Droughts, floods, fires and hail: par for the winemaking course down under

by Chuck Hayward

Overnight picked Shiraz at Two Hands Winery in South Australia’s Barossa Valley. Image courtesy of Two Hands Wines.

Overnight picked Shiraz at Two Hands Winery in South Australia’s Barossa Valley. Image courtesy of Two Hands Wines.

Australia is one of the world's most important wine producing regions, yet after more than 30 years in the American market, the facts about Australia’s wine industry remains an enigma for most Americans—easy to understand for a country that has 65 growing regions in a landmass the size of the United States. And years of platitudes and derision by journalists and sommeliers alike, certainly hasn’t helped.

However, there has been a renewed interest in Aussie wines fueled partly by the appearance in the U.S. of smaller producers from cooler Australia wine growing regions—we are just beginning to see imports of the handcrafted Aussie wines that make wine enthusiasts swoon.

So, take note: While it's February here in the Northern Hemisphere, it's actually “August” (weather-wise) Down Under, and some winemakers are currently in the thick of harvest working long days and nights while other winemakers still have time to visit the States to promote their wines. Such is the wide-ranging diversity of growing regions in Australia.

And it’s really the country's spring and summer weather patterns that set the stage for harvest. Winemakers and growers must be ready to deal with conditions rarely encountered in America—like major climatic impacts (such extreme temperatures led the national weather service to add two new colors to the country's heat maps). Between droughts, floods, and fires, Aussie winemakers are at least thankful that there haven’t (as of late) been plagues of locusts.

Grapes during véraison in Barossa Valley.

Grapes during véraison in Barossa Valley.

The fires that have become more frequent of late took a pass this year though some fires in the cool Adelaide Hills region gave folks a scare. Out west in the cool Great Southern region a few hours east of Margaret River, a severe hailstorm decimated vineyards around Frankland River. Acclaimed producer Alkoomi Winery lost almost 50 percent of their crop, leaving very few bunches on the vine to be picked over the next few months.

In South Australia, home to the popular Shiraz wines from the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, conditions have been somewhat moderate. Catching up with Michael Twelftree from Barossa’s Two Hands Winery during a visit in early February, he looked relaxed and ready to delve into picking in mid-February. A needed dose of rain arrived right on time at véraison to make up for the dry Spring weather and give the vines a bit of sustenance for their final push. The spate of mild weather continued up to picking time, promising a good, healthy crop with fingers crossed that the region avoids the traditional heat spike that arrives about this time of the year.

Chuck Hayward

Chuck was born in Michigan, grew up in Philadelphia, got a degree in political science from Claremont Men's College outside of Los Angeles, and later moved to Louisiana to further his studies at LSU. In his current job at JJ Buckley, Chuck continues his specialization in wines from Down Under, Domestic and European as a wine buyer and fine wine specialist.

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