Down Under, Not Down and Out

Family wineries, water initiatives and applied research are breathing new life into Australia’s beleaguered wine industry.

These are not easy days for Australian winemakers. Besieged by a perfect storm—years of drought, a vast oversupply of grapes and wine, changing  fashion and a steadily climbing dollar—they could  hunker down and wait it out. But that’s not an  Australian attitude. They’re not quitters: not at the battles of Gallipoli or Tobruk, and certainly not now.

It’s true that, overall, branded wine sales are down, while bulk wine sales are up. Widely circulated estimates are of a 100-million-liter wine surplus, which is having a depressive effect on wine prices. Yet amidst all of the hand-wringing, the seeds of future success are being sown. And even now, reports South Australia’s The Advertiser, family wineries are gaining market share.

Summer came early to South Australia this year. When I stepped off a plane in Adelaide with a jacket under my arm last November, the city was in week three of a heat wave that saw temperatures climb as high as 109°F. The heat and the tension were palpable. The threat of bushfires was very real, memories of the previous year’s fires in Victoria that claimed 173 lives too close for comfort.

Persistent hot, dry conditions have made life tough for growers in Langhorne Creek over the past several years. Formerly reliant on water from Lake Alexandrina to meet their irrigation needs and with its growing salinity threatening their livelihoods, a recently completed $10-million self-financed pipeline to bring water from the Murray River further upstream has given them renewed optimism.

Famous within the industry for producing the fruit behind Wolf Blass’s trophy-winning Black Label wines, much of Langhorne Creek’s production has been blended into the big boys’ multiregional wines for decades. But declining demand for those wines and water limitations have left big swathes of vineyard abandoned. In the wake of the devastation, multigenerational family-run businesses have stepped in to fill the void. Try the quality wines from Bleasdale,  Bremerton, Brothers in Arms and Lake Breeze.

Grizzled chemist David Bruer catches my attention with his unique blend of prosletic zeal and Australian pragmatism. He farms his vineyards organically, touts a fungicide made from milk whey that is more effective than sulfur, and offers a range of wines made with no preservatives. Yet he routinely uses cultured yeasts and partially dealcoholizes some wines to bring them back into balance. He’s
forging his own path, an explorer in the bush—emblematic of the Australian wine scene.

The trend toward organics and biodynamics is steadily accelerating in Australia, and it makes eminent sense given the continent’s generally benign climate. The commercial and winemaking successes of such top producers as Castagna, Cullen and Henschke only add to the appeal. In Padthaway, Kim Longbottom mulls a decision to take her Henry’s Drive vineyards organic; she blames her late husband’s leukemia on a life of exposure to agrichemicals.

In the Clare Valley, many folks bemoan Constellation’s decision to close the Leasingham winery. While Leasingham wines will continue to carry the Clare name to the world, they will be henceforth made in McLaren Vale. As one of the region’s most visible producers, the impact goes far beyond the loss of local jobs—it represents a growing distance between the place and the product. And many grape growers are without contracts for their 2010 fruit.

On the other hand, energetic winemaker Kerri Thompson sees opportunity in the valley, and is steadily increasing her tiny production of single-vineyard Clare wines under her KT and the Falcon label. For every multinational struggling in the current market, there are dozens of embryonic wine businesses sprouting up, joining ambitious winemakers with grape growers seeking homes for their fruit.

In the Hunter Valley, where iconic brands once ruled, the bucolic landscape has been overtaken by a trove of boutique wineries. Rosemount and Lindemans share a modest cellar door (the wines are made elsewhere); the Wyndham Estate wines are made in Barossa. Yet the Tulloch family purchased back their namesake brand from Southcorp in 2001, and have successfully resuscitated it, while entrepreneur Michael Hope purchased the Rothbury Estate winery from Fosters in 2006 to house the growing production of his Hope Estate.

This energy carries over into the pioneering research being conducted at the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI). While I was in Adelaide, the institute put on a tasting to illustrate some of  its current work, ranging from closures (in which the screw cap is
the clear favorite), to levels of eucalyptol (from nearby gum trees), guiacol (smoke taint) and rotundone (the compound responsible for peppery spice in Shiraz) in finished wines.

Science can only go so far, though, and grapevines still need water. Continuing water shortages means only the vineyards capable of generating the best returns will survive, making a move away from mass-produced wines inevitable. It may take a generation, but passionate individuals farming the best sites, combined with cutting-edge research, will lead to a new Golden Age of Australian wines.


Published on December 29, 2009