Cowra part 1 of 2 — honey, they shrunk the wine industry

Two weeks ago a dozen independent Cowra winemakers visited Canberra. Their story is a microcosm of the shrinking act now underway in Australia as big makers pull the pin on grape contracts, export and local prices decline, and domestic tastes shift dramatically away from chardonnay to sauvignon blanc.

Cowra, the group told me, had already dropped wine grape production from about 25 thousand tonnes a year to 12 thousand tonnes. And the figure seems headed for further decline as big companies that used to queue up for Cowra chardonnay disappear over the horizon.

One of the region’s biggest holdings, a 400-hectare vineyard owned by Australian Vintage Limited, reportedly sold recently for just $1.5 million, about its land value according to the visiting winemakers – suggesting anything but a grapey future for the block.

The site, developed in the nineties for Orlando-Wyndham by Brian Sainty, traded originally under Orlando’s Richmond Grove brand before passing to McGuigan Simeon Wines Ltd. McGuigan Simeon, in turn, changed its name to Australian Vintage Ltd in January 2008.

But Cowra’s first vineyards had been 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 reflected 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 later extended their plantings and remain one of the area’s biggest independent growers. They now have a winery on site, The Mill restaurant in Cowra. And their son Jason was one of the 12 independent makers in Canberra two weeks back.

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 claimed was 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 allowed tailored watering control for each block.

Between 1972 and 1993, Cowra’s area under vines grew from nil to 343.6 hectares. The majority of other growers now in Cowra arrived through the mid and late nineties.

Because most of Cowra’s production headed off to multi-region blends, the area attracted little consumer recognition – a fate shared by South Australia’s Langhorne Creek, Padthaway and Wrattonbully regions.

Despite a lack of wider recognition, smaller players had been chipping away for years, building their regional brands. But this side play has suddenly become the main game – hence the swathe already cut through production. And given likely permanent water shortages along the Lachlan, the days of mass production are unlikely to return.

The twelve independent growers recognise this. We’ll look at their wines and plans next week.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009