Monday, August 30, 2010

Lappin' Lapin

French Rabbit Tops Green Wine Rankings. Read more here:

Courtesy of Brian Miller.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reading the Grape Leaves

The release by the Victorian Department of Industries of the 2010 Murray Valley Winegrape Crush Survey makes bad reading for grape growers in the region, although could not have come as a surprise. In essence

• Farm-gate value of grapes fell by $35 million to $80 million, a 31% fall in revenue from 2009
• Production fell by 13%, down to 328,000 tonnes (2009 375,000 tonnes)
• The average price per tonne fell 24% for red grapes to $311 and 28% down for white grapes to $283
• These prices are well below the average vineyard cost of $376 per tonne
• Since 2005 grower revenues have fallen from close to $200 million down to $80 million.

But that is only part of the story. Win, lose or draw, the water that makes grape growing possible in the Murray Valley is going to become more expensive. The water outlook for growers in the Riverina is better in the short term, but in the long run there may be little difference between the regions. So the cost of production will increase.

Continuing the bad news, the quality and price advantages that Australia once held over its New World and Old World competitors alike has all but disappeared. It matters not that Australia pointed the way for its competitors via its Flying Winemakers, by publishing its Vision 2025, and by achieving its 2025 goals in seven, not 30 years.

Yet there is hope that Australia may once again prove itself to be the 'Lucky Country'. Its extraordinary economic performance in the face of the GFC is but part of the broader trade ties it has with China, Japan and India (and with the smaller Asian economies). Wine is a global commodity these days, and will become more so in the years ahead, and Australia is not the major wine player in Asia: France occupies that role.

But China is already our fourth-largest export market, and — viewed from the Chinese side — has an imported wine share of 20%, second only to France with 40$, and a long way in front of Chile, California and South Africa with 7% each. At the present time, reports suggest up to 90% of all wine sold in China is domestically produced, but most agree a large proportion of this wine is made by blending a small percentage of (true) Chinese wine with imported bulk wine.

This in turn reflects the generally unsophisticated Chinese market, and is no surprise. Indeed, it is a positive, because the consumers of this wine are overwhelmingly Chinese, rather than expats or tourists. The rate of lifestyle change in China is phenomenal: for example, when I started Coldstream Hills in 1985, there was only one privately owned car in Beijing (all others were state owned).

As the number of Chinese with serious amounts of disposable income continues to soar, it is inevitable that sales of imported wine with a tangible pedigree will follow suit. Other positives are the suitability of the various Chinese cuisines to wine; the absence of religious barriers; the long history of alcohol consumption; and the physical proximity of China (compared to Europe or North America).

If Australia is to maintain its share of a rapidly growing wine market, it will need to provide wine across the full spectrum of price, from beverage (technically premium) wine at an equivalent of less than $AUD10, super-premium ($10-$15), ultra-premium ($15-$50) and icon (over $50).

Premium volume is greater than all other categories combined, and provides the essential entry point product. It is here that the Murray Valley and Riverina come into their own. Lest it be though this is inconsistent with my gloomy introduction, the contempt born of familiarity that pervades the UK market, less so but still a factor in the US, need not be an issue in China.

If the opening of Wine Australia offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong achieves the anticipated success, the present surplus may turn to a shortage in a very short time, and a shortage at a critical time in the development of the Chinese market will have serious long-term consequences.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Rollo Crittenden - Young Gun Winemaker of the Year

The award of the title of Young Gun Australian Winemaker of the Year to Rollo Crittenden is well merited, although the gun has had plenty of use to date. His experience began at Dromana Estate, established by his father Garry; Rollo continued as chief winemaker after Garry sold his shareholding, but eventually he moved on making wine in California, Oregon, Italy and the Hunter Valley before coming back home to rejoin his father at Crittenden Estate, which had been established in 2003. Garry was one of the early movers in the development of alternative varietals (Italian) with the ‘i’ range. This interest is now reflected in the Los Hermanos range developed by Rollo and sister Zoe; Los Hermanos apparently translates as ‘the siblings’.

I was delighted to receive an email from a French wine producer (that will, for obvious reasons, remain anonymous) in the following terms ‘After reading, (lately) a paper in the « revue des vins de France » (july 2009 ), we will be very honorated to have your point of view about our wines, I join a documentation about winery and wines. If you are interested, we will send you some samples with a real pleasure.
please, excuse my English.’

No-one is finding the going easy in the Australian wine industry at the moment, be they grape growers, winemakers, or retailers. However, all the news from New Zealand – coming in on a near-daily basis –
leaves no doubt things are even tougher there, some reports suggesting up to 150 wineries and/or vineyards are being offered for sale. Nor are all of these small businesses. One business alone owes Westpac $AUD17 million.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Winemaking during Prohibition

During Prohibition, large numbers of people began making their own alcoholic beverages at home. To do so, they often used bricks of wine, sometimes called blocks of wine. To meet the booming demand for grape juice, California grape growers increased their area about 700% in the first five years of prohibition. The juice was commonly sold as "bricks or blocks of Rhine Wine," "blocks of port," and so on along with a warning:"After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine."

