2014 grape picking underway in Hunter Valley

This should be a spectacular vintage in The Hunter Valley.  Weather has been perfect and hopefully will hold for a while longer.  The 2013 vintage was hit by torrential late-season rains that made grape picking at the optimal time difficult and yields of great grapes low.  Based on the region and grape varietal, grape picking in Australia occurs from January to April each year.  Growing seasons are obviously dictated by the annual weather patterns and type of grape involved.  We were one of the first to start picking Chardonnay at Kelman Vineyards last week.  Tyrrell’s was also picking their Chardonnay grapes for their iconic Vat 47.

My wife, DAZ in the Kitchen,  and I have noticed since we started cooking, how much more we have have enjoyed our food, regardless if we make it ourselves or are eating out.  We are more attuned to the entire process of food preparation and better understand what seasonings, flavors and processes (steaming versus boiling,  or if the meat is seared first or not for example) are involved and how to get the most enjoyment while eating.  It is similar with wine.

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In my upcoming book, Wine Sense, I discuss a number of ways to learn more about wine and have fun doing so.  Grape picking and other volunteer work around the vineyards and winery is a great way of learning while having fun!  I have always enjoyed drinking wine, but I now enjoy it more by appreciating how each step from growing and processing the grapes to bottling has influenced the quality of the final product.  Grape picking and having the grape juice on your hands and smelling the juice in its rawest form builds anticipation for what the wine will taste like.  In one sense, my bodily senses are experiencing the wine well in advance of actually drinking it.  Talk about prolonging the experience and getting maximum value from a bottle of wine!

2014-01-09 06.16.46You also learn a great deal in a very short period of time.  You learn to identify ‘ready-to-pick’ grapes versus ‘still-growing’ grapes.  You learn to identify if a bunch or a few grapes in the bunch have become ruinous and should be discarded.  You learned how stems and leaves are introduced when grape picking and some can be all right in terms of flavor and improving tannins, but you also learn not to be too picky or your grape picking productivity slows significantly!  There are processes later on to remove the stems anyway.  And you learn to start very early, 6 am in our case, before the heat overwhelms you!

Getting involved in any aspect of vineyard management or wine making is a great way to learn and appreciate wine more!  Other ideas on getting involved are presented in Wine Sense.

Kelman Vineyards is a beautiful spot in The Hunter Valley which has about 85 home owners.  It is a cooperative vineyard with grapes, olives and lemons grown under the management of a body corporate.  There are plenty of opportunities for the owners to volunteer their time from serving at the cellar door (requires an RSA), netting the vines, picking grapes, bottling olive oil and so forth and includes picking snails off the vines if you are so inclined!  I was one of many volunteer owners who helped out with the season’s first grape picking last week.  You realize what a manual process it can be, and you learn very quickly how to cut and collect bunches of grapes without snipping yourself or wasting grapes in the process.  Grape picking is also great exercise and community involvement.

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The annual grape picking and harvesting for a vintage is an annual festivity in many regions of the world with the whole community involved.  Willian Younger in his great book, Gods Men and Wine, starts out by describing the Vintage on the Douro and how year after year, the community comes together for grape picking and harvesting.  It is a festival of celebration shared by the entire community.  Kelman has recreated a localized version of that for us as owners which I find exhilarating and an educational experience.  If you want to learn more on how to appreciate wine, get involved in grape picking and other activities in the vineyard and winery.  And may sure to look for my upcoming book, Wine Sense to learn even more!


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2014.  Steve Shipley.  All rights reserved.
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Must I stand corrected on 2013 Hunter Valley vintage?

Yesterday I wrote a post lamenting the persistent rain over the last six weeks in the Hunter Valley and the impact on harvesting this years vintage.  I stand by much of what I said, even though it was based on only one detailed and written vintage and harvesting report and conversations over the last three weeks with several other wine makers.

