ANOTHER Pikes vintage is in the books and didn’t it throw up a few curve balls?
“A strange old year,” says Neil Pike.
“One of the driest growing seasons I can remember,” says Andrew Pike.
After the 2016-17 growing season delivered rampant rains and bumper crops, 2017-18 took us to the other extreme, challenging our water resources, reducing yields and forcing Andrew and Neil and their vineyard and winery teams to draw on all of their vast experience and know-how.
Without it, Vintage 2018 could have been very awkward indeed.
Throughout the Clare Valley growing season – from October 1 to early April – we normally expect 250-300mm of rain. This year we recorded less than 150mm.
“That’s almost unheard of for the six-month period,” Andrew said.
“We’ve been through summer droughts before,” Neil said. “But we’d always get something, some precipitation in January or February to stretch out the vintage. This year the tap was turned off early December.”
And that followed a winter of well below average rainfall. Our dam was half empty and soil moisture reserves were down. Effectively, we entered the growing season with our tank half full.
And so, it was in early December rather than early January, that we started to irrigate, after Andrew and his team noted growth was slowing in the shoot tips and soil moisture probes suggested vines were approaching stress. We drew on our dam and our bore and used more of our expensive mains water allocation than we ever have before.
“It was really a gut-feeling call,” Andrew said. “But, had we not irrigated early, I’m sure we would have got caught by that mid-January burst of extremely hot weather.
“A lot of vineyards around the area did get opened up – their vines dropped basal leaf and the fruit was open to the direct sunlight – but I think we were able to withstand that burst better than many.”
And there were more big decisions to be made. With only a finite amount of water for 100 hectares of vineyards, which fruit would get enough to drink and which would be forced to struggle?
“Riesling had to take priority,” Neil said.
“Because that’s what drives our business.
“Some riesling vineyards still lost leaf and we can see different characters coming from that fruit. Rather than bright, citrus, lemon-lime we see some more floral, baked apple, stressed characteristics in some parcels.
“But, by and large, our riesling fruit has been excellent. We kept up our water; we kept our canopies engaged. There’s enough good stuff in the tanks from us and our other growers for another great vintage of ‘Traditionale’.
“There’s a reason Clare’s known for its riesling, we seem to be able to make good stuff no matter the conditions and 2018 will be no different. We’ll make some really good wine and everyone in the Clare Valley who knows what they’re doing will make really good wine.”
“We picked our riesling early, no question,” Andrew said. “We started at 10 Baume or under where we normally wouldn’t start until 10 to 10.5. Because some of those blocks had a good crop on them and didn’t really have enough leaf to really ripen the fruit to the expected level.
“We knew we’d have enough riesling coming in later at 11 to 11.5 Baume to balance that maturity and alcohol content. You can’t get it all off at once.”
Overall, Pikes expects to process 1650-1700 tonnes of fruit for the 2018 vintage, about 1000 tonnes of which will be riesling.
And there’s plenty of optimism for other varieties too. Semillon took a long time to get ripe but the juice is good and might be called on to provide more support than usual for our sauvignon blanc, which looks a little “neutral” after the dry year.
Chardonnay and viognier were picked early to preserve acidity and they each look in great shape.
Yields are down on our reds because we couldn’t maintain normal levels of water, and some vines were looking a little “crunchy” around the leaves come harvest time.
“And we’re seeing thicker skins,” Neil said. “So, the wines are very dense in colour and there’ll probably be more tannin than recent years.
“Will there be really bright fruit characters? Probably too early to say. We have detected a little ‘stewed’ fruit character in shiraz and you expect that in a warmer year.
“With sangiovese, the crop was really quite low so it’s more concentrated, more colourful, there’ll be more tannin. It actually looks very promising.”
Andrew sees it as a vintage for refined Clare reds.
“There are going to be some really nice reds come through,” he said. “It’s not going to be a big, buxom red year, they’re going to be elegant and, I hope, varietal.”
And to finish, we’ll put Andrew and Neil on the spot for an overall rating of the 2018 vintage, which finished with the picking of our mourvedre on April 5.
“Will 2018 be the best wines we’ve ever made? Probably not,” Neil said.
“But they’ll be a long, long way from the worst. Across the whole vintage I think we’re looking at a 7.5 to 8 out of 10. And I don’t give 10s!”
“I think,” says Andrew, “that we’re looking at a good, solid, average vintage. And anytime you get a good, solid, average vintage, you have to be happy.”
No mean achievement given the tricky forces at play.