Mark Hoddy in Oz – A Compressed Harvest

My word, what a vintage it has been here in McLaren Vale! 2015 has seen remarkable weather here in South Australia starting with a mild winter, a cool spring and start to the growing season and a good dry, warm summer. However there have been some extraordinary heat waves or heat blasts as they are saying over here with 2-3 days of intense 40+°C heat, comparable to a microwave being turned on full for three minutes at a time. This has accelerated the ripening in bursts and along with the near perfect growing season has created a phenomenon rarely, if not ever seen here in South Australia. 2015 is being labelled as ‘ a compressed harvest ’.

Normally the harvest here in the Vale starts in March and runs for 7-8 weeks starting logically with whites on the lower slopes, then the reds on the flats followed by the whites then reds in the hills. This ‘normal’ cycle has been turned upside down and almost everything, regardless of grape varietal, has ripened at the same time!! We have picked Cabernet before Chardonnay, Shiraz the same day as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling whilst harvesting old vine Grenache … just crazy. Added to this the harvest was 2 weeks early and the earliest on record!

The result? Complete mayhem and a logistical nightmare in the field and in the winery. The early date caught cellars by surprise and they lacked the extra vintage help that would mostly be arriving (including myself) from overseas for the start of harvest. But the most incredible thing was that an 8-week harvest was completed in just 4 weeks with the same volume of grapes, the same man hours in both the cellar and vineyard, hence ‘A Compressed Harvest’! The risk however was that grapes at optimum ripeness and ready to pick couldn’t be harvested, no harvesters available and even if they were the wineries were full to the brim!

Full Vats

Full tanks

Extra vats were being rented and old vats being cleaned up for ferment use, it seemed every vessel in McLaren Vale that could hold liquid was being used!! Unfortunately, some of the grapes on the vine started to shrivel into over ripeness and many winemakers struggled and sadly, some potentially high-quality grapes were lost.

I landed after a 25hr non-stop journey from France at 2pm on the Friday and hurled myself into the thick of harvest the following morning at 6am. I was soon at the ferment tasting bench where we had to get through over a hundred ferments to decide the next 12 hours’ work schedule. This was then repeated 12 hours later to organise the nightshift jobs.

At the tasting bench

At the tasting bench

I have never experienced anything quite like it, but after 30-odd days straight and 20hrs a day of ‘organised chaos’ it was over. Quite a blur, but I do think the simple sandwich is vastly underrated!

Overall the harvest was a triumph and quality was superb from vine to wine. 2015 is certainly an exceptional vintage and one to ear-mark for its release in 2016

About Mark Hoddy

Mark Hoddy, Winemaker and Buyer for Alsace at Laithwaite's.