Vintage Report: The growing seasons of the Swan Valley
Well what a vintage 2023 was!
We must have done something right to have had such amazing conditions.
After a nice wet winter, followed by a mild spring, summer has definitely sneaked up on us.
The milder summer meant that the grape flavours developed gradually along with the sugar levels. Ultimately wine is fermented grape juice, the more interesting and complex flavours the grapes have, turns into more interesting wines for you.
Monday 9th January 2023, started with a walk through the vineyard, checking on the different blocks of grapes. We sampled the river block of Chardonnay as this will be the first block we pick.
This batch of grapes is destined for our Sparkling Chardonnay.
The vineyard is looking amazing. The leaves are all nice and green, the bunches of grapes are getting bigger and starting to ripen.
Thank Goodness the yields were up compared to the last few years, as now I can make enough wine for us all… hopefully we won’t run out of Verdelho this year!
The quality of the 2023 fruit was also excellent, making for some very happy winemakers around the region.
Right now we are busy little bees in the winery, getting your young whites ready for bottling. I’m also putting the 2023 red wines into barrel, blending your 2022 reds and squeezing in a holiday or two.
Before we know it, pruning time will be here, so I’m going to soak up as much of this sunshine I can get!
This was the most challanging vintage ever, the saving grace was the extreamly wet winter and mild spring we had, but then the weather warmed up about the same time as Christmas and we had the most days in a row above 40 degrees ever.
It was also the time when Covid actually hit WA, so people were getting Covid and having to isolate. Australia & WA's boarders were still closed so no one could get in or out of the state. This created a shortage of pickers, in fact we've been using the same picking team for the last 10 or so years, they all live locally, but unfortuatly thy had a car accident when going to another job so the whole team were out of action for most of the picking season.
It was a real challange to harvest the fruit, when had friends, neighbours, relations and yes even customers coming out to help- it was literally all hands on deck.
Each day we could only pick about half of what we'd usually pick.
The icing on the top was a number of electricity blackouts...caused by the unually hot conditions- but a complete nightmare when you're in the middle of vintage and trying to control temperatures on all the different wines.
In fact the wines look excellent considering the season's challanges.
After a good wet winter in 2018, we had one of the mildest summers in memory.
This provided ideal conditions for growing wine grapes, avoiding any of the heat waves which are our greatest enemy in the Swan Valley.
These ideal conditions resulted in ripening at least two weeks later than in previous years, allowing more complex and intense flavours to develop in our grapes.
Our first grape pick was Verdelho, on 24th January.
The resulting white wines proved to be lighter and more elegant than in previous years, the Verdelho looking particularly attractive.
The reds are still maturing in French oak barrels and are looking exceptionally good.
Discover what happens during vintage, our 'vintage hand' has written a 'vintage exposé, behind the scenes at vintage, read it HERE
2018 was an unusally cool vintage with a perfect ripening season, which meant that the wine grapes were all picked a couple of weeks later than usual.
This vintage has the potential to be a once in a lifetime vintage- everything was almost perfect, the long, cool ripening along with great soil moisture (from wet 2017) combined with no super hot days and no rain.
Best of all, we were able to harvest all our grapes, which after 2017 felt like an absolute blessing.
The Verdelho will be the first wine released from the 2018 vintage.
It was looking likely to be the Swan Valley's best ever, with a long, cool spring and summer. We started to pick our fruit about three weeks later than usual and were really excited...until the rain began!
We handpicked our Verdelho Thursday 2 Feburary, it handled the rain and is looking fantastic, lots of flavour and great natural acidity!
Sunday and then Tuesday we picked the largest amount of Chardonnay we've ever picked in one day, as more rain was coming.
We're called Upper Reach because we're on the banks of the Swan River.
The river's catchment area is the Northam & York to the north of us, they had twice as much rain as us, so their rainwater came rushing down the river valley.
That evening the Swan River flooded over its banks and started running through the middle of our vineyard. A nerve-racking night!
By Thursday lunch, the water had started to subside (phew).
The river has flooded in summer, only once during my 20 years here- Summer 2000 was much worse, much more water.
This time the water pooled along the lowest part of the vineyard, only a few vines were affected; these were Cabernet they are picked latest, so have the best recovery chances- we'll worry about the 30 affected vines in a month or so.
We are still holding our breath, as to what happens with this next rain, hopefully the river won't break its banks again, but who knows...I'll keep you posted.
But then the river flooded again, the second time it was much worse.
At 10:30pm on Friday 10th, the Swan River broke its banks, flooding into our vineyard and kept on rising, higher than we had ever seen it before.
Then it flowed, yes the Swan River flowed through our vineyard for the whole week. It stopped flowing this Tuesday 21st; an amazing and (I hope) once in a lifetime sight.
