Langton’s 1998 Classic Vintage Auction from November 14-28 features the great 1998 Australian ‘Vintage of the Century’. 1998 is an outstanding vintage year for the Australian eastern states, producing a swag of great red wines at almost every price level. The sheer reputation of this vintage is illustrated by the extraordinary publicity which surrounded the release of 1998 Grange.
Some critics consider the vintage an atypical year, largely because of the unusual growing season typified by hot dry weather and ultra-ripe fruit. Certainly the vintage produced some massively concentrated and powerfully structured wines, but it also produced a tremendous diversity of styles.
While the 1998 Barossa Shirazes are particularly opulent, with extraordinary fruit intensity and flavour, Coonawarra was able to produce some beautifully proportioned yet elegantly structured Cabernets. While vintage conditions are critical, vineyard site, vineyard management and winemaking philosophy all play a part in defining the overall style and quality. The 1998 Western Australian vintage was not quite so spectacular, yet there were some brilliant wines made, especially Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon.
While the Australian 1998 vintage highlights the extraordinary progress in viticulture, inevitably the winemaker’s reputation is the trump card. However, regional definition and vintage will continue to set the overall destiny of the wine.
Warm climate/Elevation 130-300m
The Heathcote wine region is located in Central Victoria about 100km north of Melbourne and 50km west of the Goulburn Valley. This is classic rolling Australian countryside punctuated by eucalypts and rounded hills. The best vineyards are located on the Heathcote red snake, a strip of Cambrian-derived soils of friable red brown gravelly loams that run in a thin north-south non-continuous direction. The region is warm with strong continentality, but enjoys an even temperature range during ripening. Vineyards are elevated at about 300m and rainfall is limited. The best vineyard sites are probably yet to be discovered, although its wines – particularly Shiraz – have already captured the imagination of a whole generation of wine drinkers.
1998 Vintage: A mild, relatively dry spring was followed by a warm to hot and dry summer producing fruit of tremendous flavour and concentration. An exceptional vintage.
Yarra Valley, VIC
Cool climate/Elevation 50-400m
The region is probably Australia’s best-known cool-climate area, yet it is really a patchwork of meso-climates. The more exposed sites are subject to severe spring frosts and winds. The area experiences a relatively high rainfall pattern and is known for its temperature extremes during ripening. Site selection seems to be a major issue – the best appear to be located where vines were once planted, generally on sandy clay loams and gravels. Hence Yeringberg and Yarra Yering have enjoyed apparent consistency. Mount Mary, on similar soils, has achieved an almost mythical reputation.
Some vineyards, however, are planted on more fertile red volcanic soils and just don’t appear to show the same degree of success. The topography of the Yarra Valley creates an incredible set of variables. Vineyards are planted on elevations of 50 to 400m on varying aspects and management programmes. The Yarra Valley is well known for its Cabernet Blends, but this is based on the performance of just a few producers. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be quite exquisite, while Shiraz is variable. Sparkling wine production has become extremely important. The Yarra Valley produces some of Australia’s best.
1998 Vintage: After early spring frosts in some corners of the Yarra Valley, growing conditions were generally mild and fine. Most vineyards enjoyed almost perfect ripening conditions.
Barossa Valley, SA
Warm climate/Elevation 270m
The Barossa comprises two distinct sub-regions: Eden Valley and the warmer Barossa Valley floor at 270m.The Barossa Valley is comprised of rich brown soils and alluvial sands. The Barossa has a climate similar to Margaret River and Bordeaux. Cool sea breezes from the Gulf of St Vincent and elevation modify temperatures. However, hot northerly winds can occasionally dominate creating considerable vine stress.
The region is also known for its relatively low rainfall. Many of the vineyards are dry-grown on single wire trellising. Supplementary irrigation is also used extensively. The Barossa is famous for its Shiraz-based wines, but can also make some beautifully rich and chocolatey Cabernet Sauvignons. Semillon and Chardonnays are generally more commercial propositions on the Barossa floor. The Eden Valley is also widely known for its Rieslings and is emerging as an important area for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
1998 Vintage: A superb vintage, the best in 30 years. Spring rains were followed by a warm to hot summer resulting in fruit of tremendous flavour and concentration. A low yielding vintage.
Clare Valley, SA
Warm to hot climate/Elevation 400-500m
The climatic data suggests that Clare is essentially continental with hot summers and cool/cold winters. However, the vineyards are mostly located at higher elevations than the weather stations. For instance, Petaluma’s Hanlin Hill is at about 500m. During the growing season moderating cool breezes funnel up the Clare’s corrugation of hills and gullies from the south. The soils are red brown, chocolatey loams over shale allowing excellent drainage. Although snow is rare, the chill factor is something to behold. Some of the older vines are planted in the valley floor, originally to take advantage of the deep water holding capacity of the soils, as rainfall is relatively low.
With the advantages of supplementary irrigation, many of the best vineyard sites are located on higher elevations or towards the south of the valley. Polish Hill and Watervale are important sub-regions. The Clare Valley has become particularly famous for its fruit-pure Rieslings and tightly-knit Shirazes. Cabernet Sauvignon also performs quite well.
1998 Vintage: After one of the driest winters in 20 years spring rains restored soil moistures and dams to normal levels. A warm even growing season. A great Shiraz vintage.
Cool climate/Elevation 60m
Coonawarra is today one of the most famous red wine regions in Australia. Its weathered limestone terra rossa soils, relatively cool climate and overall water availability make it a unique vineyard site. The region, however, is extremely flat and unprotected. Consequently, it can be exposed to the swinging influences of the cool Great Southern Ocean and hot, dry northerly winds. Spring frosts are a major problem and have been known to wipe out crops. Mechanical and machine harvesting is widely used in Coonawarra, although smaller producers prefer to tend their vines by hand. The region is best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, although its Shiraz can be particularly smart. There are some Coonawarra Rieslings and Chardonnays, but these don’t have the same impact as the red wines of this region.
1998 Vintage: Coonawarra winemakers place 1998 somewhere between ‘the best of the 1990s’ and ‘the best for 20 years’. The harvest was a few weeks early after a very dry summer. Some beautiful Cabernet Sauvignons were made.
Margaret River, WA
Warm maritime climate/Elevation about 90m
The climate is warm and maritime. Essentially the soils derive from granitic and a gneissic rock over which laterite has formed. The region can be divided in three sub-regions: the cooler south between Yallingup and Karridale with predominantly lateritic gravelly loamy sands and sandy loams; the warm and sunnier Willyabrup in the centre with predominantly gravelly loams, but some gritty sandy loams and granitic gravels; and Margaret River in the north with similar soils, but slightly cooler temperatures. This is entirely consistent with style, the wines from Willyabrup being more generous than the highly structured wines of the north and the elegant styles of the south.
The region is also subject to southeast trade winds. The Bordeaux grape varieties have thrived, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Although Chardonnay has problems with fruit set, the wines are generally outstanding. Vintage takes place between the end of February and mid-April. The region has established an astonishing reputation in 30 years, illustrating a consistency in quality and a strongly focussed winemaking culture.
1998 Vintage: A difficult vintage caused by late summer rains. However some outstanding wines were made.
Penfolds Reds – South Australia
1998 Vintage: Generally vintage conditions were perfect with a cool spring followed by a searingly hot summer. Penfolds, with its rich palette of vineyard resources, was able to make its quintessential house styles with each wine showing plenty of fruit definition, power, concentration and richness.
Andrew Caillard MW
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