Yarra Valley Smoked

Red-wine output from the Yarra Valley is likely to be tiny from the heatwave and bushfire smoke-affected 2009 vintage. But the good news is that there could be some outstanding whites.

Coldstream Hills and Giant Steps, two of the region's quality leaders, confirmed last week that they would have no Yarra Valley-labelled pinot noir from 2009, while De Bortoli said it would release very little. Bushfires laid siege to the Yarra Valley in February this year at the beginning of the harvest, and back-burning operations for weeks afterwards created more smoke that intermittently hovered over the valley. But the main damage seems to have been caused by the withering heatwave that hit the region immediately before the fires broke out. This damaged fruit on vines, some of which was picked and some not. Grapes that were picked were then sorted and further discards made. Some producers such as Giant Steps decided not to harvest any grapes from the western side of their vines – the side most affected by the heat of the late-afternoon sun. Giant Steps winemaker Steve Flamsteed estimates he will have less than half a normal vintage to sell, although the company would be saved by its McLaren Vale vineyard, which had a very good vintage, and by the Murray Valley-grown Moscato for the Innocent Bystander label.

"We won't have any single-vineyard pinot noir this year&hellips;there was so little Yarra Valley pinot we could use," says Flamsteed. "We will have an Innocent Bystander pinot, and it will be Victorian, not Yarra Valley. We bought grapes from the Adelaide Hills and Mount Barker as well as King Valley, so we'll be able to meet the 85% minimum Victorian rule, and the back-label will detail exactly where the grapes came from."

Coldstream Hills' winemaker Andrew Fleming has a similar story. "We will have a varietal pinot noir this year (not a Reserve), and it will be Victorian, not Yarra Valley. These have been the worst bushfires ever&hellips; it's been very tough. We had the choice of releasing nothing or doing something. We bought in grapes from Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania, as well as using the company vineyard at Drumborg, and only a little bit of Yarra."

Again, the sources will be explained on the back-label. Fleming says neither will there be a pinot from St Huberts – another Foster's-owned brand whose wines are vinified at Coldstream Hills. Whereas Giant Steps' main problem was heat damage, Coldstream Hills, De Bortoli and no doubt many other wineries say smoke-taint is a real issue. "We probably won't release much '09 pinot noir at all: there's a bit of dryness in some of them," says De Bortoli chief winemaker Steve Webber. The dryness he refers to is a smoke effect: smoke-tainted wines can smell smoky and have a drying, sometimes unpleasantly astringent, back-palate and aftertaste. A little of this character is not a problem; indeed, some argue it can add to complexity, but too much is obvious even to less-experienced tasters, and can be quite unpleasant. Webber says he didn't find the same dryness problem in 2007, which was also smoke-affected. Several Yarra Valley '07s now on the market have a hint of smoke, but it will go unnoticed by most drinkers. I hasten to add smokiness is not a health issue and is no reason to avoid Yarra Valley wines.  

Fleming said some wineries had used special measures to avoid smoke taint. One of these was hand-picking, in order to whole-bunch press all white grapes and minimise contact between broken skins and stalks. (Crushing would be more risky.) Another was pre-testing of grapes, both by laboratory analysis and palate. Fleming says Coldstream Hills did a large number of bucket ferments before sending the pickers in. There's no point shouldering the high cost of picking grapes if they cannot be used, so pre-harvest testing was massive in '09 and laboratories were working overtime. Bucket ferments entailed picking a small quantity of fruit, fermenting it in a bucket and tasting the result. Tasting fermented wine is a more reliable way to detect smoke taint than either lab analysis or tasting unfermented grapes or juice. "We were hard-nosed," says Fleming. "A lot of our fruit went unpicked, and there was a fair chunk of the Amphitheatre (Coldstream's most prized pinot block) that we didn't pick." Another measure was to do an early press-cut: in other words, to extract less juice from each load of grapes, for fear that the more hard-pressed juice would show more taint. "And you don't put it into new oak: if there's any suspicion of smoke, you don't risk tainting expensive new barrels."

Smoke-taint can grow in new wines: it may not show at first, but after weeks or months of maturation in the barrel, or even after bottling, it can mysteriously emerge.

Fleming says there will be some outstanding white wines from '09, which underlines the fact that before the heatwave and fires, it was an excellent growing season. "If you look at Heat Degree Days (a temperature index: basically a summary of temperatures during the months from budburst to harvest) it was a mild season. We didn't need to add acid to anything, indeed we even put some wines through malolactic, which is a sign that we had quite a cool growing season before the heatwave. The yields were spot-on and the bunches were small (both quality indicators) – then we had a few days of extreme heat, and then the smoke."

So, it's not all bad news – far from it. Watch for those '09 whites. As always, the reputable producers will 'bite the bullet' and refrain from releasing badly smoke-tainted wine.