The last weekend in winter is always an interesting time on a vineyard. For me, it signifies the weekend when the previous season becomes history and the next vintage becomes the present.
Whilst some vineyards in the Hunter Valley have already started with budburst for the 2019 vintage, our vineyard of Semillon and Shiraz is still at least a week, more likely two weeks away. The semillon first, the shiraz shortly after.
A new season always brings with it hopes for quality grapes and quality wine, but there is something looming large over this year more than the last two seasons that I’ve called the Hunter Valley home – drought.
Drought brings with it positives and negatives. Of course, that sounds preposterous – how can a drought be a positive? – but stick with me here, there’s a couple of factors that come into play.
Firstly, irrigation. With a few notable exceptions, most modern vineyards rely on irrigation to help the vines produce high quality fruit. The average vine age in our vineyard is approaching 30 years old – not old enough to have serious root systems that penetrate the soils to the water tables below. As such, in most years we need to irrigate the vines to supplement natural precipitation.
A vine requires 550mm of precipitation (from any source) to produce fruit and roughly 750mm to produce high quality fruit. In most years in the Hunter, we’re lucky to get more than 650mm annually. This year, we’ve received to date 216mm, around half of the long term averages. The entire month of August has seen just 9mm fall. It’s pretty dry, although ironically it’s raining as I write this now. Simply put, we cannot get around having to irrigate out vines.
Secondly, the dry weather is actually good for fruit development, if you can water from an alternative source. Dry weather brings less humidity which, in turn, brings lower disease pressure which means less reliance on sprays to manage diseases and pests. If temperature is not too hot and the vines have all the support they need, then high quality fruit is almost an expectation.
As such, I actually have high hopes for the season ahead, despite the lack of rain. We will fill our dams from water pumped from the Hunter River via an irrigators pipeline, so we have a somewhat reliable supply. But some rain would really help as well.
The negatives with drought are obvious – we can’t pump infinitely from the Hunter River without at some point the river being replenished, so extended drought conditions into 2019 may have impacts into future seasons, but with long-term forecasts predicting rain in February 2019 we’ll cross that bridge if, and when, we come to it.
So this weekend has brought with it the closing of the chapter on Vintage 2018 and the start of the chapter on Vintage 2019. My thoughts now move to early season management. Excitement hasn’t crept in yet, but when that first Semillon bud exposes it’s green tips for the first time, everything will change.
And I can’t wait.