2021 Vintage Report from Bruce Tyrrell

Edition 1: Tuesday 12th January 2021

What a difference this year is to 2020. No smoke haze and green grass in the paddocks rather than bare dirt.

The growing season has been a bit of an old fashioned one and reminds me a bit of some of the years in the 1970s. With the end of four years of drought we got a good season as I expected and we have a good solid crop which again fits in with nature’s usual cycle. 2020 received more than double 2019’s rainfall and the vines, and the bush in general, have reacted with plenty of growth. The grass and the vines are growing as we watch them, the dams are full and the sky is clear bright blue.

The last three to four weeks have been cool and we have received more rain than we would have liked, and it is only in the last five or six days that we have been able to get back into the vineyard to slash to increase airflow through the vines to help them dry out and to get fungicides on to protect the fruit. The new moon is due on the 13 January and if it comes in dry the weather will normally stay relatively dry for the next month.

If we get this dry month then we should have the quality Vintage we need. Although two weeks ago I was concerned that if the rain kept up for another month the quality of 2021 would have been dubious. We had a good look through the vineyards on Thursday and Friday of last week, and we will take a few samples today, and maybe we will pick something late this week, but I suspect nothing serious until the weeks after. I would not be surprised if Vintage drags on a bit this year and we do not finish until the end of February.

Crop levels look good without being enormous and the better reds will all need crop thinning to ensure that we get the intensity of colour and flavour that we want. The District, in general, had hail earlier in December and some of the crop thinning has already been done. For us the worst was the Penfold Vale Chardonnay, which has lost approximately 50% of the crop to the hail.

We have had great help from the local Press to fill up our picking teams. Three weeks ago we only had less than half the pickers we needed, but we are now up to sufficient numbers. I am pleased to say that ‘we are able to offer work to many local people’.

For a bit of interest this year we have been able to secure a few tonnes of Fiano and Roussanne to make a couple of interesting new whites. We made Fiano eight years ago for a contract customer and it won the ‘Best Young White” at the Hunter Valley Wine Show and now we have a permanent supply and we will be making it on a regular basis. I first tried Roussanne at a tiny winery in the Northern Rhone out of an old barrel and have wanted to make that style ever since.

I am looking out my window and the sky is blue and clear and I hope it stays that way for a while to come yet.

Edition 2: Monday 25th January 2021

Tuesday, 19 January a big and a small day.  We handpicked three tonne of Semillon from the old block at Stevens.  These vines had been machine harvested for probably 20 years straight and after the drought I thought they needed a year off and our pickers had nothing to do so we took them off.  They were probably a bit green but gave us a probable of what the Semillon was really like.  You only get real figures out of the Press and not from samples.

The weather is starting to warm up and we should get increased ripening so the next few days will be a good time to get some bits and pieces picked and out of the road.  We brought the first 60 tonne of Verdelho from Denman last night as a test pick, and I would suspect we will need to leave this for another couple of days to get it a little riper.  We will test again tomorrow and see if we can find some Chardonnay that is ready to pick.  We will have both of our machines picking Penfold Vale tonight and should finish that 40 acre block by Wednesday night.  We just need a bit extra ripeness to really get going, and as the vines are not really moving forward planning is almost impossible.

Wednesday, 20 January was cold overnight heading into a warm but not hot day.  We got over 70% of Penfold Vale last night and we will finish the rest tonight.  The hail effected Chardonnay came in at remarkable good condition, which meant the harvester operators had done a really good job.  We have 30 tonnes of Semillon from Denman to come tonight.

Thursday and Friday were basically no picking as nothing was ready so we kept the pickers occupied fruit thinning on the last few blocks of Shiraz that needed to be done.  Everything we have tested is still not quite there.  We tested all the local Verdelho and deferred Friday morning’s picking until tonight and tomorrow.  The fruit condition really is a result of the soft season that we have had so far.  All of the fruit is high in acid, which appears to be mostly malic which is a weak acid we do not need. We really are looking forward to this weekend’s heat to be the saviour of the Vintage as it should burn out this excess acid.  There has been no big change in sugar levels, with no dehydration.

Friday night we had a shower around the base of the mountain, which picked the vines up again. Friday during the day we started picking Pinot Noir with the machine and finished that on the Saturday morning. There will be no Vat 6 out of this Vintage. The wet in December came at just the wrong time for the Pinot Noir and it suffered from both downy mildew and some bunch rot.  We tested again Sunday morning to decide where we would start picking for Vat 47 on the flat.  To me it is now time to start as we have two and half weeks of picking white to go and if we do not start logistics will beat us.  The worst heat looks like it will be Australia Day and although I would like to pick the penalty rates for the pickers simply make it uneconomical.  We still have plenty of pickers with more signing up.

Monday, another load of Verdelho from Denman and started picking on the Short Flat for Chardonnay for Vat 47.  Gave up at lunchtime as we had finished one big block and it was starting to get a bit too hot for the pickers. Still a little bit green so we will test again tomorrow to confirm Wednesday’s picking.  We have got samples from most of our growers and we are starting now to get a fully solid picking plan in place.  We have only got four more nights of machine picking for ourselves for white so I can now start to work all our grower’s fruit into our forward program.

