Well known Barossa winemaker Grant Burge passed through Canberra this week, promoting Meshach, his flagship red, and commenting on the most extraordinary vintage in living memory.
‘I’ve never seen anything like it’, he said. ‘Reds are down in volume by seventy per cent and whites by thirty five per cent. It’s the vintage from hell’.
Burge believes that Australia’s vintage could be as low as 1.1 million tonnes, well down on industry mid-vintage estimates of around 1.3 million tonnes. He believes this is because initial reports extrapolated on yields from hot, earlier ripening regions that were not as hard hit by frost and drought as cooler, later ripening areas.
Burge believes that the sudden shortage will drive prices up and has already affected vigneron behaviour. Normally by this stage of vintage larger makers would have begun to sell off bulk wine not required for brand commitments.
But in 2007, he says, this is not happening, meaning virtually no current-vintage bulk-wine market. Everyone is hanging on to everything they have and many makers are desperately short of some varieties.
It seems that 2007 will be a year of great financial pain for many growers and winemakers. The abrupt change from surplus to shortage hits in different ways. Growers – some of whom may also be winemakers – are faced with all the costs of a normal season but little income to offset the costs.
And winemakers — whether self-reliant in grapes, partially reliant or totally dependent on contract fruit – face the dilemma of under utilised equipment and a big gap in stock for the years ahead.
Burge, for example, says that his Illapara winery, in the main street of Tanunda, Barossa Valley, processed 4.5 thousand tonnes last year but will see only two thousand tonnes in 2007. He believes that some larger producers have been even harder hit with some wineries reportedly falling tens of thousands of tonnes short of capacity.
After three vintages at around two million tonnes, the sudden wrenching shift from top to second gear, at 1.1 million tonnes, will jolt the industry and flow on to drinkers through firmer pricing.
Reportedly, surplus bulk wine from previous vintages is being dispersed rapidly. And because it is not being replaced, pressure on supplies and, hence, prices, will probably be fairly quick in some sectors of the market.
If there’s a serious shortage at the cheap end of the market, it’s quite likely that producers and large retailers will do as they have in the past and turn to imports to make up the shortfall.
For a middle-sized premium producer like Burge, though, that’s not an option. Grant says that the large vintages of 2005 and 2006 provide something of a buffer. Good stocks of reds from those vintages can be managed to at least partly offset the losses of 2007, and white volumes are down but not disastrously so.
And what’s quality like in the Barossa in 2007? Again, Burge says he’s never seen anything like it. Red grapes, hard as bullets, seem to be all skin and no flesh. What this means is inky black wines (colour pigments are all in the skins) packed with tannins. They’re not attractive at present, says Burge, and he doesn’t know whether they’ll soften with time or stay as they are.
Perhaps that’s good reason for us to stock up, at historically low prices, on the excellent 2004, 2005 and 2006 vintages now in the market.
Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007