Low fruit yields mixed blessing

Jeni Port
Still going strong: John, Ann, Ruth and Rob Ellis, with dogs Min and Xena, at Hanging Rock.
Still going strong: John, Ann, Ruth and Rob Ellis, with dogs Min and Xena, at Hanging Rock. Photo: Pat Scala

On Sunday, February 9, the Ellis family entertained 120 people in the winery at their Hanging Rock vineyard. It was a celebration of their 30 years of winemaking in the Macedon Ranges, and the whole family was there, including Ruth Ellis, who would normally have been home at Riddells Creek, 25-minutes' drive away.

''They say the safest place to be in a fire is inside your house,'' says Ellis. ''For us, that would have been disastrous.''

A fast-moving, 3000-hectare grass fire out of Gisborne bore down on Riddells Creek and headed straight to the house that Ruth Ellis and her restaurateur husband, David Malaspina, had bought four months earlier.

Within five minutes, the house was consumed by a fireball. Nothing was saved. It was a memorable start to vintage 2014, with more bad news to follow.

''Heathcote [the family's vineyard for source fruit] was a disaster, for us,'' says John Ellis. ''It's been too dry, too hot and the vines just fell over.''

Where normally Hanging Rock Winery would receive 20 tonnes of fruit from the region, this year's yield is only 1.5 tonnes. The fruit is grown without irrigation, and there is a real fear that their vineyard could die if there were another long, dry period. ''The predictions aren't good.''

The Ellises' home vineyard at Hanging Rock is a happier story, the site outside Newham being one of the coldest viticultural spots in the state, assuaging the high summer temperatures experienced elsewhere.

''The crop out there is one of the best we've had for years and years,'' Ruth says.

While the Ellises are only just getting started with vintage, elsewhere producers are finishing up. Throughout the state, winemakers have mixed emotions over the potential of the 2014 harvest.


On the one hand, quality is up, but on the other, quantity is down.

This was dictated by what happened on October 16 last year when frosts hit vineyards just beginning to flower, the all-important precursor to grapes.

At Tahbilk, near Nagambie, the frost was an unwelcome reminder of 2006, when yields were cut by 75 per cent. This year, owner Alister Purbrick reports yields are down 25 to 30 per cent.

''Mother Nature is in a foul mood,'' he says.

At TarraWarra Estate in the Yarra Valley, general manager and head winemaker Clare Halloran is looking to have some ''excellent'' wines this year. ''The bad news, however, is there won't be much.'' She is expecting less than half her usual crop of pinot noir.

Her Yarra Valley colleague, Ben Portet, at Dominique Portet Wines, Coldstream, has bad news for fans of his sparkling wines. His 2014 crop sourced from the higher, cooler parts of the valley is down between 60 and 70 per cent.

''It's been a hard year with a lot of uneven ripening,'' he says. Sunburnt fruit has also been an issue, with some of the grapes sourced from Heathcote. Still, he can smile.

''There's plenty of reason for optimism. I'm quite excited, that's for sure.''

A record number of days when the temperature exceeded 40 degrees - about 10 days in all - jump-started fruit development, but a cooler March has brought with it the hope of an Indian summer and much-needed time on the vine.

''It's not going to be the vintage of the century,'' says Chris Pfeiffer, of Pfeiffer Wines in Rutherglen, ''but we're seeing some nice things.'' It might be the year for some excellent muscadelle for Rutherglen's famous topaque.

In the Murray Valley wine-growing area, vintage has brought with it another round of pain for financially stressed wine growers, who supply Australia's biggest wine companies with fruit. Contract prices fell to some of the lowest ever, led by chardonnay, which represents 40 per cent of fruit grown in the area. Growers are being offered as little as $80 to $120 a tonne for chardonnay on the spot market, with contracted fruit at about $200 a tonne.

He estimates that for every bottle of $10 wine sold, growers receive just 15ยข.

''I've been growing grapes for 40 years and these are the worst conditions for grape growing since I started,'' says Murray Valley Winegrowers chairman Brian Englefield.

He has his 200-hectare farm (including 60 hectares of grapes), Liparoo Vineyards, at Wemen near Robinvale, up for sale and his succession plan to hand the property to his sons now lies in tatters.

''This is worse than 1985 after the collapse of export markets. I am seriously angry.''