Cowra’s grape industry gets going

The boom in wine drinking over the past twenty years gave us not only 700 small, estate-based wineries, but numerous broad-acre vineyard developments designed for efficient production of above-average quality premium wine-grape varieties for high-volume, high-quality brands.

Coonawarra and Padthaway, covered in this column recently, are by far the biggest and most significant of these in both quantity and quality, producing over 3 million cases of wine annually.

Another, at Cowra, just two hours drive from Canberra, was established by Tony Gray in 1972. The area’s grape-growing potential had been identified by John Stanford acting for a group of investors. Gray acquired land and planted 36 hectares according to Stanford’s plan when the original investor group went broke.

It proved an ideal location. By the Lachlan River in central Western N.S.W. in a benign climate with plenty of water, it quickly and efficiently produced biggish crops of high-quality grapes.

Len Evans and Brian Croser recognised the quality early. Thus, Gray’s Cowra vineyard provided fruit for Croser’s first Petaluma chardonnay in 1977. At the time Croser was lecturing at Riverina College of Advanced Education (now Charles Sturt University), Wagga, where he made the wine.

In 1981 Evans, by now a partner in Petaluma as well as head of Rothbury Estate, in a controversial boardroom decision, acquired the Cowra vineyard for Rothbury. Some say this decision saved Rothbury’s bacon by severing it from a reliance on unpopular Hunter Valley reds and allowing it to meet an exploding demand for chardonnay at a modest price.

As an indicator of the scale of Rothbury’s Cowra investment, the vineyard produced 1,000 cases of chardonnay in 1981, 42,000 in 1990, and about 60,000 in 1993. The rapid growth in production reflects grafting over of the other varieties to chardonnay rather than expanded plantings.

The action at Cowra did not stop with Rothbury. Gray’s Cowra Vineyards Pty Ltd (CVPL) went on to plant a further 73 hectares of vines adjacent to Rothbury’s Holdings, with another 10 established by CVPL’s vineyard manager, Greg Johnston. That’s how Cowra found broad acres of grape vines nestling up to its suburbs.

This cluster of vineyards almost in the town was joined later by a 29 hectare planting about 20 kilometres downstream on the Lachlan’s beautiful plains. David and Elizabeth O’Dea established the vineyard on their 364-hectare ‘Windowrie’ hoping for better returns than those generated by breeding Simmental cattle and wheat farming. The O’Dea’s now plan on extending the vineyard to 121 hectares over the next four to five years.

But Cowra can thank Brian McGuigan for its biggest vineyard. While head of Wyndham Estate, Brian foresaw sales outstripping grape supply. With viticulturist, Brian Sainty, he identified Cowra as a potential low-cost source of grapes for making soft, fruity, easy-drinking wines.

A small-investor scheme designed to fund the development failed to get the tax office nod and, as well, became caught up in the collapse of Wyndham’s parent company. Wyndham was acquired by Orlando and the merged Wyndham-Orlando Group decided to proceed with the Cowra development. Thus, Brian Sainty’s ambitious plans bore fruit.

In a development Sainty claims is unprecedented in Australia, 222 hectares were planted on 56 blocks to 11 grape varieties in one year, 1989, complete with a computerised irrigation system that allows Sainty to tailor-programme watering needs for each block.

Between 1972 and 1993, Cowra’s area under vines grew from nil to 343.6 hectares. In 1993 dollars that represents an investment in land, trellising, vines, and irrigation systems of around $9.1 million dollars.

Greg Johnston and Brian Sainty conservatively estimate plantings will grow to 810 hectares by 2000, bringing capital investment in the area to $20 million of today’s dollars.

By my estimate, grape production from Cowra’s existing vineyards is sufficient to make 326,000 dozen 750 ml bottles: 184,500 white, 103,500 red, and 38,000 sparkling.

My best guess is that the 1993 grape crop was worth $4.5 million to producers and that after it has been turned into wine and bottled, will leave the cellar with a value of perhaps $30 million. What other primary industry adds such value to its raw product?

By 2000, if all goes to estimate, the grape crop should be worth $10 million and the wine $70 million.

Perhaps by then Cowra might even have a winery! At the moment, every grape grown in the district heads off to wineries outside the area. Still, there are a growing number of very good Cowra wines to be enjoyed at modest prices. More on those next week.