One grape block producer sold nine varieties: Port, Virginia Dare, Muscatel, Angelica, Tokay, Sauterne, Riesling, Claret and Burgundy.

... During Prohibition, many California wineries shut down and wine production plummeted, but the grape harvest actually increased. The smart money cleaned up by not making wine. Instead they grew grapes by the long ton — getting millions in federal loans for new vineyards – and sold DIY wine kits.Ukiah Grape Products Co. sold fermentable juice and got clean away with it until a federal judge thought it a bit much that Ukiah agents, in outstanding displays of on-site service, made house calls to bottle their clients’ wine.
Fruit Industries Ltd. also sold juices and concentrates, and is even now fondly remembered for Vine-Glo—‘bricks’ of dried grapes sold complete with packets of yeast and stern warnings to keep the two away from water lest the unthinkable occur.

(Actually, what occurred was the undrinkable) ...

Courtesy of Brian Miller.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Poms are getting serious

Camel Valley sounds vaguely Californian, but it is in fact a winery and vineyard in Cornwall, England. It has appointed Australian winemaker Ryan Carter as assistant winemaker for the 2010 vintage; most recently, Ryan was production manager at Capel Vale Wines, previously spending four years at Shaw & Smith, as well as fitting in extensive overseas experience.

Eloquent back label

Click to enlarge. Courtesy of Brian Miller.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Brown Brothers heads south

The acquisition of Tamar Ridge Estates by Brown Brothers is, to put it mildly, interesting. The family-owned Brown Brothers business has always been run conservatively, and, up to now, has relied on organic growth from within rather than acquisition. The move to acquire Tamar Ridge Estates from Gunns Ltd is a master stroke, one which will very significantly enhance the Brown Brothers business base, and at the same time create a readymade defensive strategy against drought and climate change. It also makes a great deal of sense to maintain Tamar Ridge’s independence by ensuring autonomous brand management. It’s a quick kill process, with the acquisition to be completed on 31 August 2010.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Steer Bar & Grill opening

The soft opening for Steer Bar & Grill (real opening September 1, as the venue for a major Wolf Blass showcase celebrating 10 vintages of Platinum Label Shiraz was, how should I put it, interesting. A wet and cold day with warm blooded Blass red wines accompanied, so I imagined, by a large slab of South American style beef seemed a good way to stoke the fire within. We tasted some very interesting wines (more anon) before finally sitting down to lunch with a string of Wolf Blass reds pre-set on the table in front of us. The 2006 Wolf Blass Black Label Cabernet Shiraz Malbec was matched with Organic beetroot and sarsparilla, blackcurrant and cavalo nero, with a tiny smattering of brightly coloured bits ‘n’ pieces on the merest whisp of a foam bed. You couldn’t criticise the match, because the food was gone in a flash anyway. Then we moved to my theoretical slab of steak to accompany five vintages of Platinum Label Shiraz. The menu described it as Gippsland Natural pasture fed rump, acai and potato dauphinoise, and we were in fact served with a cuisine minceur offering of three tiny slices of beautifully cooked sous vide steak and a little square of potato dauphinoise.

Notwithstanding the huge bull effigy welcoming everyone as they entered, the explanation (apparently) is that Argentinean and Chilean approaches to beef are very different to that of Brazil, for the restaurant’s subtitle is Arte da culinaria Brasileria. Chef Stacy Thompson and wine director Raul Moreno Yague both have impressive CVs: Stacy starting in his native New Zealand, crossing the United Kingdom and Australia after a stint in the island of Morro de Sao Paulo in Brazil where, despite his very limited Portuguese, he leased a local restaurant from its owners, gutted and redesigned its layout, and created a successful restaurant that maintained integrity and respect for Brazilian cuisine. That must have taken considerable courage.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Global warming and early harvests

The Australian economy has a two-speed drive, and when it comes to global warming-attributed early harvests, once again Western Australia is largely out of step, as is Tasmania and, most certainly, New Zealand. As I have consistently said, it’s difficult to unbundle the effects of drought and moderate warming. (Remember that there has in fact been little or no warming over the past 10 years or more.)

The early harvests of recent years are substantially due to the whole vegetative cycle for the vine starting early and finishing early. In other words, hang time (the period between budburst and harvest) has not been dramatically shortened; it is simply that dry, warm soils have caused trees, shrubs, plants and grapevines to spring into life earlier than normal. Unless the weather in southern Victoria and much of southern South Australia changes radically over the next two months (and the long-range forecasts suggest that there is a better-than-even chance that rainfall will either be normal or above-normal) the vines will enter spring with the soil profile filled with water. This should mean normal budburst and, hopefully, a reversion to a more normal ripening period.