But in reading my blog, one of the very prominent Hunter Valley wine makers felt I had overstated and misrepresented a number of key points, and I take notice of that and accept his input as another key source of information.  He was prepared for and believes he got a great vintage this year.  I also called several other prominent and smaller size wine makers to get more information.  I had limited data points yesterday and wanted to ensure I had more facts on which to base my statements.  The additional data points from my conversations today can be summarized as follows:

  • First and foremost, there will be some great wines from the 2013 Hunter vintage – I did not mean to give the impression the entire vintage was a total write-off!
  • The impact of the rain varied by vineyard and it is important to remember that vineyards in Broke, for example, are 30 km from vineyards in Pokolbin, and 45 – 50 km from vineyards in North Rothbury and Dalwood.  Therefore each vineyard will be impacted quite differently throughout the season
  • Another prominent vineyard was down about 30% in tonnage of grapes picked this year because of the weather, given credibility to a decent sampling of vineyards that were picking less due to the rain
  • Several vineyards reported much more botrytis this year, and not the good kind to make Semillon dessert wines!
  • Grapes like Chardonnay and Semillon that ripened and were picked earlier have had excellent results
  • Some prominent vineyards had a ‘mixed bag’ of quality based on when they picked and ‘getting caught out’ by having to pick at the wrong time.  Therefore, they are separating the batches and reserving the very best grapes for their select wines and considering what to do with the other grapes
  • The above point means that while there will still be some great wines from the 2013 vintage, the overall quality will be lower than the outstanding year it could have been had the heavens treated the wine makers more favorably
  • The best (and this usually means the biggest and and most experienced) wine makers suffered little as they (1) anticipated the rain patterns and dealt with them better than others, and (2) know what to do to put the grapes to best use once harvested
  • Some of the less mature and inexperienced vineyards and wine makers got caught out and suffered accordingly

I therefore probably did overstate (even though I mentioned I came to a figure intuitively) the financial loss from this years vintage due to rain.  It appears to be much smaller than I was ‘guess-imating’ in yesterday’s post.  However, I still am of the opinion that the late rains have had an impact on the quantity and quality of Hunter Valley wines from the 2013 vintage, but my prominent wine maker friend is right in that I over-stated and put more fear into the buying public than I should have for the 2013 Hunter Valley vintage.

There will still be a number of great and great valued wines from this vintage, so as always, I hope you support the great wine makers from the Hunter Valley and buy what you can!  I certainly plan to!


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2014.  Steve Shipley
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Mother Nature makes a real mess of 2013 Hunter Valley vintage

I had recently published a post where I stated the 2013 Hunter Valley vintage would be among the best of all time.  The content for that post was written in early January, 2013.  However, just before harvesting the bulk of grapes for the 2013 vintage, Mother Nature has deluged the Hunter Valley vineyards persistently and forcibly over the last six weeks.  This has turned the 2013 Hunter vintage from superior to below average on the whims of Mother Nature, God, or some force of bad karma.

The tonnage will be far less than expected and the quality of the grapes far less also.  Many grapes were picked too early, too late, or worst of all – not at all.

I spent a lot of time in the Hunter Valley this vintage and saw the growth of the vines and grapes through almost perfect weather conditions.  My excitement and anticipation of both a large and high quality haul of grapes was unprecedented.  After buying a lot of the 2007 Shiraz vintage and some of the 2009 Shiraz vintage, I was excited that 2013 would be a better vintage than either the 2007 or 2009.

But damn if Mother Nature did not wreak its havoc!  Six straight weeks of tumultuous rain had crippled, if not destroyed the harvest.  The cooperative vineyard where we have a place just released their vintage notes with less than satisfactory results.  I have been following the harvesting schedules of  many of the Hunter wineries and they have had to pick early, late or not pick at all.

There will of course be selected pockets of success and the big growers such as Tyrrell’s will have picked as optimally as anyone possibly could have.  But overall, the rain in such a short period of time has turned a once in a decade vintage to an inferior one.  I really feel for the growers and the wine makers.  They may be making 25% – 40% (purely a speculated guess on my behalf!) what they could have had the rain held off.  Why, oh why, is Mother Nature so cruel to wine makers?  And why tempt us all with the promise of such a great vintage to have it mostly destroyed through rain and more rain?

I am heart broken for the Hunter wineries, yet some of them will still do all right.  Bruce Tyrrell will of course still claim it is the vintage of the century as he does most years!  (And having followed in detail the harvesting by Tyrrell’s, they seemed to have done as well as they could!)  But many of the smaller wineries would be suffering and wondering why they are in the game at all.  It is one thing to have dry conditions and add a little in irrigation when necessary.  But when you have torrential rains, there is nothing you can do, especially so late in the season.

