2015 (My 10th Vintage!) started with a warmer than usual spring, bringing forward by two weeks, an even flowering and fruit-set. Frost in parts reduced yields to average levels and the growing and ripening phases of the fruit were mild and dry with a welcome rain spell in mid January. Picking started two weeks earlier than average and mild, dry conditions allowed late ripening varieties a perfect, long, slow ripening. Riesling is exceptional and Shiraz colour, tannin and acidity have lovely balance at this early stage of maturation. Grenache and Mourvedre produced stellar results.
2014 was another low yielding, high quality vintage in the Barossa. Frost, heatwave and rain reduced crop levels from flowering thru to the late stages of veraison. Continued heat stress thru early parts of summer meant we were looking at early harvests. Then a rain event freshened the vineyards, extended the ripening and allowed flavour build up over a much cooler period. Harvest was 2-4 weeks behind 2013 and the resulting balance became the major talking point as the wines went into barrel for the year. Both Shiraz and Grenache saw whole-bunch winemaking which also occurred in 2012.
2013 was a high quality, very low yielding vintage for the red wines - similar in structure and style to the 2010 HEAD Wines. The winter leading into vintage 2013 was challenging with much needed winter rain not arriving and critically, the further lack of water in October/November dropped yields by up to 50% across all vineyards. Budburst, flowering, fruit-set and veraison all occurred two weeks earlier than average. It was clear around December that yields would be as low as 2007 and in turn, tannin management and oak selection for elevage would be critical. January and February were warm and dry months, facilitating perfect ripening of the grapes. Vineyards were hand-harvested early between the 12th of February and the 16th of March. Very little lignifications of the stems meant it was not a great year for whole-bunch winemaking. The resulting wines have deep colour, higher extract and the fruit and tannins are sweeter.
Another season of cooler conditions has helped produce an exceptional year for the Barossa Valley. The story started when the wet/cool summer of 2011 set low yields for the following year’s grapes. A long winter of rain prevailed and ground water reserves fed and pushed huge, lush, healthy grape canopies skyward. Budburst, flowering, fruit-set and veraison occurred easily and early. Long cool nights and cool to moderate days facilitated even, disease free ripening and early flavour development.
A small heat spike over Christmas and New Year seemed to be the catalyst for what would be one of the earliest start to picking ever seen - Stone Well Shiraz was picked in the third week of February (3 weeks earlier than average). All varieties and vineyards followed soon after with low yields, high acidities and moderate sugars.
Once the fruit arrived in the winery it became clear that the fruit tannin levels were very high. To help balance these tannins, the low-yielding Shiraz grapes received very long ferments, higher percentages of whole-bunches were used and use of new wood was increased. Grenache yields were up slightly again and produced exceptional weight and balance. Once primary fermentation completed the wines had a distinctive finished look to them… as if they had been in oak previously and were ready to drink. I remember Jim Irvine telling me years ago that this feature could indicate an exceptional vintage.
Well, I finally achieved my ‘European’ vintage in the Barossa. This year, no heat-waves and certainly no rushing to pick every vineyard as quickly as possible. I heard many Barossans say ‘..a return to a normal vintage….when plenty of flavours in the grapes arrived early and we waited for the acids to drop and the sugar levels to climb just above 12-12.5 before picking….’
2011 was in-fact the wettest vintage on record and certainly one of the coolest, producing some of the most Rhone-like syrah, Grenache and Mataro I have seen. But, it was not without its difficulties and disease pressure certainly forced many hands in the vineyard and winery. Picking started on the 24th of March this year which was a full 2 weeks later on average than the last 5 years. The baumes were 1-1.5 lower on average and almost no acid adjustments were needed which provide the opportunity to produce a saignee (bleed-off) style rose from Grenache and Mataro.
Once the fruit arrived in the winery it was clear that it would be a year to manage the tannins appropriately. Without the alcohol sweetness, all the usual ‘lumps and bumps’ on the palate would be emphasized – I know this from 2010 The Contrarian. Longer, cooler ferments and gentle extractions would be required with particular attention during elevage over the following 12 months.