We have lost 75% of our red wine grapes, there won't be any Reserve Shiraz this year, all those vines were underwater for the week.
Our Shiraz is planted on the flood plains of the Swan River, we've been here 20 years and only ever had two Summer floods, the other 18 years we've had award winning Shiraz from this part of the vineyard.
Upper Reach make some of WA's best Shiraz, being grown on the flood plains gives our Shiraz its unique characteristics, from the terroir (the soil) and microclimate in this low, cooler part of the vineyard- however if you grow grapes in a flood plain, you've got to expect trouble when the water is high....
Sad, especially when it was looking like such a great year, but not devastating.
All the white grapes were picked, so Verdelho, Chardonnay & Black Bream drinkers, celebrate away!
We have good stocks of our red wines, no need to panic, but there will be no 2017 vintage of Reserve Shiraz.
It has been heart-warming and amazing, so many people have asked what can they do to help.
The best thing you can do is to keep drinking Upper Reach. Now is the time we really need your support, we've still got great wine so we need you and your friends to keep drinking Upper Reach and supporting local!
WINE grape harvest in the Swan Valley has got off to one of the earliest starts on record.
Vintage seemed to begin early this year, I think it was because we’d just got back from visiting family in the UK and a bit jet lagged started back at work.
Fortunately James had spent most of Christmas checking the irrigation (apologies to Carol, his wife) as we’d had a number of really warm days, monitoring and adjusting the irrigation, was critical.
The fruit was in good condition and though it felt like an early start to vintage, at Upper Reach it was only two days earlier than last year. Interestingly it seems that vintage is creeping earlier each year, over the last 20 years vintage has moved about three weeks earlier, it’s the same across all grape growing regions in Australia!
Swan Valley vineyards parched as we had our lowest winter rainfall in at least 15 years.
A hot and early start to spring also spurred the vines into early growth, allowing vineyards to thrive through the pre-summer months; the temperature in October was five degrees above average.
The first pick was Chardonnay for our Sparkling base on Monday 11 January, then we were into it, picking Chardonnay on Wednesday 13, and Verdelho on Friday 15 and Monday 18th.
We got 10mm of rain on Tuesday 19th, so we cancelled the next pick; so a surprise day off right in the thick of it. Derek was glad he’d done that, as two days later the Verdelho was perfect; perfect baume (an indicator of the sugar level) and perfect condition.
Derek is pretty happy with everything so far, the fruit all looks good, the berries seem smaller than usual which suggests that we’ll have really good, intense flavours. We struggle to predict anything useful this early in vintage, but its all looking good!
We ended January with 15 mms of rain…on the afternoon of our first Twilight Concert (no I’m not bitter).
The next pick, due two days later was cancelled, as the sugar levels had been diluted by the rain, resulting in less busy days in the winery.
We monitor all the ferments, the aim is for them to reduce one sugar level and increase in one alcohol level per day – we control this by adjusting the temperature of the tanks- the lower the temperature, the slower the fermentation.
Once ferments are completed, the wine is racked off the yeast lees, these are the leftover solids from the ferment and Derek starts the fining up process.
An advantage of the slower progress of vintage is that Derek has had lots of time to think, plan and prepare, something that’s lucky as we now have a heatwave coming up; 5 days of 38+ weather!
We’ve been watering for a couple of days to help the vines through this, but as most of the red grapes are still on the vine, its not ideal
Some shiraz was picked before the heat and some just at the end of the heatwave, this wine is fermenting as I type- yields are down but it will be a big, rich, ripe one!
This warm weather will result in wines with very forward flavour with a lot more sweet and fruity characteristics, while cooler years produce wines that take longer to develop and less obvious fruit characteristics.
It was the perfect lead up to vintage, good winter rains, spring started well, the growing season had been lovely and cool, with late rain into October keeping everything looking fresh, green and not heat stressed.
Then came a week of really hot weather in early January, this caused the chardonnay fruit for the Sparkling base wine to be picked about 2 weeks earlier than last year, the earliest we’ve ever picked. The fruit ripened quickly as mid January continued to be dry and warm. The biggest challenge this year was deciding when to pick, but fruit quality was generally excellent, with good yields.
By the week of 20 January it was on for young and old, we were picking every other day, so we pick Sunday, process Monday, pick Tuesday process Wednesday and so on. By the end of the week we’d done a quarter of our vintage!
Despite the hot weather the whites have really intense aromatics and flavours. We’ve bottled the 2014 Verdelho and Black Bream White and they look fantastic, really lifted, intense, rich full fruit flavours just leap out of the glass.
All the red fruit had very small berries, which results in intense colours, sweet fruit characters and round tanins and plenty of ‘oomph’. This will quite possibly make 2014 the best vintage for a long time -but I hate to get ahead of myself and make these big statements so early in the wine’s life!
