How are things going at Yalumba – what’s new for 2022?
All is well – Australian wine in general has had a few headwinds in the commercial red space on the back of the Chinese tariffs, and we’re working to balance our supply and demand. Things are generally looking strong as we have a well-balanced portfolio.
What have you been focusing your efforts on recently?
Sustainability is a big focus at the moment. We’ve been measuring our carbon footprint for decades, but all of a sudden people want to hear about it. We wouldn’t still be here if we hadn’t made it a priority. The previous Australian government weren’t very focused on sustainability, but the new government is very committed to it.
We’ve got our 2030 targets and it’s great seeing the demand for info on ESG from our customers and markets around the world. More wineries are starting to sign up to Sustainable Winegrowing Australia, which is third party accredited. We’ve been a member since 2020, and all of our wines from 2023 will carry the trust mark, which is really exciting. It was a lot of work to get it, as it’s a continuous improvement programme that takes ESC into account, but it’s well worth it.
What else are you doing on the environmental front?
We recently became a member of the International Wineries for Climate Action alliance, which was founded by US-based Jackson Family Wines and Spain’s Familia Torres. There are about 35 member wineries around the world now who are sharing their knowledge and ideas on the race to zero emissions by 2050. We’re set goals each year on lowering our greenhouse gas emissions – there’s no greenwashing or buying carbon credits here, you have to put in the work. We’re currently working on increasing biodiversity at our estate and for every hectare of vineyard we have the same amount of native vegetation.
How is the 2022 vintage shaping up so far?
It’s not particularly bountiful, but we’ve got decent volumes and the quality is lovely. It was a relatively mild vintage for us in the Barossa Valley, with no heatwaves, heat spikes, or bush fires. We also didn’t have all the terrible flooding that Victoria had. We sit nicely in the middle of Australia, so we don’t tend to get the huge rains, which is lucky. I probably couldn’t describe a more perfect vintage, except for a few hailstorms before Christmas that affected some of our vineyards quite badly.
Are any grape varieties standing out as particularly good this year?
It’s pretty good across the board. The Eden Valley whites are just delicious, and our 2022 Viogniers look gorgeous. Our Pewsey Vale Riesling is one of the best we’ve made and that’s saying something. It has lovely perfume and elegance in a Barossa context. Our Shiraz this year has kept its pretty perfume of blueberries and rose petals, and has an elegant, velvety palate, as it wasn’t too hot this year.
Did you have any challenges during the 2022 growing season?
Hail was the main challenge, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Last year was a larger vintage for us, but still very good quality, with average temperatures and no bushfires in any of the major regions.
Global warming is an increasing challenge for winemakers and Australia is a hot place – how are you working to mitigate its effects?
There are a lot of things we can do in the vineyard to combat its effects and we’ve been making a number of changes to ensure that our harvest dates don’t change too drastically and become a lot earlier. We haven’t seen an obvious shift to earlier harvests in the Barossa, but our picking dates do vary from year to year.
To help our vineyards deal with the heat we have grasses growing between the vines and mulch to cool down the soils and preserve moisture. Canopies help protect the grapes from direct sun while trellising provides shading and keeps the grapes cooler, helping them to ripen more slowly.
How else are you helping to protect your grapes?
We put sunscreen on them – it’s actually a fine layer of white clay called kaolin, which acts like sunscreen. It’s completely natural and inert and washes off, or brushes off eventually. It’s quite revolutionary without being technical. It’s the same clay you make china from, which we mix with water and spray on the vines to stop tissue damage from excessive heat. It’s an incredibly good way of maintaining the acidity in the grapes and slowing down the ripening process.
We’ve been doing it for over a decade and it doesn’t affect the taste of the wines. We did a lot of trials to make sure. We only use it on vines that are particularly affected by the heat, like Riesling, Chardonnay and Viognier, and it leads to much better balanced wines during heat spikes when the grapes are close to ripening. It makes a huge difference when we do it. If a heatwave is coming then we’ll make sure the grapes that need it have the sunscreen on them. Luckily, we didn’t have to use any this year.
Are you rethinking your plantings in the face of climate change?
We’ve been doing trials with different rootstocks, with a specific focus on drought-tolerant rootstocks. In South Australia, any vine that’s gone in the ground in the last 30 years has been planted onto drought-tolerant rootstocks, which need a lot less water during the growing season, as the vine is much better adapted to heat and drought. This has been really important in helping us to create more balanced wines that don’t need a lot of water.
By how much have your picking dates changed since you were founded in 1849 and what does this mean for your wines?
There’s a natural variation between the seasons, but we don’t feel we’re picking earlier, as we’re doing so much in our vineyards to mitigate against rising temperatures, so there’s no fixed pattern. A low yielding year will ripen more quickly, but that’s down to the low yield rather than climate change. We’ve been expecting our harvest dates to get earlier but we’ve yet to see that pattern emerge.
To give an example of how things are playing out, 2019 was a very hot, dry summer in the Barossa and the average temperature was two degrees warmer than normal. People are saying that climate change will turn Barossa Valley wines into Riverland wines, but the reds we made in 2019 were as ‘Barossan’ in texture, character and colour as ever. Temperature is only one part of the equation – it’s an important part, but terroir is also important, and how your soils are tended. It’s not just about rising temperatures; there are a lot of variables in play.
What elements of climate change concern you?
We need to be worried about a few things in Australia, particularly extreme weather events like the terrible rains and flooding that we’ve had on the East Coast this year. There’s also an increased frost risk in spring, increased hail risks, and the chance of more warmer, drier summers, which increases the bush fire risks that lead to smoke taint. Climate change might also mean less available water. Sadly, some of these things are very difficult to protect yourself against. If there’s a bush fire next door to you there’s not much you can do about it, but a lot of research has been done in Australia around early detection of smoke taint, which impacts on picking and bottling decisions. You could turn your Pinot into a sparkling wine, for example, as there’s no need for skin contact that way.
Is achieving phenolic and physiological ripeness at the right alcohol and acidity level becoming increasingly challenging?
If you can work with your vineyard and canopy, use sunscreen and keep your grass cool, then you’re changing the environment within the canopy and the grapes, and are helping to slow down the ripening. Winemakers are in constant contact with their grapes, working out the best time to pick them. This method is still working really well most of the time.
In what ways does your FOSS analyser help you in your quest for balance?
Using a FOSS system makes wine analysis readily available to us as a team a lot more quickly. It’s great to have that ease and breadth of analysis at a minute’s notice, which really helps us with decisions around analytics. Winemakers make decisions on how a grape tastes, but it’s all about balance, and the numbers are really important from a quality assurance point of view, and to back up the decisions we make with our palates. Our FOSS machine is reliable and has brought us a lot of confidence and ease in giving us the right information about putting our wines together.
Trained lab technicians do all the work for us and give us the answers, which is fantastic. When it comes to analysis, it’s important that it’s reliable, repeatable and right. We have a NATA certified lab at Yalumba, so we have to be able to rely on the repeatability of our analysis, and we have to be really sure about something before we put it into our system.