For most of us, saying goodbye to the worst of the Summer heat and welcoming the kaleidoscope of leaves sweeping the streets and mountains brings a sense of relief. Autumn means cooler nights for restful sleep, and of course - the snow season is in sight!
For others, however, Autumn is anything but a sense of relief. “How fast are the grapes changing?” “Do we have enough pickers?” “When should we put the bird netting on?” “What day is it?!”
Yes, these are the Rutherglen vingerions and winemakers, and for them Autumn means one thing - vintage. Vintage is when the grapes are picked and (after a long and varied process) wine goes into barrels, typically starting in January/ February and ending March/ April. Completely at the mercy of the weather, this is undoubtedly the busiest time of the year - when days are long, stress is high and the term “vintage widow” is bandied around (affectionately but earnestly referring to the vignerons’ partners).
When Autumn arrives, the end of picking is in sight, but that’s only part of the massive job that is vintage.
For Mandy Jones of Jones Winery & Vineyard and Damian Cofield of Cofield Wines, it’s always a hard slog, physically and emotionally. This is the moment of truth, it’s make or break!
“I always get nervous just before vintage,” Mandy said.
“I worry about whether we’re picking the grapes in optimum condition. But once the ball starts rolling and I get the first wine in I’m usually ok. Then there’s everything else … For the crush we use a tipping system and even a bucketing system if we have to. It takes a bit longer but it makes a big difference in the quality of wine. The mechanical action of a pump and its grooves, it can break up seeds and skins and you can get more bitter flavours and characters in the wine.
“I suppose that mindset comes from when I worked in Bordeaux where timing of harvest was particularly challenging and we were always fighting green flavours in our wines”.
Then it’s into tanks and barrels to ferment, with differing practices between reds and whites.
Damian Cofield’s first vintage was 23-years-ago now, having seen many changes over the years.
“It’s a very busy time, but having said that, with global warming vintage is getting more compact - certainly busier but shorter,” he said.
“The vintage widow is a real thing. You have the business of picking the grapes and making the wine but then you throw in a few festivals and weddings on top of that and it can really add workload and stresses - both work and family stresses”.
Of course, all the fuss, frustration and exhaustion is worth it in the end, why else would they do it year on year? You’d think the satisfaction would come when beautiful, award-winning wine is gently sipped by a patron in cellar door as they swoon over your hard work. But for the winemaker, it’s the things only other winemakers can relate to that really soothes the soul ...
“When you get the last of the grapes in, when there’s great flavours and aromas coming off the ferment … that’s what keeps me going through vintage!” Mandy smiles.
“Here (at Jones) winemaking is really hands on. The best way to see how they’re going is to stick your arm in and monitor the temperature and you can feel if it’s too hot or cold.
“I love that about vintage”.
The same can be said for vignerons all over the world, though many of them have the added stresses of disease threat and the struggle to leave fortified wine grapes on the vine long enough to extract the very best flavours from them. In the world renowned wine region of Rutherglen, things are a little bit different.
“I call it the Indian Summer,” Damian says of the Rutherglen climate.
“We have lots of time to get it right, so we don’t have much disease pressure or impending rain conditions. Our hand isn’t forced to pick because of these things, so we have the liberty of taking our time and getting the flavours right”.
So when all is said and done, what can we expect from this year’s Rutherglen vintage? Well, remember those two weeks in January that had you cursing your evaporative cooler? When you couldn’t sleep for the heat and the only respite was swimming in a cold river? It seems the heatwave wasn’t all bad …
“This year is in mid-January the grapes were going through colour change and of course we had 10 days over 40 degrees and the rest pretty close,” Mandy said.
“So the vines completely shut down as they were going through the colour change period. I went out for a whole week and five or six berries had changed. Friday it got down to mid 30’s, I went out in the vineyard on Saturday and half the bunches had completely changed colours - the rest weren’t far behind! Timing and temperature has a huge influence on how the grapes ripen and what sort of flavours they develop. After that hot spell we did have some cooler days and nights which were pretty important in getting quality, flavoursome grapes we got this year.
“We’ve got some really dense wines this year. Dense, flavoursome, and they’re really holding their flavor well. Overall a really good year, but low on volume”
For Cofields the story is much the same, with Damian particularly excited for this year’s durif. Not only are the flavours more intense, but the popularity of durif has increased as well.
“We’re delighted with the quality we’re seeing across the board,” he said.
“It is a short vintage this year, but flavour is priority”.