Optimists are saying that 2018 sets the benchmark for wonderful summers to come; the more cynical are already referring to it as a once in a lifetime result. Either way this year the grapes are breaking records with best-ever sugar levels and a cornucopia of quality and quantity. The gods have been smiling.
For those focused on the impact of Global Warming: weather volatility was a continuing theme in 2018; from -11.7 Degree Centigrade night time lows at the end of February, to record summer highs of 34 degrees in late July; with an eight week drought thrown in through June & July. We recorded the highest number of Growing Degree Days (944 vs. a 784 average according to Viticulture App. Climate Vine) of the last decade; my local data suggested closer to 1050. It was also an exceptionally sunny growing season, 16% above the prior decade average (Eastbourne Weather station data). Rainfall was plentiful in April and May, but literally evaporated for much of the summer, rescued substantially by August downpours. For the entire April-September growing season it came in around the prior 10 year average.
We planted 7500 (5500 Chardonnay & 2000 Pinot Meunier) vines on our final Great Gale parcel on May 30th. A 3 hour deluge descended 15 minutes after the last vine had been planted. Thereafter there was no significant rain until the last weekend in July. We resorted to hand watering the baby vines with a 1000 litre stillage strapped to the back of an ATV. The drought broke several days later with over an inch of rain falling.
Bud burst came around 21-24th April. Chilly nights continued right into the second half of May, hovering just above zero on several nights. Average early April day time temperatures gave way to a heat spike in the second half of April. These high day time temperatures continued to build through May into June, culminating in an incredibly warm and sunny July. Those vines unaffected by the winter frost exhibited good vigour. Fruit set passed through quite rapidly at the end of June, amid dry conditions with gentle zephyrs: breezes just strong enough to dust the pollen over the vines and no rain to wash it off. Fruit-set was quick and even. The warm start to August gave way to more average temperatures and slightly cloudier conditions. September saw slightly above average day time temperatures, but with some quite cold nights.
The Chardonnay and Pinot Gris got off to a very strong start. Inflorescences in all varieties were promising. The Upper High Field Pinot potential fruit load was lighter, but still substantial, while the main Hawk Field Pinot parcel showed great promise, with the exception of a rectangle at the top of the block which had suffered greatly from the exceptionally cold weather earlier in the year. We set about stripping fruit and applying further vine nutrition. Signs of drought stress emerged in the very vigorous Pinot Gris in early August, with all the vines showing signs of shutting down. However, the break of the drought and copious nitrogen and foliar nutrition, applied previously, saw vigour recover and the canopy improved a lot, necessitating quite challenging vine trimming and leaf stripping later in the month. Full veraison was achieved as we moved into the second half of August.
The PInot noir was well ahead of the Chardonnay; partly as the latter had an exceptionally heavy fruit load. The Pinot Meunier sat midway between the two. The Pinot Gris ultimately delivered sugars in the 80s (Oeschle). Sugars rose substantially through mid September, such that we took a first pass, harvesting Hobdens & Hawk Field Pinot parcels in the pouring rain on September 22nd. This was the earliest harvest commencement date ever. Our concerns that the drought might have adversely impacted acids proved groundless. Sugars were exceptional and acidity perfect. Temperatures dropped considerably around the 24/25th and we found ourselves flirting with a very early frost. With the exception of the first day, harvest took place amid sunshine and dry conditions, broken by cold nights.
Harvest Labour shortages meant that we had to execute a slow pick, press load by press load, between Sep 22nd and Oct 5th. Ordinarily that would be risky, but the weather was kind to us. Harvest 2018 came to a successful conclusion with a final push to get the last 3.5 tonnes of Chardonnay out of the vineyard and into the winery. We could not have pulled it off without the support of friends, customers, local supporters and family, who pitched in to help bring in the crop.
So: vintage 2018? Full of the promise of some really good wines, full of flavour, abundant and generous with enough acidity for elegance and balance. This year we haven’t just been picking grapes, we’ve been picking happiness.