Disease, hail, rain, frost hit vintage

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Shannon SmithAlbany Advertiser
Terra Riche winemakers Coby Ladwig and Luke Eckersly have been named in the top 10 new wineries by James Halliday.
Camera IconTerra Riche winemakers Coby Ladwig and Luke Eckersly have been named in the top 10 new wineries by James Halliday. Credit: Laurie Benson Albany Advertiser

Great Southern wine producers have endured one of their toughest seasons on record.

The wine industry is one of the biggest in the region and growers have had to contend with it all — wildlife, disease, hail, frost, dry stretches and pounding rain.

Producer Jeff Burch from Howard Park Wines has several vineyards and grape suppliers across the region.

As chairman of the Agricultural Produce Commission’s wine division, he has seen the devastating impact conditions have had on the 2019 vintage, with some growers being left with big proportions of grapes unusable for wine.

To put it in perspective, he said the Great Southern produced 10,807 tonnes of grapes for the 2016 vintage, 14,400t for 2017 and 11,884t for 2018. For 2019, he is anticipating there will only be about 8000t.

He deemed this season’s conditions some of the worst he had seen in 30 years.

“It has been a really tough year,” Mr Burch said.

“It started with the normal storms around October, 2018 and this greatly affected the flowering of the vines ... that gave us poor fruit set.

“We kind of knew that as the bunches were growing, there were a lot less fertilised bunches and naturally your yields are going to be down.”

That was only the beginning of the bad luck for growers.

Mr Burch said he had experienced something that he had never seen before — some individual grapes had grown to normal size, but many never grew and were not fertilised. “When you cut them in half to look, there was no seed and already we knew we were off to a lower vintage,” he said.

“Going forward some growers, primarily in Frankland, got hit with frost and there was heavy hail too in some of the regions.

“Whoever got hit got nothing.

“Frost stops the plant growing, nothing matures and the plant goes into preservation mode and it does have a bit of an effect on the second year too.

“On top of that there was a fair bit of rain around over the harvest period.”

The weather events in March 2019 came at one of the worst possible times for growers, when the grapes were starting to ripen for picking.

The weather brought an increased risk of disease and caused some of the grapes to split.

As with other forms of agriculture, growers want plenty of rain at this time of year, rather than at their harvest time in early autumn.

“It was decimating for growers who have spent the whole year preparing their crop and just about ready to pick, just to be wiped out,” Mr Burch said.

“It is pretty gut-wrenching.

“The low volume means that people have got nothing much to sell, which affects their cash flow and their business.”

Despite the significant drop in yield, there were positives arising for the Great Southern wine industry. Mr Burch said what had shocked him was the wines had been of excellent quality.

“The quality has been terrific, but the volume is terrible,” he said.

“A long-term positive is that there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that China is ... increasingly important for WA wine.

“They like the style of wine that we make and they are also prepared to pay a price to enjoy those styles of wine, and that price is a profitable price for the industry.

“I know that some of the growers are doing it tough, but there is hope at the end of the tunnel if they can hang in and get through that.”

New Mt Barker winery Terra Riche, which was named one of the 10 best new wineries in last week’s Halliday Wine Companion Awards, has felt the brunt of the conditions.

The new venture is a partnership between respected local winemakers Coby Ladwig and Luke Eskersly, and Shanghai-based importer Hong Chenggeng, who bought an established vineyard in Mt Barker one year ago.

Both winemakers are involved with other local wineries, but the new brand is geared up to target the Chinese market directly.

Mr Ladwig said their first harvest was of good quality but had a 40 per cent lower yield than anticipated. “Weather-wise it was pretty tough,” he said. “We ended up never really having a hot summer, we actually got quite early rainfall as well.

“So we had really cool temperatures and rain and it became quite difficult to get grapes nice and ripe.

“I saw vineyards that had just about been wiped out and there were others at 50 per cent.”

Forest Hill winemaker, Guy Lyons, said the lack of rainfall and frost was catastrophic to some of their grapes.

“We often get a rainfall event in December or January which helps our vines over the summer months, however we didn't get that last summer,” he said. “We ended up having to water some of our vines via a water cart to ensure the vines maintain health.”

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