2011: The miracle vintage

The 2011 vintage was a shocker: the year of the deluge. Unrelenting rain, not only at vintage but throughout summer, blasted the eastern half of the continent. Only Western Australia and the Hunter Valley were spared the downpour. But, as the wines appear in the market, 2011 is reminding us we shouldn’t rush to judgement. Those who burst into print writing off 2011 may have to eat their words.

Rainfall statistics are one thing, but wine quality doesn’t necessarily correlate. Indeed, 20 or 30 years ago 2011 may have been a disaster for quality but these days, winemakers are better equipped to handle the difficulties nature throws at them. The evidence is mounting that this vintage – at least for top producers – was in footie parlance a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Clare Valley rieslings were among the first wines to emerge on the market. Some producers didn’t have any fruit worth picking, but on the other hand, there are plenty of excellent Clare rieslings, albeit in a racy, low-alcohol style. Then came chardonnays from Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley and again, eyebrows were raised at the superb quality of many wines. They are low in alcohol, delicate, fresh and delicious in a subtle, refreshing way. Rather than 13.5 to 14 per cent alcohol, 12 to 12.5 is normal. These wines show signs they’ll be long-aging, too. Then we started to see the pinot noirs from the same regions, and again, there are some lovely surprises. Again, low-alcohol wines are the order of the day and sometimes light color and light body, while the best have tremendous delicacy, finesse, length and tightness of structure. They mightn’t be impressive, or do well in show judgings, but they are beautiful to drink.

The latest region to turn my head is McLaren Vale. No-one expected regions specialising in full-boded heroic reds from such varieties as shiraz, grenache and cabernet to do well in 2011.

Let me set the scene.

Having tasted the first crop of McLaren Vale Scarce Earth shirazes (from 2010 – a great vintage, by universal acclamation), and been suitably impressed, I was invited to participate in the classification tasting for the 2011 vintage.

Scarce Earth bottlings are single vineyard (often single-block) wines, often of tiny quantity, which are intended to reflect their terroir and epitomise the McLaren Vale region, the shiraz grape and the soil-specific sub-region of their provenance. The 2010 wines are excellent indeed. There are 28 of them. I enjoyed most of them (although one was oxidised: Vigna Bottin). The 2010s were released on May 1 through their makers’ cellar doors, and from August 1, any remaining stock was allowed to be made available to the trade.

A panel consisting of three local winemakers and three outsiders was assembled to blind-taste the 2011 pre-bottling samples submitted by winemakers for approval.

I was apprehensive. Would there be any decent wines? Would we reject them all and be lynched by a local mob?

My first shock was that no less than 50 wines were submitted. Second shock: the standard was very high indeed, possibly as high as the 2010s. Next shock: only 14 were rejected, the other 36 winning the right to be bottled and labelled with the Scarce Earth neck-label.

Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg (tastings) had already told me six months ago that he thought 2011 was an excellent vintage, and that his unirrigated, unfertilised, deep-rooted old vines soldiered through the Big Wet without missing a beat. Deep roots tend to smooth out seasonal vagaries, so that a period of extreme dry or extreme wet doesn’t affect the vine as seriously as it does younger vines dependent on ‘fertigation’. As well, vines pruned for a moderate crop tend to be able to achieve optimal ripeness in cold or wet years when over-cropped vines struggle. Scarce Earth vineyards tend to be older and lower yielding.

So it was that my fellow tasters, David LeMire, Louise Radman and I had one of our most pleasant surprises of the year, together with winemakers Osborn, Charles Whish of Serafino (tastings) and Michael Fragos of Chapel Hill (tastings).

Whish even volunteered that he thought 2011 was a better vintage than 2010 in some respects. There were fewer overripe wines, more elegance, and wines reflected their soil and sub-region particularly well. “We also see extra aromas such as pepper, which you don’t see in 2010.”

D’Arenberg tends to dominate this kind of event by virtue of its astonishing array of great vineyards. It alone has 14 wines to release under its own Amazing Sites series. Of the 13 d’Arenberg submitted for the tasting, only one was rejected. But the rules limit each winery to three Scarce Earth wines. From 2010, d’Arenberg released three wines, one from each of the terroirs that it works with. They are The Blind Tiger (tastings), Shipster’s Rapture (tastings) and The Garden of Extraordinary Delights (tastings). All are outstanding and all are available for $99 ex-winery.

Other 2010s I particularly enjoyed are Penny’s Hill Footprint PHV Rows 33-38 ($60 tasting), Serafino Terremoto ($110 tasting), Shirvington The Redwind ($85 tasting), Wirra Wirra Patritti Single Vineyard ($132 tasting), Hugh Hamilton Black Blood 1, Cellar Vineyard ($50 tasting), Dowie Doole California Road, 74 Block ($45 tasting), Battle of Bosworth Single Vineyard wines Chanticleer (tasting) and Braden’s (both $45 tasting), Chapel Hill The Chosen Road Block ($65 tasting), Vinrock ($40 tasting), and Shingleback Unedited Single Vineyard ($70 tasting).

We’ll have to wait till next May for the 2011s, but I was especially smitten with the three Battle of Bosworth wines, the Coriole Willunga Old Vine, Shirvington, Kangarilla Road, Chapel Hill Road Block, Gemtree Stage 3, both Penny’s Hill wines (Footprint and Western Block) and all of d’Arenberg’s.

The main reason wines are rejected is over-use of oak. It’s a fine line between acceptable and too much, when tasting such young wines. Oak character tends to dissipate with age and especially soon after wines have been bottled. But oak is the enemy in wines that are supposed to be expressing their vineyard characteristics.

But those 2011s, wow! They’re a lesson not to pre-judge vintages.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 11 September 2012. 


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