South Australia 2019 vintage report

Brian Croser of Tapanappa reports on a small, dry and moderate vintage in South Australia. 

Croser believes that his interpretation of the data below provides some insights into 'why warm vintages such as 2016, 2018, and to a lesser extent 2019, result in less grape compositional change than might be expected' and that 'this has implications for climate change management'. See also Max Allen's recent analysis of Australia's 'weird, weird vintage' 2019

The description of the 2019 harvest is worthy of a politician or two. The most startling aspect of the 2019 vintage in the Piccadilly Valley and, to a lesser extent, Wrattonbully, is the very low yield. Foggy Hill on the Fleurieu Peninsula yielded to expectation. The low yield in the Piccadilly Valley was mainly because of the cold, windy and wet weather at the time of flowering (end of November), interfering with fruit set. (The photo above, showing the 2019 harvest in progress in the Tiers Vineyard in Piccadilly Valley, was taken by Xavier Bizot, Brian's son in law and general manager of Tapanappa.)

This condition has implications for the 2020 crop as the fruit primordia being formed in next year’s buds at the same time as flowering will also be detrimentally affected, fewer and smaller bunches are likely. We could still have a perfect fruit set and normal crop in 2020 but the odds are diminished. Back to 2019!

Consistent with the prevailing announcements of high-temperature and low-rainfall records being broken across our continent, Tapanappa has endured four consecutive above-average temperature and below-average rainfall vintages (except 2017) at all of its three distinguished site vineyards. 

With the exception of 2017, three of those (2016, 2018 and 2019) are among the warmest six vintages since 1960. 2016 and 2018 are the warmest two vintages in the Piccadilly Valley, at Parawa on the Fleurieu Peninsula and at Wrattonbully’s Whalebone Vineyard since 1960. 2019 was not as extreme at Whalebone Vineyard, Wrattonbully, as it was either in the Piccadilly Valley or at Parawa (Fleurieu Peninsula). 2019 ranked as the 9th-warmest vintage at Wrattonbully since 1960, cooler than 2013, 1968, 2001, 2012, 2007, 2010, 2018 and 2016. Although warm at 1629 °C days versus the average of 1466 °C days, harvest was normal timing, even slightly late for Cabernet Sauvignon. Here is a comparison of Wrattonbully and Coonawarra for vintage 2019.

COMPARISON OF 2019 VINTAGE AT WRATTONBULLY AND COONAWARRA

Vineyard Average heat summation °C days 2019 heat summation °C days Season rainfall (mm) Average season rainfall (%)
Wrattonbully 1466 1629 166 71.9
Coonawarra 1436 1566 153.8 63.7

2019, although warm, was more moderate than 2016 and 2018.

GROWING SEASON HEAT SUMMATIONS (°C DAYS)

VineyardAverage 2016 2017 2018 2019
Tiers 1093 1579 (+44.5%) 1216 (+11.3%) 1526 (+39.6%) 1464 (+33.7%)
Foggy Hill 1307 1604 (+23%) 1374 (+5.1%) 1667 (+27.5%) 1507 (+15.3%)
Whalebone Vineyard 1466 1881 (+28.3%) 1585 (+8.1%) 1799 (+22.7%) 1629 (+11.1%)

As well as being significantly warmer than average, the last four vintages have been significantly drier than average with the exception of 2017.

% OF AVERAGE GROWING SEASON RAINFALL

Vineyard2016 2017 2018 2019
Tiers 74.3% 168% 82% 75%
Foggy Hill 75% 114% 75% 72%
Whalebone Vineyard 50.6% 150% 87.7% 69.5%

In summary, 2019 is a very high quality, warm and dry vintage, cooler than 2016 and 2018 and perhaps honouring the time-tested aphorism, 'The best quality wine is made from a cool climate vineyard in a warm year.'

Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay (Piccadilly Valley, Adelaide Hills)
Hand harvested on 18 March, 1.5 weeks ahead of average. The crop level was 60% of average at 4 t/ha. The fruit was in perfect condition, in part reflecting the dry growing conditions. The at-harvest analysis of Tiers fruit was:

23 Brix, pH 3.1, TA (cold stable) 6.3 g/l, malic acid 2.83 g/l.

Foggy Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir (Parawa, Fleurieu Peninsula)
Hand harvested on 8 and 9 March, 1.5 weeks ahead of average. The crop level was 5.5 t/ha as expected. The fruit was in perfect condition and the in-vineyard analysis was:

23 Brix, pH 3.87, TA (cold stable) 6.1 g/l and malic acid 3.47 g/l.

Whalebone Vineyard (Wrattonbully)
Whalebone Vineyard Merlot was hand harvested on 20 March, Whalebone Vineyard Cabernet Franc was hand harvested on 1 April and Whalebone Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was hand harvested on 9 April. Yields were small for Cabernet Sauvignon at 2.5 t/ha and more normal for Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

In growing season 2019, after good spring rains the weather dried up from January on and Wrattonbully had 71.9% of growing-season rain. The hotter than average months were December, January and February and the ripening occurred in average temperature conditions in March and April. The fruit was in perfect condition with moderate sugar content (Brix) and acids and great colour and flavours.

Heat Summation Tables for The Tiers, Foggy Hill and Whalebone Vineyards

THE TIERS

FOGGY HILL

WHALEBONE

MUSINGS

Despite 2019 vintage joining the ranks of the warmest vintages since 1960, the grape analysis and quality did not reflect that. This is also true, to a slightly lesser extent, for the even warmer 2016 and 2018 vintages. In fact, the grape analysis for each of the last four vintages has been remarkably similar at the Tiers and at Foggy Hill and harvest dates have differed only in the very late, cool, wet spring 2017 vintage, the latest on record for both Tiers and Foggy Hill. Harvest dates have also been remarkably similar in the Whalebone Vineyard, including in the relatively cooler 2017 vintage.