Perhaps the best solution would be to come and try the 2014 Verdelho at our Cellar Door, to see what you think!
Vintage began on 21 January – it felt like it was a bit later than usual as the fruit was less ripe than it was at this time last year, but perfect for the base wine for the Sparkling Chardonnay.
We then left picking for a week and picked the first batch for the Gig: Unwooded Chardonnay on 27th Jan.
We pick on alternate days, as the fruit is then put into the coolroom to cool it down overnight to about 4 degrees and then the next day we process!
12 Feb, was the last pick of the white grapes, Derek was in a dilemma as to whether to pick them before the heat of this weekend…but wanted them slightly riper, so left them to enjoy the heat, Derek pondered “I’ve made some of my best Reserve
Chardonnays from fruit that seems a bit sun damaged, but I hate seeing them frazzle”
The red harvest started with Merlot picking on Thursday 16 Feb. First the red grapes are crushed and destemmed then put into a cold soak for 24 hours; when the fruit is chilled down to about 4 degrees and held there for 24 hours.
After that the must (a mixture of grapes, skins, pips, grape flesh and juice) is allowed to warm up and we add the yeast culture to start the ferment.
Then starts the real grind!
As the reds are ferment away, they require plunging and pumping over every 6 hours (a bit like feeding a baby) This goes on for about a week until all the sugar has reacted with the yeast and the wine is ‘dry’. The fruit is then pressed and we start on the barrel work…deciding which batches go into which barrels.
Overall the growing season was relatively cool with late rain in December, which replenished the groundwater and the vines looked absolutely fantastic.
Then we had the hot spell over Christmas, which didn’t seem to physically damage the fruit, but did result in lower natural acids than usual.
The yields were down, particularly on the whites, there just wasn’t as much fruit as usual on the vines. Grapes have a trade off between quantity and quality, so the 2013 wines look fantastic, but there won’t be as much of this vintage as I’d like
Jan 20th -vintage has officially started!
We picked the first fruit, Chardonnay to make the base wine for our Sparkling
Chardonnay. The fruit was left in the cool room over night to chill down to about 4 degrees, and then at 6am yesterday morning we started processing.
We destem the grapes and crush them, then the must (a combination of fruit, juice and skins) gets pumped into the wine
press. After the free run juice has drained out, we then inflate the air bag inside the press to very gently press the must against the sides of the press so that the rest of the juice can drain out.
Right now all this juice is cold, stabilizing in a vat, the vat is directly refrigerated so that the juice gets chilled down to 4 degrees and we let all the solids settle to the bottom of the tank. In two days time we’ll pump off the clear juice, add yeast to start the
fermentation and so begin the transformation of grape juice into wine!
Jan 24th We picked the Verdelho today, quite nervous as we delayed Sunday’s pick and then it
seemed to pour with rain last night, however that seems to have been paranoia and the fruit looks great and yielding the amount we wanted! Pressing the fruit tomorrow, it’s being chilled to 4 degrees right now…
1st Feb The white wine grapes have all been picked and are fermenting away in vats or, in the case of the Reserve Chardonnay in oak barrels. Its been a bit tricky this year as we’ve had quite a bit of rain; so lots of changing and re-making plans about when to pick.
Derek likes to leave the fruit on the vine as long as possible, so that it develops more complex fruit flavours, however this year we’ve had to balance that against the threats caused by the rain. Once it has rained the fruit has
water on it, so it can’t be picked that day, as the juice would be diluted. Over the next day or so the grapes absorb the water again diluting the juice so we wait until they’ve dried out before we can pick.
Since getting all the white fruit in we’ve had quite a bit of rain, which slowed down the ripening of all the red grapes
Feb 16th Finally some of our red grapes are ready for picking! James & Miles have been out in the vineyard, overseeing the picking of our Merlot. A smaller yield than expected of just over 2 tonne [sorry all you Merlot fans!]. The payoff to this is that the fruit will have great intensity and the berries are small which means great concentration of flavours.
The next red to come in will be Grenache. I am so excited! We are buying some in from a 60 year old
un-irrigated Swan Valley vineyard. I will keep you posted…..
March 4th All the red grapes have been picked, the Shiraz is fermenting away in open fermenters and filling the winery with fantastic smells- it looks great! Derek is busy doing pump overs every four hours. Pump overs are when we mix the skins and flesh of the red grapes with the juice, leaching the colours and flavours from the skins, this gives the shiraz its structure and flavours. But it is important to keep the skins wet and hence 45 minutes every four hours of mixing the juice and skins; a bit like having a newborn baby…but it doesn’t cry!
