Thursday, April 29, 2010

Alister Purbrick calls for number of wine producers to be halved

I am gob-smacked by Alister Purbrick’s call for the number of wine producers to be halved, for a similar number of brands to go, and for a requirement that most producers have vineyards of at least 80 hectares. As I am sure most readers will know, Alister is a former Winemakers’ Federation of Australia President, and CEO of Tahbilk.

I shudder to think how many of Australia’s most revered boutique producers would be felled by the 80-hectare requirement, but my database suggests over 80% of the five-star wineries in my Wine Companion would go.

A few random names include Grosset, Penfolds Magill Estate, John Duval Wines, Rockford (one hectare!), Torbreck, Turkey Flat, Giaconda, Tapanappa, Clonakilla, Wendouree, Frankland Estate, Bannockburn Vineyards, Bass Phillip, Jasper Hill, Brokenwood, Lake’s Folly, Bindi, Curly Flat, Wirra Wirra, Primo Estate, Cullen Wines, Moss Wood, Dalwhinnie, Summerfield, Craiglee, All Saints, Chambers Rosewood, Campbells and Morris; every winery on the Mornington Peninsula, likewise Orange, Pemberton and Porongurup; every Tasmanian producer except Tamar Ridge and Pipers Brook; and every Yarra Valley producer except De Bortoli, Yarra Burn (just) and Yering Station.

I have tried to compress the list, leaving aside hundreds of wineries with strong brands, high quality wines and more than adequate financial support that would have to be vaporised. Surely, if Australia is to alter international perceptions it is essential these wineries survive. The halving of the number of producers would have grave implications for the funding of research and the activities (especially export) of Wine Australia.

On the other side of the coin, I am equally confused by the chorus of concern about the amount of Riverland/Riverina vineyards being removed. The balance, it is suggested by Alister Purbrick and others, is wrong. Purbrick says “We seem to be removing vineyards in a way where we get the tonnages right by the wrong vineyard mix. The attrition seems to be happening mostly in the warmer climate regions and not enough in the moderate climate areas.”

There are a number of problems with this. If the Henry tax review triggers a move to a volumetric tax base, the domestic market for warm (read Inland Rivers or irrigation areas) region wines will have to be nigh-on 100% exported.

So we will increase the percentage of wines at prices for which there is no adequate margin, even at rock-bottom and unsustainably low grape prices. By cutting overall production by 50%, it seems we need to preserve the irrigation areas, and (plucking figures from the air, I admit) decreasing moderate (aka cool) area plantings by 70% and irrigation plantings by 30% to come up with an overall 50% cut. What’s more, if you talk tonnes rather than hectares, the figures will blow out further.

I was under the impression the Murray Darling system was under dual pressure from decreased rainfall that the CSIRO/Weather Bureau forecast will be a permanent decrease, and that water prices have to rise significantly. Even if there is adequate water to supply vineyards to a level that Purbrick et al wish to see (surely debateable in the Murray Darling, less so for the time being in the Riverina) I fail to understand how this sunshine and water in a bottle is going to provide grape growers and winemakers with adequate returns, and in any way help restore Australia’s battered reputation abroad.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Oak: The Wheel Turns Full Circle

Before Australian wineries began importing French oak barriques (225 litres) made and assembled in France, there was a mixed broth of oak. The majority was American, but the two major coopers did import a limited amount of French oak and make the barrels here. An alternative was for all the staves to be cut and put in place in France, then disassembled and sent to Australia in bundles (the idea being to save freight costs) where the jigsaw puzzle would be completed.

Not only was the oak mainly American, but the most common barrel sizes were hogsheads (300 litres) and puncheons (500 litres). Prior to the 1975 vintage I purchased once-used puncheons from Montrose Winery in Mudgee (Italian winemaker Carlo Corino decided he didn’t really want to use oak) and put them into use for the 1975 vintage at Brokenwood. The barrel storage area was a sunken pit at the end of the winery, and the only way of getting barrels in or out was through a heavy duty block and tackle arrangement. That, of course, was wildly impractical, and about as far removed from the stacking of barriques on metal cradles moved four at a time with a forklift, as the earth from the sun.

Now, as in so many things in wine, the wheel has turned full circle, and at Coldstream Hills (and other high end wineries around the country) puncheons are making a comeback. The idea is to slow the oak ageing process, both in terms of oak flavour, but also the broader pattern of development of wine in oak.

The pictures taken at Coldstream Hills point to the difference; the one huge advance is metal cradles for the puncheons which likewise permit forklift movement. There remains a certain element of manual handling (getting the puncheons on and off the cradle, and also manipulating them for cleaning) but that is a small price to pay.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Paxton Certified (biodynamic, that is!)

David Paxton is one of Australia’s leading practical (as opposed to academic) viticulturists. He was the first mover in establishing vineyards high in the hills of the Upper Yarra Valley, drawing on the experience he had gained in the 1980s establishing vineyards on steep hillsides for Petaluma. He designed and supervised the establishment of two very large vineyards at Hoddles Creek that were acquired by Hardys (now Constellation) in 1995. Coldstream Hills had been a significant purchaser of grapes from the Hoddles Creek vineyards up to the sale of those vineyards to Hardys. At my request, he identified two properties, one with steep slopes, the other more gentle, thereafter developed (under Paxton’s guidance) as associated ventures with Coldstream Hills. In other words, we go back a long way.

