This year’s slim pickings

Volumes are down across the southern hemisphere this year due to a combination of depressed grape prices, deliberate efforts to rein in supply and, inevitably, bad weather at the wrong time. Australia stands out but there’s plenty to choose from elsewhere, too.

AustraliaIn Australia it’s a case of smiles all round. Well, almost. The growing season got off to a good start, with ample rainfall followed by moderate temperatures from January onwards. Harvesting started promptly but proceeded at a more relaxed pace compared with recent years.

The only serious blip was an atypical spring heatwave in South Australia in early November – Adelaide experienced eight consecutive days of temperatures in excess of 35°C. This reduced the yields of some varieties, including Grenache, but proved to be an isolated incidence.

Expect good wines from a wide range of varieties and across many regions including Riverland/Sunraysia, Western Australia and South Australia. Weather conditions challenged winemakers in the south east at times.

Highlights are likely to include Riesling and Shiraz from Clare Valley; Shiraz and Cabernet from McLaren Vale; Cabernet from Victoria and Coonawarra; Barossa reds in general; Semillon and reds including Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley; whites (notably Chardonnay) and reds from Western Australia. Base wines are looking good for sparkling wines including Tasmanian Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Many winemakers comment on the elegance and tamer alcohol levels in wines. “We picked modest crops at modest baume levels,” says Paul Smith at Wirra Wirra in the McLaren Vale. “The wines have wonderful balance. If I could dial one up I’d take a 2010 vintage every year.”?Paul Lapsley, chief winemaker for Jacob’s Creek, says: “A truly remarkable vintage, this year has shown itself to be one of only five vintages that will stay in my memory as being exceptional.” Volume: 1.53 million tonnes (estimated) is 12% less than 2009, which was in turn 5% down on 2008. This fall reflects the move to bring Australia’s grape supply in line with demand. Grenache is down by 35% and Chardonnay by 24%. Pinot Noir, with just 28,000 tonnes in 2009, is up to 44,000 tonnes.

New ZealandThe cool spring is partly responsible for low yields in New Zealand, combined with growers’ efforts to tame yields through pruning. Conditions were dry and warm throughout the harvest, allowing grapes to ripen well. Lower yields should also result in greater concentration and aromatics across key varieties.

Villa Maria’s chief winemaker Alastair Maling MW says: “All regions appear to have made some great wines this year. The varieties that will probably stand out are Sauvignon Blanc – but perhaps with a bit more weight than previous years, Chardonnay (Gisborne, Hawkes Bay and Marlborough), Pinot Noir from all regions, Syrah (Hawkes Bay), Viognier (Gisborne and Hawkes Bay) and Merlot (Hawkes Bay).”?Volume: Yields kept in check to avoid oversupply, especially for Sauvignon Blanc, bringing the figure to 266,000 tonnes in the official figures from New Zealand Winegrowers. Pinot Noir was down on 2009 due to unfavourable weather, especially in Central Otago at flowering, although favourable autumn weather compensated when it came to quality.

South AfricaWine producers faced the most challenging weather conditions of any southern hemisphere country. Windy conditions featured throughout, while a severe storm in early November is largely responsible for the low yield. Cool conditions were welcomed at the start of harvesting to allow flavours to develop, although an intense heatwave in early March again proved challenging.

Bunches were generally looser than normal and berries were smaller, providing a good fruit-to-skin ratio.

“The resilient reds such as Cabernet, Shiraz, Pinotage, Petit Verdot and Malbec produced wines of good extract and fruit concentration with exciting potential,” reports Constellation Wines. Look to cooler coastal regions for the best whites including Sauvignon Blanc.

Volume: The crop is expected to weigh in at 1.2 million tonnes, 8.6% less than 2009. Low yields caused grape prices to rise.

ChileThe vintage ran three weeks late allowing Chile’s infrastructure to recover from the serious earthquake of February 27.

The effect of the earthquake on the harvest was marginal despite most vineyards being situated to the south of the country and close to its epicentre.

Cono Sur’s chief winemaker Adolfo Hurtado describes a “relaxed” harvest

asting two months, with “the perfect combination of dry and cool conditions”.

Spring frost was an issue, especially in Limarí, reducing yields by up to 30%. Look for whites and Pinot Noir from coastal areas and reds from Maipo, Maule and Cachapoal – Cabernet and Carmenère stand out.

Sebastian Martino at De Martino concludes: “Those expecting high volumes will be disappointed, but for those focused on quality, like us, the 2010 is one of the best vintages we can remember.”?Volume: 1.1 million tonnes (estimate) – 8% less than the record 2009 crop and slightly above the average level of the past five years.

ArgentinaArgentina had its fair share of weather issues. Spring frosts affected most areas and hail the size of golf balls struck some parts of Mendoza in early February.

Summer temperatures were high but cooler autumn temperatures and dry conditions favoured the final stages of ripening, tamed alcohol levels and delivered healthy grapes.

Highlights are likely to be Torrontés from Cafayate (with better fruit expression than 2009), fresher whites and reds from Mendoza than the previous year and particularly good reds from southern Neuquén and Rio Negro due to cooler conditions and a long ripening period.

Volume: 22% up on the particularly low 2009 yield (2.6 million tonnes as opposed to 1.8 million tonnes). The yield remains around 8% below an average year.