Vintage '19

South Australia’s summer before the 2019 vintage was a scorcher, but some producers’ “climate change grapes” are looking the goods.
Max Allen
by suzi hilder/smallfry and timothy rosenthal

The first phone call came through in early March. Winemaker Steve Pannell was keen to tell me how the vintage was progressing in South Australia. It wasn’t good news. Along with much of the south-east of the country, the Barossa and McLaren Vale were baking under the hottest summer on record. Yields were way down in many instances, he told me, with a lot of the shiraz, cabernet and merlot clearly affected by the heat.

“But the climate change grapes!” said Pannell. “All those Italian and Spanish and Portuguese varieties we planted a few years ago. They’re fine. Montepulciano, nero d’Avola, tempranillo, fiano, touriga, grenache. Still happy out there in the heat. This will be the vintage that really shows the wisdom of having those grapes in our vineyards.”

Pannell wasn’t the only one this year thanking Bacchus that there’s been an increasing number of so-called alternative varieties planted across Australia over the last two decades. As the vintage rolled on, I spoke to plenty of winemakers about how well their heat-and-drought-tolerant grapes were faring.

Wayne Ahrens and Suzi Hilder farm their biodynamic Smallfry vineyard at Vine Vale in the Barossa. As well as looking after old, dry-grown grenache and mataro vines (all varieties with a long-proven track record of coping well in the heat), the couple has also planted some other warm-climate Mediterranean grapes such as cinsaut.

When I spoke to Ahrens in early March, he described the season in the Barossa as “apocalyptic”, with unprecedented spring frosts and the big dry summer cutting crops by 70% or more. Ahrens’ family has been in the region since the 1830s, and like many growers he has seen vintage dates shift dramatically in the last 20 years. “When I was a kid, we’d never start picking grapes until after March 11,” he said. “This year, we’ll have finished picking by March 11.”

Despite the challenges, though, there will be some good wine from Smallfry this year, albeit in smaller quantity than usual. And the standout grape varieties? The heat lovers, cinsaut, grenache and mataro.

Up in the Eden Valley, viticulturist Prue Henschke reported in early April that yields were so low just five tonnes of shiraz grapes were harvested from the family’s Mount Edelstone Vineyard, a tiny fraction of the normal pick. Henschke is acutely aware of the changing climate: she said average rainfall in some of her vineyards has dropped from 1,200 millimetres to 700 millimetres in the last two decades. And she has been trialling new grape varieties since the late 1990s, when she first planted pinot gris in the Adelaide Hills; the latest additions to the repertoire include southern French varieties such as counoise and grenache gris.

This year, two Mediterranean grapes planted by Henschke in Eden Valley in 2002, tempranillo and nebbiolo, performed particularly well in the heat. “The tempranillo had a poor fruit set and then got no water, but the fruit looks really good,” she said. “It’s made me think about how we might treat it in the future: maybe we’ve been mollycoddling it a bit until now and need to be a bit meaner with it. And I can’t believe how well the nebbiolo has held up: it’s such a late ripener that it’s shrugged off the hot weather.”

Barrels at Bellwether in Coonawarra, which avoided much of the drought.
Barrels at Bellwether in Coonawarra, which avoided much of the drought

Winemaker Sue Bell is based in Coonawarra and makes her Bellwether wines from locally grown grapes as well as fruit sourced from up on the Murray in South Australia’s Riverland, among other regions. In April, Bell told me she’d had a good vintage, partly because, being so far south, Coonawarra avoided much of the drought conditions that afflicted regions further north, and partly because the varieties that came down from the Riverland – which saw one of the hottest, driest summers in South Australia – were heat-and-drought-tolerant grapes such as nero d’Avola and montepulciano.

“Adapting to climate change was the foundation philosophy of my business when I set up Bellwether ten years ago,” said Bell. “This is the vintage when I feel that philosophy has really paid off.”

Nobody knows with absolute certainty, of course, what the future climate holds for Australia’s grape growers and winemakers. But it’s absolutely clear that preparing for this uncertain future by planting a range of different grape varieties makes a hell of a lot of sense.