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Like Caesar’s Gaul, the Gippsland zone falls naturally and geographically into three sub regions. South Gippsland is separated by the Strzelecki Ranges from the West, Central and East Gippsland and is ameliorated by its maritime location. East Gippsland begins at the Avon River at Stratford and goes to the edges of Bass Strait and the Tasman Sea, and north to the border. West and Central Gippsland share a similar climate even though it stretches from the edges of metropolitan Melbourne to the Avon river.
This year the lack of rain affected each sub region differently. East Gippsland was probably most affected, especially as it joined up with the bushfires to create an horrific situation, the effects of which continued long after vintage was completed. For other areas this was the perfect weather situation and the grapes and wines reflect this.
South Gippsland: Although double last year’s crop, Lyre Bird Hill still had only about half a normal crop. Vines were still affected with lower bunch numbers and fewer berries on each bunch. Djinta Djinta also doubled the 2002 crop and was able to control vigour problems in Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet. Windy Ridge went better, having a seven-fold increase, which reinforces how badly Gippsland growers were affected last year. Interestingly, Windy Ridge has noted a three year cropping cycle for its reds since 1993. This may revolve around poor flowering and fruitset weather or a three year vine cycle.
Rains up to the end of December led into a fine, dry spell that required some irrigation. Picking time in April/May saw more rain. There was little disease this year although some Botrytis showed up in Cabernet at picking time.
This is a year of great fruit flavours, good sugar levels and good acid. Overall quality is at an all time high. The very hot spells, up to 109ºF, stalled vine development for a while and delayed harvest. Small crops and a warmer summer have resulted in concentrated reds with excellent colour and structure. The warmer weather also has been good for Chardonnay and brought on the Sauvignon Blanc earlier than usual.
An almost universal overestimate of tonnage meant that there was a shortage of grapes, especially white varieties. Some infestations of European Wasp were difficult later in the season but this year the silvereyes stayed away.
Central/West Gippsland: Vintage was spread longer than usual, probably because of an early start. Narkoojee began picking Chardonnay on 26 March which is about two weeks early and was around the general starting time of most central and west Gippsland growers. However, Narkoojee’s Cabernet stayed on the vines until 5 May, about a week later than usual.
Yields were generally up from the depressing levels of 2002, often four-fold, although most growers felt the figures were about the traditional average. Kou Ark averaged 2.2 t/acre. Narkoojee felt its returns were right, considering that it had pruned heavily to reduce canopy thickness. Holley Hill Vineyard, while happy with its cropping level, still had to buy in extra grapes to meet projected sales figures. They noted that contract fruit was readily available, of high quality and reasonable in price.
Even budburst this year helped with good fruitset and even ripening, although Holley Hill was held back by lack of rainfall. They only received 40% of average rainfall. Kou Ark Vineyard experimented successfully with arched canes to lay down more buds and had no water problems. For them the weather was perfect except for a short hailstorm which fortunately did no damage. For one grower, moving to full net coverage gave an instant return. This year he picked all his crop.
The dry conditions did not seem to affect the vines greatly and may have helped bring up the quality. Holley Hill picked its Sauvignon Blanc at 15°Baume. All growers reported minimal disease and much more limited spraying programs, with few systemic sprays applied.
Red fruit was of high quality with little disease. Narkoojee noted that the reds ripened before the flavour development was completed. Kou Ark had fruit in the mid 13ºBe range with pH levels well within the desirable range and no acid adjustment needed. Cannibal Creek, however, reported that the drought conditions around Tynong North made it difficult to get sugar and acid levels in balance. Terry Blundell was pleased with the richness and nuttiness of his Pinot Noir.
White wines were generally higher in alcohol this year and easily achieved desired ripeness and flavour levels. This year’s weather has been especially kind to the full bodied whites.
Picking proved difficult to organise for many growers as the season coincided with that of the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula although Narkoojee were impressed with their first use of contract pickers.
East Gippsland: Vintage was on time this year even though the drought made it difficult to keep the grapes growing. Sarsfield Estate reported only getting about one third of its usual rainfall, and Parish Estate, while very happy with the quality of its vintage, was heavily affected by the drought.
The average yield was up from the poor 2002 but generally the vines just held their own under the stressful conditions. Weather was highly variable. While Sarsfield had a short hailstorm in March which the netting helped deflect, Parish Estate was in severe water stress and Mt. Markey Vineyard at Cassilis had fires from the Bogong bushfire descend upon them from three sides. Ensay Winery was similarly affected.
The bushfires had a dramatic effect on the vineyards of the Tambo Valley. Most of their time was spent fighting the fire and making sure the community survived. Christine Reddich of Mt Markey operated the local telephone tree from their cellar door sales room and DSE and CFA fire crews used it as their local base. Water was low and Howard Reddich said that at one stage all he had to fight a fire with were two barrels of ‘disposable white wine’. In all of this there wasn’t a tourist in sight for more than six weeks of their major Christmas sales time. Finally, after the grapes were picked and crushed, some were found to be smoke affected. The taint from the tars in the smoke was implanted on the berry skin and no amount of washing could remove it. Fortunately not all wines were affected and the whites in particular, when removed quickly from their skins, are developing well.
Further south, Sarsfield Estate reported its reds were mostly excellent although Pinot Noir yields were down a bit.