Andrew Jefford '10 April column: Down Under and out, but not giving up

  • Monday 22 March 2010

You could call it the equivalent of a tsunamiwarning siren, its wail hanging ominously in the heavy afternoon air. Four key Australian wine bodies recently lobbed out a joint
‘Restructuring Action Agenda’ to Australia’s wine growers. It should have been edged in ebony; the news was bleak.

The headline figure from the Grape Growers’ organisation, the Winemaker’s Federation, the Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation and the Australian Wine and Brandy

Corporation is that Australia’s current surplus levels lie somewhere between 20 and 40 million cases. There’s the equivalent of 100 million cases backed up on the wharf: a container mountain that is rapidly rising (it will double in two years if nothing is done).

Where growers can find a market for their fruit, somewhere between a quarter and a half

of it sells at less than it costs to produce. Not only have sales dropped, but the Aussie dollar has turned corrosive. Australian wine retailing at £6.99 in the UK in 2004 would have had a dockside dispatch price of $48.76 per case. At late 2009 exchange rates, £6.99 means just

$24.16 a case.

Those buying £6.99 Aussie wine from Tesco or Sainsbury may have tasted the difference. Overproduction and financial desperation on this scale, of course, makes it inevitable that Australia will become ever-more synonymous with deals and discounts, soiling its already spotty reputation in developed markets such as those of the UK and the US. The problem,

everyone recognises, needs speedy solution – hence the Agenda siren.

I went to Cowra in New South Wales (300km west of Sydney) shortly after the release of that grim document – and thought back almost 17 years, to March 1993, and my first meeting with a beaming, bristling Len Evans, basking back then in the sunlight of Australia’s nascent success. The talk was all of Chardonnay, a variety the Cowra region pioneered in Australia. Evans’ Rothbury had vineyards there. ‘I get a fierce joy from quaffing this kind of Chardonnay,’

Evans told me over a bottle of the 1982. ‘Six or seven tonnes per acre [14.5 metric tons per hectare] of lovely wines.’ Where has that optimism gone? ‘It’s tough, mate, it’s tough,’ Jason O’Dea of Windowrie told me this time. Some 25,000 tons had been harvested in Cowra

in 2006; for 2010, he reckoned on no more than 6,000 tons. Casella, the maker of Yellow Tail, signed growers up at $1,300 per ton five years ago.

Three years later, Casella said it didn’t need any more Chardonnay; now Cowra growers

struggle to get $350 a ton from anyone. The big companies have all left. The region is in its seventh year of drought, with the local dam filled to just 4.5% of capacity. Windowrie was hit by frost this year, and O’Dea had just had a ‘Dear John’ letter from the company’s

previous UK importers, telling him that ‘the category’ was flat and ‘their brand’ was flat, while the strong dollar meant ‘there’s no margin left in your wines’.

I went to see the Fagan family of Mulyan shortly afterwards; they’d mothballed their Chardonnay vineyards this year, but still had some reds under contract with Orlando – whose Grower Liaison Officer happened to arrive for a 15-minute meeting while I was there. The news, needless to say, was not encouraging: we’ll take your grapes if we must, but if you can sell them to anyone else, go ahead. Neither the O’Deas at Windowrie nor the Fagans at Mulyan are giving up; indeed the surviving 12 producers in Cowra and its Canowindra sub-region have just got together to produce a joint marketing plan.

Everyone realises that the only way forward is to make handcrafted, high-quality wines. Weather, cash flow and image make this aim even loftier than usual. This is history in action. This is the story of agriculture. Every new vineyard is an experiment, proved in the furnace of time by the repeated success of a crop. What makes things particularly difficult

for Australians is that the cycle seems exhaustingly swift, hurried by climatic parameters which change with eerie rapidity.

Whatever the cause (periodic drought or CO²), many growers told me that average harvest dates have come forward by a month in the last decade. Warm regions now bake; once-marginal climates look warm; canopies are under constant modification; the grape variety

merry-go-round keeps grafters busy.

Back in Cowra, I looked out at the Fagan’s garden; butterflies danced for dappled shade in a fierce midsummer sun. ‘When the roses are already looking exhausted, you know it’s hot,’ sighed Jenni Fagan. ‘Sometimes,’ confessed O’Dea as we parted, ‘when the days get hot and the wind starts blowing, you wonder where we’re headed, mate.

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