Aussie wine surplus evaporates

Depending on who you talk to, the wine surplus of a few months back has either turned to shortage already or, by a more conservative reading, might be on the wane, allowing supply and demand to harmonise by 2008/2009 – a few years earlier than previously expected.

While the turnaround is unlikely to mean an instant surge in wine prices, it may relieve the relentlessly downward pressure of recent years and breathe a little hope into a battered industry.

The dramatic and sudden change in fortune is a result of severe spring frosts and drought. Together these could reduce the 2007 grape harvest to “about 1.56 million tonnes, compared with a potential 1.94 million tonnes in an average season”, according to the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation’s Lawrie Stanford.

And the same adverse weather leave the “prospect of another low yielding season in 2008, which could see further draw-downs of stock to a balanced position as early as 2008-09 if export sales continue as forecast”.

Well-known winemaker, Brian Croser, disagrees with this outlook. In an interview on November 22nd, he expressed the view that the industry has moved into a period of grape shortage and that it was “all totally predictable”.

Croser argues that the last three vintages, at about 1.9millon tonnes, were above what you would expect long term averages to be for the area under vine.

At the same time wine exports had been growing steadily at the equivalent of about 65 thousand tonnes a year but little planting activity had been undertaken.

He estimates that with a dramatic frost/drought crop reduction in 2007 and 2008, and continuing growth in exports, that the shortage will continue.

The chief difference between the Croser and AWBC viewpoints seems to be that Croser believes we don’t have sufficient vines in the ground to service future demand whereas the AWBC does.

It bases this belief on an ability to draw down on surplus wine stocks and “greater production through precision vineyard management and higher extraction rates”.

But, as the AWBC’s Eric Wisgard told me, the figures they work with are far from precise. At best they are indicators, based on the best figures available, to be used for industry planning.

And, where Croser sees shortage looming, Wisgard says, “we don’t want to talk about planting” and reiterates the belief that our 150 thousand hectares of vines could lift its yield, in future to 2.1 to 2.2 million tonnes – well up from the 1.9 million odd of recent years.

From a grower’s point of view, the merits of a smaller forthcoming vintage depend very much on where you are.

While some growers face huge crop losses, others find that the shortfall brings previously unwanted grapes into play. For example, down in Langhorne Creek and McLaren Vale Foster’s had advised some growers as recently as September that their grapes would not be required in 2007.

Now, says winemaker John Glaetzer, Foster’s have returned looking for chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon at guaranteed minimum prices — presumably in response to frost damage amongst those varieties in the company’s Limestone Coast vineyards.

The best reading I can make of the situation is that the slack has been taken up and that if export and domestic growth continue, price rises will inevitably trickle through. But it won’t be this Christmas as the red-hot festive retail wars are already exploding around us.

TOP DROPS

Champagne Cattier Chigny-Les-Rose $29.95 to $39.95
This is a Coles Myer import and can be found at their First Choice and Vintage Cellars outlets. Thankfully the potential margin advantage of importing direct appears to have been largely competed away, hence the very attractive pricing. It’s from vineyards in the vicinity of Chigny-Les-Roses, a village about ten kilometres south east of Reims. The robust flavour and structure reflects the dominance of pinot noir and pinot meunier in the blend, albeit without the complexity and polish of the more broadly based blends we see from the larger Champagne Houses.

Champagne Taittinger Brut Resérve NV $74.95
With a little more chardonnay in the blend than most NV’s (40 per cent versus about 33 – the remainder pinot noir and pinot meunier), good old Taitts is on the light and cheery side of Champagne, albeit with a rich and creamy mid-palate. This is a lovely, delicate aperitif style with the lightness of chardonnay and yummy brioche-like nuances of pinot meunier, the lesser of the two pinots, but indispensable nevertheless. Pinot meunier tends to fill the frost-prone dips in the Champagne region and is more fruitful than pinot noir in this situation as it buds later, giving it better odds of missing the chill.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007

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