

Notable differences in winery work in California and South Australia:

South Australia

Little to no use of hand picking, hand pruning (all done by machine)

Safety regulations are much stricter in the vineyard and in the winery.

Little to no organic practices applied to viticulture (only one certified in the Barossa Valley)

No water can be added to wines for sugar dilution (ie. High alc wines are the norm)

Irrigation is king and more of an art than science in this region of the world

Soils are the most decomposed in the world, with ironstone and red sand predominately; alkaline rich and high in acid low in nutrient.

The region has been making wine and growing grapes since 1788, tradition is the base, so very little “experimentation” in winemaking practices.

Northern California

Hand picking, vineyard management, and hand pruning are essential

Sustainable, Organic , and Biodynamic practices in the vineyard are key to a healthy vine and resulting wine.

Water can be added, though not preferred, if so a nice rose can be the result of the saignée.

Irrigation is key though not always needed due to a wet winter and spring before budbreak and fruit set.

Soils are very diverse, as is the climate in many “micro” areas (Sonoma County has 118+ different soils)

Although winemaking and viticulture have been an integral part of California history, it has not been around for as long though experimentation to achieve the best quality is key to its place in the world of wine.

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