Life under the shadow of Mount Terrible can be all the name suggests. For 10 years after the vineyard was established, and in common with the rest of Victoria, we experienced drought conditions and were grateful to the neighbouring Jamieson River for irrigation. In 2011, the drought gave way to excessive rainfall which required us to modify our practices to ensure we continue to produce top quality grapes.
The bush burnt to within 5 metres of the vineyard fence in 2006. A lot of time was spent fighting fires that summer – but that was OK, with the crop lost to frost there wasn’t much work to do. And then, in February 2009, it happened all over again when fires fanned by a fierce south-westerly wind came within 7 km of Jamieson and smoke irretrievably tainted the crop. The lesson was plain: in a valley in the lee of a densely forested mountain, the vineyard is vulnerable to fire and frost. Fire-fighting equipment must be kept in constant readiness, the cordon must be high and the undervine strip kept bare in springtime.
Such rational strategies, however, take no account of the brutal climatic cycles which characterise this land of drought and flooding plains. The vineyard was established at the start of a ten-year drought. But now with the intermittent intrusion of La Nina, we have to tailor our irrigation and canopy management on a yearly basis.
Between September 2010 and April 2011, there was not one rain-free week in Jamieson. The lowermost areas of the vineyard flooded and early signs of Downy Mildew started to appear. It was only by assiduous spraying and the emergency installation of 600 metres of aggie pipe that disease and vine losses were kept to a minimum.
In 2012, drier conditions returned, and all seemed well – or would have been were it not for a plague of European wasps. The insects punctured grapes, got drunk on the quickly fermenting juice, then curled up inside the empty grape-skins to sleep it off and sting unwary pickers. It got so bad we had to leave a third of the crop unpicked.
2013 was an excellent year in the valley which yielded a small but high quality crop. In 2014, our usual late bud-burst meant we escaped the frost damage that was so widespread elsewhere in Victoria, and fruit-set was relatively little affected by the cold and windy weather, although bunch size was significantly reduced which made picking more labour intensive than in other years.
The 2015 season was ushered in by a mild dry spring which gave way to a long dry summer; good for the vines, provided adequate irrigation is available, if bad for the pastures. In 2016, a late spring frost (on November 27th!) lost us half our crop, but the surviving bunches yielded a small but excellent vintage.
2017, 2018, 2019 were all near perfect years for us and we were able to make our best Pinot yet. But nothing good ever lasts. Although we escaped the worst of the fires, here in the valley the Black Summer of 2020 was a disaster. A combination of sustained smoke and intermittent periods of excessive heat ruined the vintage: we managed to salvage a little for Rose but the Pinot was rubbish.
Frost, fire, drought and flood, hail and mildew, warnings of locusts heading south: to anyone considering putting in a vineyard, the only advice I can give, apart from the obvious DON’T – is to make the best of the good years, because they will have to see you through the bad ones.