Hopefully the acid drops out and we can be fully away on Wednesday.

Edition 3: Monday 1st February 2021

Monday night, 25 January, a good hit out with the harvesters.  Another truck load of Verdelho from Denman and Verdelho from two local growers and a bit of Semillon from Pokolbin Hills Estate.  This vineyard was starting to show signs of stress and needed to be picked.  One of the lots of Verdelho had been hit hard by hail and we picked it with the mechanical harvester with a sorting table.  The sorting table gets rid of leaves, green berries and anything badly damaged.  Unfortunately, it does not get rid of bunch rot or damaged berries.  It certainly cleaned up the pick but not as much as I thought it would.

We then went through a range of samples Tuesday morning taken before the heat of the day.  It got to 33ºC on Monday and Tuesday.  No fruit picked on Tuesday during the day because of Australia Day, however we tested a broad range of all of the white that was still to be picked and after testing, and tasting, the juice showed that the greenness and hardness of the high acids had been burnt out by the high temperatures.  Suddenly, it then became necessary to pick as quickly as we can before some of the white gets over ripe.

Wednesday morning we were back on the Short Flat picking Chardonnay for Vat 47.  We started in earnest on Wednesday night picking ten separate blocks adding up to about 100 tonnes and everything has picked quite cleanly.  Thursday morning Darren Larsen and Mark Richardson had been performing ‘forklift ballet’ since about 4am, and by 1pm had pretty much caught up and processed all of the night’s picking.  That was about 100 tonnes and we did the same Thursday night and by Friday night the vast majority of our white was finished.  The mechanical harvesters will now go back in the shed until we are ready to pick some red.

The concern so far from Vintage was that we might end up with white that was thin and a bit green, but thankfully the hot weather has done its job. When I tasted the Semillon for Vat 1 on Wednesday night it was about perfect.

Friday and Saturday we picked the Semillon for Vat 1 off the Short Flat, and the juice from Friday particularly was as good as it gets.  I will be very glad, this week, to have two harvesters working properly with a couple of good operators.  One of the younger chaps in the vineyard has really stepped up in the last year or so and he did as good a job as I have seen on a harvester.  Friday brought us a day of what Jim Maxwell would call ‘English mizzle’ when he is commentating the cricket from England.  Very little rain but enough to get everyone wet.

We picked Johnno’s Semillon first thing, had a break and then went to the Short Flat for Vat 1.  Unfortunately on Saturday after the rain about 40% of our pickers did not show up, but the balance almost picked what the full crew had done the day before and were entitled to a cold one at the end of the day.

Due to the shortening period to pick the whites we have used our two harvesters on vineyards we would normally handpick, but the machines have done an excellent job.  With Vat 1, Johnno’s and HVD Semillon out of the press this week it looks like we got them pretty much right. They all have great fruit, freshness and cleanliness.

At this stage it looks like we will finish all of our white by next Thursday.  It is a relief to get this far through vintage so quickly (we are almost two thirds done in the Hunter).  There was a great deal of concern early that it might keep raining and we lost the crop to rot or that they would not ripen properly and the wines would be thin and green, but luck went our way and we have a cellar full of Semillon between 10.5% and 11.5% alcohol, Chardonnay around 13% and plenty of flavour.  Had a few tonne come in Sunday morning, whilst the cellar crew did not get a day off they were certainly not under pressure receiving fruit.

Tasted, and tested, all the Semillons Monday morning and my initial plans are unchanged.  We will finish Belford and HVD Chardonnay on Tuesday and Pokolbin Hills Wednesday and Thursday, and then a night around the winery tonight and two machines picking Semillon in Lovedale.  The forecast has changed and it looks like it is going to be fairly dry tonight.  Interesting that we have got the Lovedale fruit and I remember buying quite a large batch of it from McWilliam’s in 1981.  I seem to remember that Don McWilliam did not want us to tell anyone and so we kept quiet about it.  As Don is no longer with us I think I can get away with it this time.

Four big days in this past week but some extent now, volume wise, we have broken the back of Vintage.

The highlight for this week is that we picked the 50th Vintage of Vat 47.  The first grapes were picked in 1971 and the only Vintage we missed was last year due to smoke taint. So although it’s 51 years since Vat 47 started it is only 50 vintages.

Edition 4: Tuesday 9th February 2021

On Monday afternoon, 1 February, we finished picking Semillon at Belford with the crop down considerably on our original estimates.  We went into Monday night’s picking with some trepidation as to whether the rain forecast for Tuesday night would actually come Monday night.  At about 9pm a rain system from Central Queensland to Central Victoria appeared on the radar and I knew we would not finish.  We had two growers pick early in the night and get finished.  Our machine got the best of the fruit to be picked off before the rain.  It was raining at Belford on Tuesday morning quite heavily and so we sent the pickers home, and so we have had a quiet day at the winery.

