Australian vintage 1993

For all but the coolest areas vintage 1993 is now crushed and sitting in casks, tanks, or even bottles. Early dire predictions of major shortages proved correct. But the recent burst of warm, sunny weather saved the day in premium areas, ripening to perfection smaller crops of very high quality grapes, both red and white.

Robert Hill-Smith of Barossa-based Yalumba says there couldn’t have been a stronger contrast between grapes harvested from warmer areas early in the season and those coming in from cooler areas during April.

Those early-season grapes rolling in from hot stretches of the Murray River proved a wine maker’s nightmare. Sugar and acid levels were both low (an unusual combination), meaning a tendency towards low-flavour, flabby wines. It took every bit of wine maker ingenuity to bring the wines up to par.

As the ripening season progressed, in many areas there was nail-biting anxiety that grapes, especially red varieties, might not ripen at all. Tahbilk’s Alister Purbrick, for instance, harvested outstanding whites then watched in dismay as a burst of wet weather triggered an outbreak of botrytis cinerea, a form of rot wonderful for some white varieties but devastating to reds.

Then, bingo! The sun shone as it had refused to throughout a patchy spring and summer, the grapes dried out, the rot stopped in its tracks, and over two glorious weeks, sugar levels crept up to a perfect ripeness with beautifully balanced acidity.

The story was similar across much of southern Australia. After months of anxiety, those areas where grapes ripen late, because of location at high altitude or low latitude, finally gathered an even-later-than-normal crop of exceptional quality.

Brian Walsh, Yalumba’s chief wine maker, told me over a few glasses in the Barossa last Tuesday, to expect some exceptional wines from the 1993 vintage. It seems reds generally and riesling and chardonnay amongst whites were outstanding. Robert Hill-Smith claims “quality is as good as we’ve ever seen.”

Up in the Adelaide Hills, Brian Croser seems even more exuberant, claiming 1993 as the best vintage in his twenty-four years’ winemaking. He made similar claims about the 1990 vintage. Given Brian’s sober approach to things, perhaps there really is something to crow about in 1993. Certainly a 1993 cabernet component of Yalumba Signature Reserve looked, smelled and tasted unusually rich and powerful.

Robert Hill-Smith estimates the shortfall in requirements of major companies at around 60,000 tonnes. That shortage is forcing a scramble for bulk wine. This, on top of high vineyard management costs imposed by a disease-prone season, is pushing up production costs. Already bigger companies are looking to recoup these through higher wholesale prices.

Sauvignon blanc seems to be in particularly short supply, especially with New Zealand makers here scouring the bulk wine market hoping to make up for their own disastrously small vintage.

The other notable shortage… being felt even before this year’s reduced yields… is of top-quality red wines. In recent times we’ve seen popular reds simply not lasting the full year on retail shelves… Penfolds recently released 1990 reds, for example, are likely to be gone by September, even with trade allocations split over April and July.

With Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignons the shortage is perennial. It would be hard to name one that’s available year round. And from better-known small makers like

Hollicks, Bowen Estate and Leconfield, a vintage sell-out within a few months of release is the rule rather than the exception.

If the estimate of a 60,000 tonne grape shortfall is true, then it seems logical to anticipate higher wine prices. That conclusion is supported by quite solid wholesale price rises already effective.

But in the past price rises have always been followed by price collapses as consumers simply refused to pay more or switched to up-and-coming brands that were cheaper. The domestic market is weak enough already with total wine consumption falling within a clear pattern of declining alcohol intake.

Consumers, naturally enough, resist price rises. And in the past they have always thumbed their noses at wine producers attempting any such thing. But things are a little different this time.

Retailer margins are at an all-time low and simply cannot be further compressed. Thus, any wholesale increases will flow instantly to the consumer. As well, exports are booming, providing an outlet if domestic sales fall.

But on the other side of the coin, production is poised to rocket in coming years. With the price per litre of wine exports falling, and a possibility that French and Italian producers may flex their muscle against the cheeky Australians, the current upward pressure on wine prices may prove very short lived.