The 2011 vintage is looking really interesting. I will admit that we were trepidations about this vintage, since it was the driest winter on record. The humid weather in January & February was unusual and also that the temperature didn’t get above 39C, though it was consistently very warm, though there were no disease or heat stress issues.
All our fruit is hand-picked, we started with the Sparkling base on Sunday 15 Jan and then progressed through to various batches of chardonnay, from different areas around the vineyard and the Verdelho on Australia Day (check out the video on our Facebook page.)
The Verdelho looked very passionfruity with a lovely limey finish, it may be a bit lighter than the last couple of years, more like the 2008.
The red grapes matured closer to the average time, producing good colour and flavour.
The Merlot was the first red to ripen, had very small berries and a very low yield which resulted in exceptional colour and concentration.
Conditions were optimum for full bodied fruit and the Shiraz looks consistent with the typical (i.e. excellent) quality of Upper Reach shiraz.
This year the new Petit Verdot block has produced a sufficient quantity of fruit to make a decent batch of wine (though we will release a very small quantity from 2009 in Winter 2011).
We’ve bought in some Grenache from 50 year old Swan Valley unirrigated vines, this is a first for us and our intention is to blend it with shiraz for our Gig wine. The Tempranillo also looked excellent, there were great smells coming off the ferment.
2010 vintage started a week or so earlier than usual, with some of the whites. Then the weather eased off and the ripening process slowed down, which means that we ought to have a lot of different fruit flavours in the 2010 whites.
Its also made everything a lot easier logistically, as we were able to really concentrate and focus on each batch of wine, as the next would be picked a couple of days later, rather than immediately!
After the hot weekend (16 & 17 Jan), everything has ripened up a bit quicker than we expected! Derek tested the fruit on Monday (18 Jan) and let us all know that ‘it’s starting’… so the first pick was Thursday 21 Jan, we picked the Chardonnay fruit for the Sparkling Wine, and it’s got great flavour!
First crush of the 2010 vintage, Friday 22 Jan, easily a week earlier than last year.
We tested the Verdelho juice which tasted fantastic.
Wine is really just fermented grape juice, so as the juice is full of flavour it suggests that the wine will too!
The red grapes were picked during and after another hot week.
Though the vines do struggle with the heat, our main concern is how the fruit tastes, the red fruit has more intense flavours and great colour we pressed the last batch of shiraz fruit this week.
So now Derek & James are busy in the winery messing around with barrels, filling them up with the 2010 reds and deciding on final blends for the 2009 red wines.
They decide exactly what batches of wine and which barrels will get included in which wine, this is one of the real wine making skills that can get forgotten about.
It’s exciting for us at the cellar door, as finally we can be fairly confident about what wine we’ll be selling in the future, but also they do keep bringing us little samples to try!
I thought 2009 would be a great year for the Swan Valley and those that know hailed 2009 as one of WA’s finest.
We, in the Swan Valley, in common with the rest of the state had quite mild growing conditions, the heat didn’t hit us until post Christmas, and then it was humid heat, which is better for the vines that dry heat (but harder for us West Australians to cope with, as people). “Reds were sensational and the whites not far behind” John Griffiths: President of WA Wine Industry
Also winter 2008 was nice and wet, this coupled with the river breaking its banks, and flowing through the vineyard for a couple of weeks, meant that we started with properly drenched soil… we haven’t had that for a few years!
We picked for the Sparkling Chardonnay base on Tuesday 27 Jan, the Verdelho was picked Tuesday 3rd and Thursday 5th February. The fruit to go into the Unwooded Chardonnay was picked on Tuesday 10th and Thursday 12th February.
The red grapes ripened up steadily and were picked during March. The juice showed great colour and rich, full fruit flavours, it looks as though 2009 might be the year for Swan Valley Reds, even better than 2008!
We’ve just pressed the last of the 2008 fruit today (24 March) so Derek & Peter are celebrating!
The first pick was the chardonnay for the Sparkling on 23rd January, so it feels like its been a long vintage this year.
It was warm, hence the Sparkling fruit being picked about 2 weeks early, the Chardonnay and especially the Verdelho are looking great and we hope to have them bottled mid May.
The Shiraz has great depth of colour and rich fruit, so we ought to be able to make a worthy successor to our previous Trophy Winning efforts. The Cabernet Sauvignon is a little lighter than in previous years.
Drought conditions and high temperatures have reduced the grape yields, however the fruit ripened about three weeks early, catching us, not quite on the hop but it was a surprise! Overall the wines look as though they’ll be more powerful, full-bodied and longer living than normal.
The whites are softer but vibrant and bursting with strong varietal aromas and flavours.
The reds will stand out in 2007; they are very deep in colour, with bold flavours and great depth.
The only issue will be having enough of everything, as yields were down by 40%, but what there is, is very good indeed.