At this stage of the 2011 vintage it is difficult to generalise about the long term life of the wines. I certainly haven’t had the opportunity to make wines like this before. Perhaps this vintage is most similar to the 2002 vintage which has many of the characteristics I most want in my wines. There will also be a small amount of Mataro and a cabernet sauvignon produced under the HEAD label from 2011.
2009 saw good rain across the Barossa. As a producer, I was optimistic about a wet winter leading up to flowering and I thought the healthy flowering meant my arm-chair would rock all the way through vintage…
Then, in November, a South Australian heat-wave hit hard...just as the Grenache was flowering – Disaster. What should have been an even quality and high yielding year resulted in variation and reduced vineyard yields of up to 90% in some Grenache vineyards. Growers turned on the taps as canopy temperatures reached 50 degrees. In the lead up to harvest, this necessary albeit risky exercise proved detrimental to the final stages of the fruit’s ripening. Some vineyards would not cope and leaves browned and fell early causing some unevenness in sugars and acids. As summer drew to a close it was clear that rain received in the previous winter had saved many vineyards. I would make some of my best wines in 2010…a vintage of extreme highs and lows.
One feature this early burst of heat introduced was an accelerated ripening of all varieties across the Barossa. One grower pointed out that in 25 years he had never seen Riesling and Cabernet picked at the same time. This unusual occurrence meant that all my vineyards had ripe, brown, crunchy seeds, deep colours and physiological ripeness at lower than normal baumes (potential final alcohols). I took advantage of this feature and picked in the first weeks of March, pushing hard my philosophy that freshness, natural acid and low alcohol will ultimately produce the more balanced and drinkable wine.
There is positive talk amongst the ‘big producers’ about 2010 vintage and as I look over my wine-making notes, I can see a calmness and lack of urgency which, fingers crossed, correlates with great wine. The wines did indeed require little guidance and now in barrel and going through malo-lactic fermentation, have early complexities of flavour, coupled with long, sweet tannins which pared with my 2008s at a similar stage. It’s now becoming easier for me to see where this vintage is going and followers of my 2008s will not be disappointed in the 2010 wines.
Also a notable addition in 2010 was access to an old vineyard situated in the tiny hamlet of Greenock in the western corner of the Barossa. If all goes well, this will provide the stock for a new single vineyard Grenache next year and following that, a single vineyard Shiraz made entirely with whole bunch fermentation.
Once again, in February this year, I headed to the Barossa to monitor the fruit in the vineyards for optimal picking times. 2009 was looking like the third early ripening year for Head Wines. The combination of yet another heat-wave (this one during veraison), lack of water (although we did have 3 inches in November) and panicking growers, looked like setting off the rush to pick everything at once causing the potential for a shortage of space in the winery.
Then the unexpected happened. In March the weather turned cold, especially at night and then a little rain gave the vines a drink just at the right time for all my shiraz vineyards to develop a secondary burst of flavour and colour. By the time I hand-picked my Grenache, it had been one of the coolest vintages since 2002. The year produced some of the best late-ripening varietals (Grenache/Mataro/Cabernet Sauvignon) in 10 years. And the good news is, there will be a 2009 Head Wines Grenache coming from a single ancient vineyard.
It’s hard to generalise about vintages when the grapes that you are using come from 6 different growers and 5 different varieties (early and late ripening) to make 5 unique wines. So, I want to give you an idea of where this vintage sits compared to the monumental ‘shiraz year’ that was 2008. When you read a vintage report about a mass producer it has absolutely no relevance to a small producer like Head Wines. I micro-manage every stage from vineyard to winemaking to bottling to ensure that the highest quality level is maintained.
In many ways 2009 was the dream vintage. As a winemaker I really didn’t have to work too hard. However, even though they are perfumed, long lived, beautifully structured wine they will not have the immense, bludgeoning power of the 2008 wines.
An up and down year for many in the Barossa with continued drought and some frosts making the winemakers job both challenging but ultimately rewarding. In January a growth phase in the grape berry where the size would normally double, didn’t really eventuate. The stress from heat/lack of water and in some cases frost left the vines struggling to produce fruit with any mid palate richness. A very early harvest in March meant things were hectic in the winery and yields were down in some vineyards by up to 50%, which in turn saved the quality of the finished wines. The wines have the very best perfumed characters, supple tannin and a warmth that has allowed for early drinking.