Vintage 2011 and Getting the Nero Over the Line

Nero and Toes of Willunga Range
2011 SHZ pick The storm clouds they gathered and as a grape grower, it was white knuckle time again for Brash Higgins Wine Co. So much of the harvest is out of the grower’s control; the weather, disease, insects and birds clearly have a mind of their own. On the heels of a healthy, dry 2010 harvest, disease pressure was the particular flavour of the vintage this time around, particularly in the form of downy mildew and then, later, botrytis (not the nice kind like in Sauternes). In some parts of South Australia, like the Riverland, Barossa, Adelaide Hills and the Vale, we’ve had a cool, and unusually wet vintage.  Fortunately, our Omensetter Vineyard in McLaren Vale is a great site; the benefactor of reliable ocean breezes and a sun loving eastern sloping aspect which helps keep things dry and clean in the vineyard, whereas lower lying and inland vineyards can sometimes suffer when humidity is heavy.  The Shiraz and Cabernet fruit we grow was dark and healthy this year, looking like glistening caviar in the bins, sugar levels were where they needed to be, and most importantly, they both tasted varietal and delicious.  Always a great relief to see the fruit off the vines looking and tasting so good.  As we assess the 2011 vintage now that it’s over, those that were on their spray programs early and had good ventilation did well.  For Cabernet, it was in particular a stunning year district wide.

Shiraz Gently forked

One other factor which reared its head this year was the plight of the grower that was positioned next to an untended or abandoned vineyard.  After the previous 3 drought vintages ran roughshod over some growers, those without resources or energy to spray their vineyards with sulphur the way they might normally like to created a dangerous scene for their neighbours.  If your land abutted an abandoned vineyard, chances of disease pressure in your plot increased merely by proximity. Whether or not the government steps in in the future to remedy this situation by removing abandoned sites or spraying them remains to be seen.  It’s a tricky one.

 Our patch of Nero d’Avola planting is at 2.5 acres now, as I discussed in my last entry, and was grafted in 2 waves on to a block of our shiraz rootstock in 2009 and 2010. The first wave, the 2009 graft, was ready to produce fruit this year and was looking very good, yet still not getting the necessary steady heat to get itself over the ripeness line. There was also a bit of bird damage appearing on an outside row, so now we also had to consider netting the block.  Obviously, once you net it is very difficult to get back in to the vines, so we opted to wait it out and form a bird patrol in hopes we would get a warm Indian summer for a week to get the Nero ripe. 

Gill Gordon-Smith in Nero   Myself, Bobo, and Dave B. took turns chasing birds off the vines, especially during sunrise and sunset.  Until now I’ve never paid that much attention to birds, but every species I spotted came under severe scrutiny; from starlings to sparrows, no bird was my friend.  Perched on my ATV with an esky of Coopers Pale Ale at hand, sans shotgun, pirate flag raised, I was not going to let my find feathered friends make a meal and get in the way of a glorious week of predicted dry, warm weather; I had come too far.  Roaring up and down rows with the determination of Mark Spitz, it must have been quite a sight for anybody happening to drive by the block that week.  
In the end we got it over the line, Baume levels (amount of sugar in a grape) bumped up from 12.5 to 13.5 during that week, and all signs of greenness transformed into lovely bright berry flavours with a slight savouriness: perfectly Nerolike.  We  got the picking crew together for an early Friday hand pick, all 7 of us, and managed to carefully snip 2 tons of healthy, ripe Nero d’Avola fruit.  The whole pick took a mere 2 hours. Next stop for the fruit was the five handmade local 200L amphora/terracotta pots it would call home for the next year. Amphorae
Nero in bins

 Seems more I work this site, it has become clear that great terroir is a combination of a good location and the people that work it.  You can have a special piece of land, for sure, but if the grower is slack, than you’ll never get anything great from it.  The role of man in the concept of terroir has been forgotten, and now in particular it has never seemed more important to me. Without a good team, we’d never have gotten the excellent fruit we ended up with in 2011, no matter how great the Omensetter site is.  As James Agee famously lifted from the book of Ecclesiasticus, “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us”.  Sounds a bit much perhaps, but right now it makes perfect sense.