But so is the cycle of life. And next year is another year.  And many will fail and many will prosper in 2014.  But I was looking to 2013 as the year that many of the coffers of the Hunter Valley wineries would be lined to provide a buffer for future years and that will not happen now due to the cruelty of Mother Nature.

I hope to hear good news from some of the vineyards as to their success in picking grapes at the right time, but am not hopeful that the Hunter Valley overall will have a great vintage when only two months ago, it look like it would be one of the best of all time.

A roll of the dice against the Gods and once more the Gods made their lesson known.  So is the unpredictability and excitement of being a wine grower or wine maker.  Not for the faint of heart!


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2014.  Steve Shipley
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My losing article in wine writing competition

Late last year, I decided to enter the Gourmet Traveler (GT) Wine magazine wine writing competition.  I was originally quite excited about it, but spent far less time to get an article out than I had planned.  My work commitments were high and most of my creative energy was going in that direction.  I knew the article could be improved and in the final week before the deadline, I was undecided about entering or not (as I knew I would not have the time or energy to improved the article furhter or write another one).  However, I felt if I did not enter, there was no way I could win, so I forwarded my submission.  Yesterday, I was informed the award was given to another.

Even had I been extremely pleased with my submission, I felt there was only a limited chance of winning.  Many previous winners have been sommeliers, wine makers, vingerons, etc. and I was an immature wine enthusiast!  Yet, my article did match most, if not all, of the characteristics they asked each writer to aspire to.  It was useful to go through the experience.

My losing article still provides some good advice about purchasing wine and I think you will find it interesting, even though it has not been judged to be of magazine quality.  Here it is and I hope you enjoy!

Buy – don’t be sold – your wine

We love convenience, especially as the pace of life seems to be speeding up.  We eat meals out so as not to have to cook them ourselves, or even shop for the ingredients to prepare them.  We have people clean for us, do our laundry, and some will shop at Aldi because they trust the premise that Aldi has made high quality, good-valued product choices for us, so we do not have to take the time to research or make those choices ourselves – just pick up bread, milk, chocolate, and even wine without regard to brand.

That convenience has extended to our buying of wine.  Winery loyalty programs tell us “not to worry mate”, just sign up and we will send you your wine of choice every year, regardless if it is a good vintage or not.  Or even easier, we will send you a mixed six-pack every six months.  You can stop by Wine Selector in Australian domestic airports, sample several, and if you like these wines, then trust them to send you wines in the future at price points they believe deliver good value to you.  Because many of us are unsure or intimidated in our wine knowledge, we let and even appreciate the wine sellers selling us what they think is best for us.

Buyers and sellers of wine have different purposes, which can be at odds with each other.  As buyers, we want to get great wine at a great price, have wine we can drink right away or lay down until the wine is more optimally drinkable.  Sellers of wine need to clear inventory and create cash flow every year.  Each vintage, they try to produce the best wine they can and be able to sell it at a price buyers can afford, but more often than not, this proves difficult due to challenging climatic or market conditions.

I have bought a lot of wine over the years and in review, have realized I have been suckered into buying decent wine which I was convinced by the cellar door manager was great wine at a great price.  But now that I have been able to taste and compare more wines, I have come to realize that wine varies greatly in quality vintage to vintage, vineyard to vineyard and wine maker to wine maker, but varies little in price.  For example, the 1996 and 1998 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignons are far better than 1997 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignons, yet the price upon release was about the same for most brands.

I have rarely purchased wine without tasting it first.  Through experience, I have come to know what I like in a wine.  But even if I have not tasted a wine, I can feel reasonably sure I am buying great wines at a great price, if I look at three features of a wine that make it better (or worse) valued than other wines:

  • Vintage (year the grapes were grown  
  • Where the grapes were sourced (often called terroir, or at least a component of terroir)
  •  The wine maker (not the brand, but the actual individual) 

Yes, it may be easier to let the wineries or distributors ‘sell’ you, but they are often pushing what wines are in inventory, regardless of vintage, and touting the brand, not the wine maker.  By combining a bit of knowledge regarding vintages, the source of grapes and who the wine maker is, you can consistently buy great wine at a great price.


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2014.  Steve Shipley
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Twitter:  Steve Shipley @shipleyaust;   InkIT Publishing @inkitpub