“Take from us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.”
—Song of Solomon 2:15
It has been a difficult vintage in South Australia. For those of us watching grapevines and declaring early predictions on the quality of wine this year, the premature cold snap of autumn and importunate, atypical rainstorms dashed high hopes against the Shiraz-growing granitic soils. In the wake of several harsh years and a lingering economic downturn, some wineries closed their doors as whole acreages succumbed to grey rot. Conversely, in certain well-kept and lucky spots, some brilliant wine will come out of 2011. This vintage will not be a story of defeat, but of expectation, frustration, and reevaluation.
First, then, I must explain the expectation. For South Australian wine, this year was set to be a truly brilliant one. The summer was wet and fresh, only escalating for a couple days into the famously dusty and inescapable heat of this antipodean heartland. The grape vines, like the people down this way, rejoiced that a ten-year drought was over and the hills turned green again. Delicate grape flavors had time to develop in harmony with their own ripeness — foreshadowing balanced, complex, noteworthy wines. In fact, all agricultural industry, which is undeniably woven into South Australia’s modern life, thrived this summer without the aid of expensive water supplements piped in from the north or desalinization factories from the south. The farmers’ markets bloomed resplendent with epicurean spoils: lush local cherries, pears, apples, beets, collard greens. Traditional English rose gardens throughout the city and countryside thrived. Grapegrowers patiently awaited the harvest.
Rains came; the frustration. There is a pivotal window of time in the viticultural year when grape farmers pray for perfect weather, and this year prayers fell softly as drizzling mist for weeks on end, just when grapes most desperately needed a last push of sunshine to ripen. In other moments of the growing season, chemical sprays help alleviate disease, but such spraying is restricted in the weeks before picking. The rain led to rot, which spread erratically through vine rows, affecting this bunch but not its neighbor. Moldy grapes do not make good wine; each day rot destroyed incrementally more of the harvest that took so many patient months to grow. Vineyard owners could do nothing but watch.
I write now with icy fingers because autumn has come on fast and cold. The leaves on the vines are yellow, or brown, or gone, and harvest — one way or another — is over. It is remarkable how time marches on, heedless of tragedy and joy. The strict cycle of agriculture magnifies the seasons — in summer the grapes fatten; in autumn they are ripe; in winter the vines lignify and sleep until spring, no matter if last year’s hard work hangs shriveling in the cold. Another vintage will come in its time, perhaps better, or perhaps even worse.
In the winery workers strove to make the very best of what nature offered. The adage is that a winemaker can ruin good grapes, but cannot improve bad ones. This year, winemakers spent painstaking hours culling the bad from the good, literally sorting individually underripe or shriveled grapes from the juicy, perfect ones. For hours and days, the sorting table buzzed, conveying round wet grapes bounced on their way from the destemming machine to the fermentation tank. A worker stood and watched, reaching in to pull out green, unfledged berries or brown and mushy ones. Between careful hand-picking in the vineyard and meticulous sorting in the winery, the winemaker ensures that the very best possible wine will come out of the vintage, but he has thrown away forty percent of the year’s overall yield.
How can we make sense of loss? It is scant comfort that another year will come, another opportunity is just around the corner of winter’s grey. It is only mildly gratifying to know all that meticulous sorting will, in the end, result in an outstanding product. So much was thrown away. Lost wine is perhaps a trivial thing to lament in a world filled with tragedy and suffering, but this is what we do, and we expected so much more. We have had to reevaluate our definition of “good” this vintage. Success has been tailored to suit reality. The real casualty has been our hope.
Time will roll along to another harvest, and another. We must prepare ourselves, and pray.