We picked up Tuesday night where we finished off on Monday and the hand pickers were back on Wednesday morning to get both Belford and HVD Chardonnay hand picked.  The weather looks pretty good for the rest of the week so we should get through to Friday when we expect to finish all of the white.  Both lots of Chardonnay were in almost immaculate condition with HVD picking almost double the tonnage per acre of Belford.

The HVD has been the star vineyard so far of the vintage.  Everything has been really high quality and we have one block that was planted on route stock, which is affectionately named the “steroids block” because it has such a large crop and large bunches.  Even it is a couple of grades of quality above normal.  We picked our last Semillon with a harvester Wednesday night, and Thursday and Friday we hand picked Pokolbin Hills and that is basically the end of the white.  A few tonnes of Fiano will be early next week and the Roussanne is still green as grass so it could be the week after. We did the first small red test on Thursday, 4 February.  Pretty much all a week or so away so we will test again on Monday and see what happens.  With the whites all picked we seem like we have broken the back of vintage, although Mark Richardson will always deny that as he gets ready to start his red harvest.

The red we sampled on Thursday is a bit like the Semillons two odd weeks ago.  High acid, reasonable sugars and not enough flavour yet.  So it was a quiet weekend for everyone.  On Friday morning we finished hand picking the last eight tonnes of Pokolbin Hills so except for the Fiano and Roussanne our white vintage in the Hunter is now over and for this season I am happy with all of the white we have picked.  Often a good sign of a quality vintage is how good the least quality wines are and this year there is really nothing below Hunter Valley quality.

On Monday, 8 February, we went north to look at our Denman supplier’s Shiraz crop.  It is cropping about where we expected and basically in all good condition.  The owner is aware of some rain forecast for the weekend ahead and would like to pick but the grapes really are not ready.  We got home to go through testing of all of the red and again same as last week they are not quite ready.  We have a couple of small blocks to pick this Thursday or Friday and we will test the ripest blocks on Wednesday morning, and the rest probably Friday morning, to see if we can get a start before Saturday night.  It looks like we will get some rain but it is probably five to ten millimetres, which we probably can live with.  Much more would be a problem.

Edition 5: Tuesday 16th February 2021

This week is change over week. We finished all of our own white at Pokolbin Hills, which has left us with only the Fiano and Roussanne to pick.  We tested the Roussanne on Thursday morning and, both chemically and flavour wise, was pretty much what we wanted and we will pick it in the next few days.

Wednesday was a mass taste testing of all of the Shiraz and we decided to make a start before the rain that was due last weekend.  We had about 25mm, which was followed thankfully by moderate southerly winds which dried things out quite quickly which allowed us to pick some Shiraz here during the day-to-day.  We tested almost all of the Shiraz again this Monday morning, and most of it has held its sugar level and not become dilute.

We will spend the next 24 hours or so looking at every weather forecast we can find and then we have a plan to finish all of the Shiraz by Saturday afternoon if the weather holds. The program will probably not change just the time of the date we pick it.  We will do another full test on Wednesday morning to finalise that schedule.

All the reds are looking, at this stage, to be 13% alcohol or just a touch over but like the Semillons they have all had pretty good flavour from the start.  The rest of this week is going to be crucial to the overall quality of this year’s red vintage, but our early start means we have already got some pretty dam good red already in the fermenters.

Edition 6: Monday 22nd February 2021

We are now heading to what is basically the last week of the Hunter vintage and like the Semillons this will be a big week for picking.

After some bits and pieces last week we commenced by testing every second day and going with where the ripest grapes took us. Whilst we had some rain it had little impact on picking as it was only quite light.  The wettest day of vintage was Sunday, 14 February with 21mm, which fell quickly in a fairly heavy storm.  The total rainfall for February is 81mm with the long term average at 102mm.  So with a long term perspective we can refer to this as ‘one of the not so wet vintages’.

As of this morning all we have left is Johnno’s and a couple of tonnes of Shiraz on Glen Oak left to pick.  The vineyard at Glen Oak left to pick is very steep and even Neil Stevens decided to get out of the vineyard on Friday.  Saturday morning we picked the Old Hut.  We brought a local contractor in to trial using a harvester with a sorting table.  This takes out all of the storks and the leaves, and hopefully green berries, while it is picking so the fruit in general is in better condition when it arrives at the winery.  The Shiraz all looked to be some ways like the whites; they got most of their flavour early and whilst the alcohol is not as high (12.8% to 13.5%) there is plenty of flavour, which is going to give us a red vintage of elegant wines and good flavour.

The Fiano is just out of ferment and looks very good.  Lively freshness with the pear character that is typical of the variety.  Unfortunately with new varieties we will not be getting any Roussanne as the birds beat us to it.  Approximately 2.5 tonnes disappeared in about two days.

This is about it for another Hunter vintage, which after the last 12 months, and the wet December, is a lot better than I first thought it might be.

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