In one of the most drenched seasons in memory, Australia's grape pickings were up but quality is down.
Winemakers are wringing their hands over the 2011 harvest, branding it absurdly large for a nation still grappling with too much wine. After early estimates suggested a moderate-sized harvest was on the cards (say 1.3 million to 1.4 million tonnes), it's weighed in at 1.62 million tonnes, a fraction more than 2010.
This, in the worst harvest weather conditions in most winemakers' memory. Almost every state and region except Western Australia and the Hunter Valley experienced drenching rain throughout the harvest, from late summer to autumn. Those old enough to remember 1974 say they hadn't seen so much rain and rotten fruit since that annus horribilis, 37 years ago. Even then, old winemakers tell me, there was the occasional break in the rain. Not so this year.
And yet, a leading Adelaide wine broker, Jim Moularadellis of Austwine, reckons we are in a state of ''mild under-supply'' of high-quality wine. The problem with 2011 is a lot of ordinary- to poor-quality wine - wine no-one will want.
Most of this year's blow-out in yields is due to rain filling grapes with water and delivering heavier-than-usual bunch-weights.
It's happened mainly in the lower-quality areas along the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers, with chardonnay and merlot worst affected.
Some growers will effectively lose most of their income for a year - at a time when they are already very tight financially.
Trying to save the day, many winemakers added concentrate to poor-quality wine in a bid to boost alcohol levels and add richness.
Concentrate is grape-juice that's had its water content reduced by evaporation, reducing its volume while increasing its sugar. The usual process is low-temperature vacuum concentration. Juice that measures between, say, nine and 12 degrees on the Baume scale at picking can be concentrated by a factor of between three and four, to 38 degrees Baume. Just a few per cent of this can be added to juice before fermentation to boost the finished alcohol strength, say, from 12 to 14 per cent.
Adding concentrate to wine - a legal form of chaptalisation - was common this year because the unrelenting rain meant vines had difficulty ripening fruit.
According to former Winemakers' Federation of Australia president and well-informed wineman, Alister Purbrick of Tahbilk, concentrate was the big hidden factor this vintage. ''Industry estimates are that about 150,000 tonnes of grapes were made into concentrate: much more than usual.''
Moularadellis estimates 100,000 to 150,000 but accurate figures aren't available. ''I'd say it's at least 150,000 and could be as much as a quarter of a million tonnes,'' Purbrick says.
Concentrate is neutral in flavour and can even be made from rot-affected grapes: very useful in years like 2011. ''Yes, a lot of grapes were harvested this year, but a lot of red grapes went to concentrate. Those grapes still count in the harvest but if you ask how many tonnes were actually converted into wine, it could be more like 1.4 million tonnes instead of 1.62,'' he says.
The thing that caught winemakers by surprise in many regions was the bunch-weights.
Bunch weights in Mornington Peninsula chardonnay, for example, varied from extremes of 84 grams to 150 grams between the 2010 and 2011 vintages, according to winemaker Geraldine McFaul of Willow Creek.
Much water-diluted and rotten fruit should never have been picked, most observers agree. Picking costs money and people such as Neil McGuigan, chief executive of Australian Vintage, believe many people who picked the rubbish had no idea how bad it was.
''There were a lot of rejected grapes this vintage. But there were also a lot of people coming in [afterwards] and saying [to growers] 'Well, this fruit's been rejected but we reckon we can make good wine out of it,' and buying it for a very low price. But people didn't realise how bad laccase is to deal with.'' Laccase is the enzyme produced by bunch-rot that turns grape juice brown and completely wrecks red-wine colour.
The result, he says, is that instead of bulk Riverland shiraz being valued at 95¢ to $1 a litre, it will soon be as low as 65¢. It's wine no-one will want.
Drips harm the drops
The glut of poor-quality wine, and a probable small shortage of premium wines, is the result of an exceptionally wet summer. Let's remind ourselves just how wet the vintage was. Jim Moularadellis says Renmark's average summer rainfall is 54 millimetres and the previous record was 150 millimetres. Last summer, 272 millimetres fell. That's right off the charts. In Mildura, in 24 hours over February 5-6, just as harvest began, 187 millimetres of rain fell. The only bright news is that in Western Australia there were no rain problems and 2011 seems like a very good vintage.
TASTINGS BY HUON HOOKE
HERE COMES THE SUN
The wine sector was an early adopter of solar energy and Langhorne Creek winery Lake Breeze has installed one of the biggest winery solar units. Rated at 30 kilowatts, the 156 panels on a north-facing roof will provide all energy requirements for the winery, offices and cellar door sales, as well as a cost saving for owners, the Follett family.
CHARDONNAY WINS TOP GONG
Philip Shaw No.11 Chardonnay 2010, from Orange, won top gong at the 2011 Australian and New Zealand Boutique Wine Awards. Shaw also won trophies for best chardonnay and best estate-grown and made wine. Other top awards were: Shiraz - Sons of Eden Remus '08 (Eden Valley); semillon - Coolangatta Estate '06 (Shoalhaven); pinot noir - Lime Rock '08 (Central Hawke's Bay); sauvignon blanc - Bream Creek 2010 (Tasmania); merlot - Charles Sturt University '09 (Orange); cabernet sauvignon - Wood Block Wines Amity '08 (Coonawarra); red blends - Brangayne Tristan '09 (Orange); dry riesling - Tim Gramp Watervale '10 (Clare Valley); off-dry riesling - Spy Valley Envoy Late Harvest '08 (Marlborough); other red varieties - Hahndorf Hill Blueblood Blaufrankisch '09 (Adelaide Hills); fortified - Stanton & Killeen Grand Muscat (Rutherglen). See boutiquewines.com.au.
MCGUIGAN SCOTCHES RUMOURS
Winemaker Brian McGuigan has scotched rumours he will buy Poole's Rock, the Hunter Valley winery that has been in limbo since the death of owner David Clarke. McGuigan says he is helping out but adds, ''I'm too old to get involved in anything new.'' He says the property will be sold. Winemaker Usher Tinkler says he has no plans to move on.
THE BEAST CLEANS UP
For the second time, Hentley Farm The Beast Shiraz was judged best wine at the annual public shiraz tasting in Adelaide. About 700 tasters, mostly consumers, swirled their way through 300 wines before voting The Beast 2008 tops. The tasting is not ''blind'', so those doing the pouring get to commentate on the wine and exercise their charm. The winner is consistent with previous years: big, high-alcohol wines tend to win, but at least Hentley Farm's are very well-made examples of the Barossa blockbuster style. The 2009 vintage is sold cellar door in the Barossa Valley ($77.50). Phone (08) 8562 8427.