Small, wet 1993 vintage points to price increases

A cold, wet growing season couldn’t have come at a worse time for Australian and New Zealand wine makers. With buoyant demand, especially from export markets, they need more grapes and stable prices. Instead they face shortages, higher grape prices, and increased vineyard costs. If they pass these on to consumers, sales will slip. If they don’t, shareholder returns will be even more miserable than they are now.

Ivan Selak’s Auckland based winery sources most of its grapes these days from a joint-venture vineyard and contract growers in Marlborough at the top of the south island. As vintage approaches, he tells me all major growing areas face heavy cloud cover, the prospect of more rain… and hence more outbreaks of mould diseases.

For the New Zealanders it’s the second small vintage in a row. Ivan tells me the shortage has pushed up spot prices for Marlborough sauvignon blanc (the country’s biggest performing wine grape) from around $NZ850 to $NZ1,200 a tonnes. And very ordinary-quality Muller Thurgau, a German hybrid thriving in New Zealand’s cool climate, now fetches $NZ495 a tonnes. Those prices convert to $NZ20 and $NZ8 a dozen bottles respectively for grapes alone.

Peter Barry reports big crop losses for the Clare Valley, an hour’s drive north of Adelaide. Downy mildew is the main culprit. To make matters worse, growers report infestations of brown moth… a pest usually associated with flowering time and not known in Clare this close to vintage. The sprayers are out in force again, pushing up costs on an already expensive vintage.

The great Riverland, cradle of our mass-produced wines for home and abroad, experienced the coldest, wettest vintage on record. As a result of early-season mildew crops are estimate to be down by about 15 per cent. But it seems not all is bad news there. Large companies, presumably because they have leverage over growers, say they will not be paying inflated prices for grapes. To do so would disrupt price-sensitive exports.

Alister Purbrick of Chateau Tahbilk says Victoria’s Goulburn Valley is disease-free and crops will be about normal. However, like every other region, vintage is two to three weeks late. This presents no problems with white wines… in fact, enhances the quality as fruit flavour is more intense with higher than normal acid levels. But the lateness augurs badly for reds which have difficulty ripening, especially if vintage is wet.

In McLaren Vale, Geoff Merrill, of Mount Hurtle Winery, estimates the area’s crops to be down by 15 to 20 per cent. Again downy and powdery mildew were the culprits. Vintage is late there, too. But as it’s warmer than the Goulburn Valley, we’ll see not only good whites from the 1993 vintage but reasonable reds, too.

From the Hunter Valley, Trevor Drayton tells me it ‘s the latest vintage in his fifteen odd years winemaking. But the old-timers tell him things are just back to normal. While Trevor puzzles over that one, he’s happy to report a big vintage for the area, about fifty per cent up on last year’s disaster.

The Barossa Valley is so big and varied it’s hard to put figures on the vintage before the grapes are in and counted. Robert Hill-Smith of Yalumba says poor fruit set and mildew mean an overall crop decrease of perhaps 15 per cent on an average vintage. And he says that down south in Coonawarra the loss might be 30 per cent. His company, for example, was counting on 750 tonnes from Coonawarra and now expects only 268.

Taking a broader view, Robert says ABARE reported a grape crush in 1992 of 611,000 tonnes. That made 397 million litres of wine against sales for the year of 393 million. ABARE estimates this year’s crop at 580,000 tonnes. But Robert Hill-Smith takes a more pessimistic view, predicting 540,000 tonnes. By his reckoning Australia will make 50 million litres less than it needs for the year.

He believes the shortage, combined with a currency rebound, price increases, and a strong fight back by European wine makers (genuine Chablis can now be bought in England for as low as five pounds, compared with four pounds fifty for Yalumba Oxford Landing Chardonnay), will slow the rate of export growth.

For once, Australian wine consumers face the prospect of higher prices and a shortage of wine. Already the Penfold Wine Group has announced price rises on some bottled wines. It may be wise to salt away a few extra cases of your favourites over the next few months.