He has always been known for his willingness to enter into spirited discussions with his associates, and could fairly be categorised as a no-bullshit grapegrower, his long term involvement stemming from his continuing ownership of Paxton Vineyards in McLaren Vale. He was not the first person I would have thought of as likely to become involved in biodynamic grapegrowing, but that is exactly what he has done with his own vineyards. Since 2005, they have been farmed using biodynamic practices, and are now certified by NASAA, the nation’s leading organic certifier.

The step from organic to biodynamic is akin to moving from a belief in the values of Christianity (or any other mainstream religion) to an outright belief in God and the life hereafter. Those who cannot make that last step in belief should never disparage those who do; after all, there is no downside. So it is, too, with the use of the arcane preparations devised by Rudolf Steiner, belief in the cosmic cycle and its impact on the way things grow, and so and and so forth. The viticultural principles that necessarily precede biodynamic certification are organic, and it is these I equate to the values of Christianity.

Incidentally, Paxton Vineyards is rated at 5 red stars in the forthcoming edition of the Wine Companion.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Rabobank: The Good News, The Bad News

Rabobank Australia and New Zealand is a part of the international Rabobank group, the world’s leading specialist in food and agribusiness banking. It has kept a close watch on the Australian wine industry for several decades, and its comments are always worth taking on board. In its most recent quarterly report, Mark Soccio (below) makes the following points:

  • After Australia’s initial success in the global wine market, the industry has had to deal with a range of challenges including rapid supply growth, increased competition, drought, the global recession and unfavourable exchange rates.
  • The Australian wine industry’s value proposition has been steadily diluted over time in global consumer markets.
  • The dramatic increase in local wine production, combined with growing competition from other countries pursuing the Australian export-oriented model ... has made it nearly impossible for ‘Brand Australia’ to transition to higher value price-points.
  • The growing commoditisation of popular premium wines pitches Australian suppliers directly against lower cost foreign companies, with margins heavily exposed to currency movements.
  • As only growers with access to irrigation in the warm inland regions can profitably grow grapes for commodity bulk wines, Australia must seek to limit its long-term participation in bulk commodity markets to opportunistic occasions.
  • While an expected 2010 vintage of below 1.5 million tonnes will take pressure off bulk wine trade flows in 2010-11, average export values will continue to be pressured by sluggish consumer, discretionary spending and a high Australian dollar in key markets.
  • While the removal of vineyards is necessary, this will not solve all of the wine sector’s woes.
  • The need for sustained investment in brand building in the industry is paramount. New market opportunities are being explored with greater purpose and going forward, marketing can provide an avenue for renewed industry growth.
  • Australia may have its problems, but 2009 was equally difficult for France and Spain. The good news is that right across the New World wine producers in the southern hemisphere, crop levels in 2010 have been lower than usual.
  • This comes at a time when there are signs of initial life at the higher price points in the US.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Italian varietal names in Australia

Close observers of the inner workings of the relevant bureaucracies in Australia and the EU will be aware of the seemingly interminable twice-yearly meetings between the two camps, straight from Yes, Minister. Those of cynical bent noticed that the sessions were always held in the summer of the host country, and wondered whether there was any feeling of urgency. However, the necessary piece of legislation to amend the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation Act and the Trademarks Act was introduced into the Australian parliament in June 2009, with all the discussion over, and only the formalities to be tied up.

Or so it seemed. For at the very last moment, the Italians objected to the use of Italian varietal names, including sangiovese and nebbiolo, on Australian wines even where those words were clearly descriptive of the variety used, and nothing else. These objections had never been raised during the negotiations when other varietal names were discussed, and it was agreed that their use would not be restricted in Australia. Quite rightly, the Australian negotiating team made it clear it was a no-go issue so far as Australia was concerned. The message got through to the EU, which in March this year amended its regulations to make it clear the use of Italian grape variety names is permitted. So after almost 10 years the wine agreement with the EU will come into force before the end of this year after passage through the Australian parliament (hopefully) by June.

Another Reason for Hating Corks

The cork and screwcap usage figures in the upcoming 2011 Wine Companion are little short of extraordinary. 96.15% of all white wines were sealed with a screwcap, and 82.77% of all red wines. Flipping the coin over, 1.37% of white wines were sealed with one-piece corks, and 8.78% red wines were thus sealed.

The reasons why Australia has moved so trenchantly to screwcaps are many and various, and I have canvassed them in a number of articles I have written over the past few years on the subject. Inevitably, most of the focus is on corks which have been contaminated with trichloranisole (TCA) that imparts a mouldy aroma and taste to the wine, and to the more insidious effects of oxidation. Outright failure of the cork to hold the contents of the wine in the bottle is seldom mentioned. Preparing for a major dinner the other day, I went searching through some old Mosel Rieslings and found several bottles of 1971 Graacher Domprobst Auslese Eiswein of Dr Licht-Burgweiler. As I removed it from the rack, the cork slid gracefully into the bottle as the photographs show. The second bottle, stored immediately adjacent to the first, managed to retain its cork, and had slightly better (though not dramatically better) ullage. That bottle was duly served at the dinner, and the wine was superb.

It occurs to me that while US multi-millionaire Bill Koch is pursuing his relentless legal actions against all connected with the Thomas Jefferson bottles of 1787 Chateau Lafite, 1787 Chateau d’Yquem, and a whole lot of others, he might have a far easier time suing all and sundry for defective bottles of wine sealed with corks. The Jefferson litigation has been going for many years, and Koch has just issued a new writ against Michael Broadbent and Christie’s, the auctioneers of the wines.