Vintage 2022 is now well underway at Howard Park Wines. The Margaret River winery is the hub of activity, with spokes radiating out to our vineyards across the region and then down into the Great Southern.
Our permanent winemaking team led by Nic Bowen and Mark Bailey has been augmented by experienced, enthusiastic vintage winemakers and cellarhands, who are now working across a 24-hour cycle to receive pristine fruit in the cool of the evening and early morning, and manage the sorting tables and presses throughout the day to ensure fermentations kick off in the most positive fashion.
Our Viticulturist David Botting, ably assisted by his team and often shadowed by the ever-curious Jeff Burch, log road miles between vineyards assessing bunch development and maturity. They relay data and forecasts back to Nic to ensure berries can be tasted and blocks scheduled for harvest at that perfect, but sometimes elusive moment of optimum potential, when acids, sugars and flavours combine in a harmony that offers a visionary winemaker a glimpse of a great future wine in a not yet picked grape.
2022 is a vintage that reinforces our understanding of the importance of the year-long vineyard cycle, and how the interventions of Mother Nature both help and hinder the ambitions of a dedicated vigneron.
Beautiful warm, dry and sunny conditions were entrenched throughout January and February, removing a great deal of the disease pressure that rain and humidity can bring and allowing a predictable insight into ripening patterns across most varieties. Western Australia endured a scorching Christmas heat wave, and temperatures nudging 40 degrees on Boxing Day did result in some sunburn on exposed grape bunches, requiring their removal before harvest.
In warmer, drier years native birds are often very attracted to glistening golden and purple grape bunches, requiring the arduous intervention of netting. This season the nets were duly applied in the post-Christmas heat, but thankfully the Corymbia calophylla, or Marri tree, burst into an abundant yellow blossom across the vineyards and forests of the South West and provided an ample and much preferred alternative diet for the silvereyes and other flying opportunists.
So, while summer set the scene for another consistent and memorable vintage, certain varieties paid a penalty for difficult conditions much earlier in the growing season. The very wet winter of 2021 lingered into the later part of the year, smothering the renewal of spring and delaying the onset of budburst and flowering in the vineyards. This created a vulnerability to unseasonably cool conditions and harsh Antarctic winds at this critical moment in vine development.
Our Mount Barrow vineyard on the edge of the Mount Barker township is a steep, south-facing amphitheatre, and Riesling and Chardonnay blocks were particularly exposed. In these vines we are seeing some inconsistency in structure and weight of the grape bunches as ripening continues, which will reduce our yields. As Great Southern is a few weeks behind Margaret River in terms of maturity, the silver lining is that we expect a beautiful concentration of flavour in the fruit that did develop, enabling us to make less, but still stellar wine for Howard Park and Marchand & Burch.
After commencing our harvests in the northern end of Margaret River on the 18th of February, as it stands currently we are at a mid-point in the frenetic activity of vintage. Normally one could expect a week or so to draw breath between the end of the white intake and the onset of harvesting reds.
This year however there will be no reprieve, as warm conditions have pushed Margaret River Shiraz into the picking window while we wait for Great Southern Whites to mature further. The teams will be kept on their toes with the different processing requirements, delicately pressing the whites to extract pristine free-run juice, while transferring whole red grape bunches into open and closed fermenters to infuse colour and structure from the grape skins.
In a wine region renowned for its ultra-consistent quality, the minutiae of each vintage ensures that no two harvests are ever the same. At Howard Park our multi-regional presence and our endeavour to make truly great still and sparkling wines multiply these challenges. This year the overlay of Covid-19, and the protocols in place to protect our workforce and maintain constant operations, has placed our winemaking team in a bubble from which they wave at us through the laboratory windows and communicate their progress in occasional dispatches.
At this point I can report a sense of satisfaction and quiet optimism emanating from the winery. In six weeks’ time, when almost all picking and pressing will be completed a clearer picture of 2022 will emerge, which can only be validated in the years and decades ahead when our signature vintage wines are pulled from the fridges and cellars of our Wine Club members.