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The growing season started slowly—the October budburst was a bit later than average in some vineyards—probably because growers pruned late and the 2002 winter was dry. Uneven buds and shoot lengths were particularly noticeable in Merlot, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Some shoot damage occurred in the north east of the region after a hailstorm. By October some growers were concerned that their reds were not setting well and it was already obvious that some crops were patchy, with yields generally down 20–30% (some as much as 50%) due to the earlier than usual warm to hot conditions. The setting of whites fared better than reds.
December’s heatwave records—with several days in the vineyards reaching the high 40s and nights not dropping below 20°C—meant growers had to adapt their watering habits to keep the vines healthy. Veraison had occurred but ripening slowed for all varieties, and there was some uneven ripening and sunburn—although that was limited with those growers who had good canopy to protect the fruit, avoiding damage. The upside was very little evidence of downy or powdery mildew, no pests or other diseases, and smaller yields, bunches and berry sizes in the reds; all good indices for premium quality fruit.
By January the annual cat-and-mouse game between wineries and growers had begun. One grower said, ‘Wineries throughout the year demand quality and put pressure on growers re: watering, pruning etc., but even after these demands are met, the wineries are still uncertain of purchase, contracts and prices leading up to harvest.’
Dr Joe Ceravolo, president of the Adelaide Plains Wine Region, said some wineries and winemakers had outdated perceptions about the quality of fruit from the Adelaide Plains and that ‘perhaps it suits them to perpetuate these misconceptions to keep our prices down’.
Contracted growers reported receiving $400 to $600 less for their reds than last year with an occasional windfall in prices for the Chardonnays.
Mr Ceravolo said it was obvious that with other regions reporting low yields, Adelaide Plains Chardonnay and other whites were in demand and they could have supplied ‘umpteen more tonnes judging by the phone calls fielded from wineries begging for more’.
At the behest of the winemakers who wanted to retain flavours due to the drier and warmer year, Chardonnay was the first variety harvested—sooner than usual in early February with nice apple and pear flavours and good berry size and condition. By mid February the reds were also looking good with strong colour and flavours, which was in keeping with the previous year’s quality.
Harvest was well underway when Mother Nature decided to drop 45 to 50 mm of rain in early March. The plains came alive with the sounds of sprayers pumping out their potions to keep Botrytis and downy at bay. Some splitting was reported in Merlot and Grenache—and to a lesser extent in the Shiraz—and lighter splitting occurred in the Riesling and Chardonnay that was still on the vines.
Eventually, after some persistence, all growers found a home for their fruit, but prices and yields generally remained lower and some growers were still having a tough time with wineries being slow to make decisions and finalise contracts.