Vintage 2019 was hailed as part of a hat-trick of great Hunter Valley vintages. Now, with the 2020 vintage on the horizon, can Hunter wine lovers foresee visions of perfection or might the ongoing drought make 2020 a bit of a blur on an otherwise dream run?
"Like every vintage, I always have very high expectations," says winegrower Andrew Margan, of Margan Wines. "I'd expect, by now, heading into the fourth year of dry conditions, that we will start to see our vineyards being negatively impacted in some way."
The ongoing drought has made life on the vine difficult for viticulturists and winemakers as we head into a fourth consecutive season of hot and dry conditions. This year has been the hottest and driest on record, thanks to an ongoing series of climate drivers; namely the positive Indian Ocean Dipole pattern, and the negative Southern Annular Mode, which, when combined, drives hot westerly winds right across the country, resulting in incredibly hot temperatures and very little rainfall.
"Semillon looks to be the most affected this year," Margan says. "Our old vines usually crop at 2.2 tonnes to the acre, but because it's been so dry they're cropping more around 1. During the '04-'07 drought, by the time we got to the end of it, the vines were looking quite dismal. Any fruit they had on them, which wasn't much, were only tiny bunches and berries, but the resulting wines were fantastic."
Lower yields tend to mean smaller berries, which, in the past, has made for more intense wines, particularly reds, like shiraz. Hunter wine lovers benefit greatly from the vision the wine community had some 20 years ago to establish the Hunter Wine Country Private Irrigation District infrastructure system, which supplies water into the region. Even in precarious times of drought, vines are still able to access a crucial supply of water.
"Crops are looking good in well-irrigated vineyards, and there are some signs of an early vintage with pre-ripening underway in some advanced sites," says Vitibit viticultural consultant Liz Riley. "Dry-grown vineyards and ones with leaner water supplies will have smaller-sized canopies and correspondingly lighter crops, which isn't necessarily a bad thing."
Large bushfires burning relatively close to Wine Country since November have seen a persistent smoke haze lingering on the air for weeks. Thankfully, right now, it's too early in the season to be of too much concern for winegrowers.
"The threat of smoke taint is something we all take very seriously, but we still have a long way to go. At this early stage of the grape's development, there is not too much to worry about, however we will be watching this carefully as the season develops," says winegrower Brett Keeping of Two Rivers in the Upper Hunter.
Despite the clear and present dangers, it's still early. Hunter winegrowers' sights are set for a blinding 2020 vintage.
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