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Drought threatens Australia crop

Up to 60% of Australia’s 2008 wine production is under threat from drought.

If the weather does not break within the next six weeks, experts warn, next year’s grape crop will be decimated.

Unless there is substantial rain soon, Prime Minister John Howard announced today, no water would be allocated to irrigators in the Murray-Darling Basin from July.

The affected growers produce the grapes that make up more than 60% of Australia’s total wine production.

‘If we end up with zero water there will be mass deaths of vines,’ said Mike Stone, CEO of the Murray Valley Winegrowers Association. ‘There will be vines that survive, but they will be in a sick and sorry state.’

According to Stone, the vines can survive lack of water without damage until budburst in August and September. He said the industry is hoping for rain over winter, to ensure they get at least a third of their normal water allocation for the critical Spring period.

‘At least the vines would be alive, though it would result in a decline in yield,’ Stone said.

Stephen Strachan, chief executive of the Winemakers Federation of Australia, said he was not surprised at the Prime Minister’s announcement and that the organisation had established a Drought Management Taskforce last year to consider such a possibility.

‘We’ve had a bit of time to assess the impact, though at this stage it’s speculative,’ he said. ‘We will have another year of low crops and the surplus Australia has had will disappear.’

Strachan suggested this would mean the industry would stop heavy discounting and that there might be a dip in exports. ‘That’s not necessarily a bad thing,’ he added. ‘A proportion of that is bulk wine that’s moving the surplus we’ve had.’

He said that Australia’s major export brands were unlikely to be affected by the news. ‘What the wineries will do is channel fruit into their most important brands, which they’ll protect.’

Of more concern is whether grape growers can survive another bad year. Frosts, bushfires and drought reduced 2007 vintage yields by 40%, compounding the woes of growers coping with plummeting grape prices forced upon them by the previous year’s grape glut.

Stone said that growers in the bulk growing areas had begun to abandon their vineyards. ‘You only need to drive around to see properties that have been left.’

Written by Felicity Carter

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