Winemakers push for quality

Across Australia the cry is for quality grapes. As our wine makers cram the biggest vintage ever into bulging tanks, vintage talk, surprising as it might seem, centres on quality, not quantity. Grape growers who once boasted of big crops now compare baumes (a measure of sugar, or ripeness) over post-vintage beers.

Wine makers are driving the push for quality grapes. Quality bonuses or penalties for a lack of it are now commonplace when it comes to grape buying. And since quality tends to rise in proportion to diminishing yields, grape growers need to earn more per tonne to make ends meet.

Southcorp, our largest wine maker, maintains grape-quality control in some areas by paying growers on a per-hectare-of-vines rather than on a per-tonne-of-grapes basis. Others opt to pay a bonus for high Baumé, exact a penalty for lack of it, or pay bonuses on some more elaborate quality measuring criteria.

The wine-maker push for quality comes from the consumer and from strong local and external competition. In Australia, there is a trend to drink better wine. Cask consumption is gently declining while sales of bottled wines are on the increase.

Quality is about to be further lifted as tens of thousands of tonnes of premium grape varieties come on stream following extensive replanting in recent years. The first wave of these hit the industry this year – the most notable being a massive surge in the volume of chardonnay grapes available. The final count is not yet in but may be in the vicinity of 145,000 tonnes – an increase of 30,000 tonnes on the previous year’s 115,000 tonnes.

In brief, the chardonnay shortage is well and truly over. Australia’s chardonnay crop was negligible at the beginning of last decade. Now we have enough to make more than 10 million cases a year. That represents a vineyard investment, by my estimate, of more than 200 million dollars, mostly in the last ten years.

A white-wine surplus now seems upon us and if next vintage is as big, then we will might finally see a drop in grape prices and a tendency for reduced margins – and hence lower prices – right through the production chain.

But price relief will not be evenly spread as the surpluses tend to be in lesser varieties from the bulk-production Murray River and MIA areas. With all that extra chardonnay available, the bulk white varieties, sultana and muscat gordo blanco, traditionally used in wine casks and grown en masse in these areas, may get pushed aside – and there is a chance we will see chardonnay going into wine casks.

McWilliams wine maker, Jim Brayne, told me there were large surpluses of sultana in the MIA. And, in a move typical of this hard-nosed, innovative industry, the wine makers saw a challenge, not a problem. The result is very cheap, oak-chip-fermented sultana-based dry white now being snapped up by English supermarket buyers with a nose for a bargain.

Chateau Tahbilk’s Alister Purbrick, sees export opportunities arising from the white surplus. Alister has strong export involvement through interests in Stratmer Vineyards and Woodcroft wines – specialist, export orientated contract wine makers with extensive grape contacts across Victoria and South Australia.

Alister believes rising chardonnay volumes and lower grape prices could re-open to Australian wine makers the 2.99-pound to 3.99-pound segment of the UK market. What that means, of course, is that there is still a chance that what seems like a surplus could evaporate.

It’s a different story with red wine. Overall it has been a big, high-quality vintage. But stocks were severely depleted following several years of high demand and small vintages in 1993 and 1995. Many companies have been releasing red wines a year earlier than they’d like to.

Bigger red crops will come on stream. But large-scale red plantings began a few years after the chardonnay push that led to today’s bumper harvests. It will be the turn of the century before really big red tonnages hit our wineries. And most wine makers I’ve spoken to see the shortage of high-quality reds lasting into the new century.

For all the industry’s efficiency and ingenuity, the imponderables – moving exchange rates, nature’s fickleness and growing international competition – cloud our view of the future. A predicted surplus may disappear offshore or it may flood domestic retail shelves with bargains.

All we can say with certainty is that quality is on the rise; there should be some white-wine price relief this year; and keep stockpiling your favourite reds for the time being.