The analysis for the 2017 grapes did not reflect a major difference with the warmer and much earlier 2016, 2018 and 2019 vintages. Malic-acid level is a very good proxy for the heat received by the grapes during the growing season because its degradation depends on the temperature and time on the vine. The malic-acid levels in all four vintages across both vineyards are similar and elevated rather than depleted despite the abnormal warmth. Similarly, in very warm regions and seasons, the sugar level in the grapes can be severely elevated, but in all four vintages and both vineyards the sugar levels remained modest despite the abnormal warmth.

HARVEST DATES AND ANALYSIS

Vineyard Vintage Harvest date Brix Malic acid
Tiers 2016 12 March 22.9 2.26
2017 13 April 21.6 3.13
2018 25 March 22.2 2.14
2019 18 March 23.6 2.83
Foggy Hill 2016 11 March 25 2.51
2017 8 April 24 3.68
2018 13 March 23.2 3.27
2019 9 March 23 3.47
Harvest date Merlot Harvest date Cabernet Franc Harvest date Cabernet Sauvignon
Whalebone Vineyard 2016 22 March 31 March 31 March
2017 9 April 18 April 18 April
2018 21 March 21 March 5 April
2019 20 March 9 April 9 April

With the expected very hot 2016 being slightly higher Brix and lower malic acid and the cooler 2017 having slightly lower Brix and higher malic acid, the grape analysis and quality for all of these vintages is remarkably similar given the very significant departure from the average heat summations depicted in the heat-summation tables above. Analysis from the Whalebone vineyard was also showing great consistency from vintage to vintage with low malic-acid levels.

THE BIG QUESTION?

Expecting the worst of these very warm vintages, high sugars, low acids, overripe flavours and coarse textures, my fears have been unfounded. All of these vintages from Foggy Hill Vineyard and Tiers Vineyards express fresh Pinot Noir and Chardonnay varietal characters, with low to moderate alcohols and lovely acid balances and for the Pinots refined tannins. The recent vintages in the Whalebone Vineyard demonstrate the resilience of the Bordeaux varieties to the warmer climate.

WHY?

This an existential question as we face more higher-temperature vintages. It is the question at the heart of the speculation about regions having to change varieties as they progressively warm. 

Cause and effect are never simple relationships in nature, and I have searched the numbers and my soul for the answer for this apparent uniformity and moderation of temperature effects across these disparate and very warm vintages. 

Prompted by a casual conversation with my hero Dr John Gladstones, I decided to put the night-temperature component of the heat summations in at the long-term average rather than the higher recorded actual amount. This had the effect of bringing the heat summation of the warmer vintages closer to that of the cooler ones, explaining the less than expected differences in composition and quality between warmer and cooler vintages. My rationale is that night temperatures are very moderate and have marginal influence on vine catabolism/anabolism and of course not on photosynthesis. It is day temperatures that dramatically affect fruit composition and in the case of Chardonnay and especially Pinot Noir high temperatures result in a loss of the quality and intensity of varietal character.

Here’s what happened in Tiers Vineyard and Foggy Hill Vineyard!

COMPARISON OF TOTAL TO AVERAGE NIGHT TEMPERATURE ADJUSTED HEAT SUMMATION (°C-days)

Vineyard 2016 2017 2018 2019
Tiers Total 1579 1216 1526 1464
Adjusted 1426 1202 1399 1367
Foggy Hill Total 1604 1374 1667 1507
Adjusted 1483 1356 1518 1450

The adjustment for the negligible effect of night temperature on grape composition has the effects of diminishing the difference between 2017 and the warmer vintages and makes the warmer vintages much more similar one to the other and more moderate to answer the description of the 'best wine comes from the warmer vintages in a cool site', rather than a hot vintage destroying the quality from a cool site.

My second thought was to compare the critical-to-quality, post-veraison heat summations for each of the vintages and sites. Just as day temperatures are critical to the metabolism of the vine, the post-veraison ripening processes are critical to final grape composition and quality. February and March are when nearly all of the colour, sugar and flavour are developed in the berries and when the tannins are modified to be less bitter and astringent.

FEBRUARY + MARCH HEAT SUMMATIONS (°C-DAYS)

Vineyard Average 2016 2017 2018 2019
Tiers 395 469 482 470 480
Foggy Hill 460 456 493 510 483
Whalebone Vineyard 523 580 579 568 526

What is evident from the post-veraison heat summations is how very similar they all are and how close they are to average despite the highly aberrant seven-month heat summations. The critical ripening period for both vineyards is very similar in all vintages and very close to average for these cool regions.

Ironically the coolest vintage 2017 has the highest heat summation for February and March in Tiers and second highest in Foggy Hill and in Whalebone Vineyard, another force for compositional and quality convergence between vintages. Finally, the close-to-average heat summations for February and March explain why the Whalebone was harvested relatively late compared with the other two vineyards, and why the 2019 vintage might be a banner year for Whalebone Vineyard.

I FEEL HAPPIER

We won’t have to plant Grenache in Piccadilly Valley or at Foggy Hill after all. Apparently, very warm vintages are more moderate than the crude total summations suggest, and the quality of the wines is certainly testament to that fact. Whew!

All graphs and heat summation averages were taken from CliMate or BOM stations.

That’s all for 2019.

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