Philip White Sees Encircling Gloom in 2009
a version of this story appeared in The Independent Weekly on 19 DEC 08
Next year? Next year’s already been buggered by this year.
Ignoring a few modest-scale exquisities, like the early-picked rieslings of Clare and Eden, 2008 was a disgusting vintage. Even the degree of industrial accidents soared as winery workers endured impossible shifts, trying to get everything turned into wine before the heat turned it to currants.
But in spite of the empty river and the drought, Australia’s crop was up one third on last year, and yields per hectare went up by a quarter. Where the water came from beats me. Then, export volumes went down 9%; and domestic sales down 5%, leaving us with 2 billion litres of wine to drink.
To put that in scale, Italy’s just beaten France to become the world’s biggest winemaker, its production up 8 percent to 4.7 billion litres. While Italy has reduced its vineyard area, its quality is steadily increasing. To add insult to alcohol producers everywhere, French heart specialist Dr Olivier Ameisen, 55, is claiming that by taking a muscle-relaxant called baclofen, he’s lost his desire for alcohol, and wants his theories tested on more thirsty people.
And now I hear the price of temporary water from the River is less than half the price it was last November. I know where that’ll be going.
There will be plenty of wine to drink next year, and a lot of utter swill from that heatwave, industrially corrected to varying degrees of digestibility.
But in the face of increasing large-scale vineyard plantings, and grape prices at rock bottom, many, many family-scale specialist grapegrowers will hit the wall. As Foster’s disappears and Constellation withdraws, towns will empty.
Nevertheless, 2009 will be the year the lumpen mass will wallow in lousy cheap wine at the expense of the Australian countryside, setting alcohol-related public health costs through the roof. Those of the rest us who miss out on Dr Ameisen’s tests will be furiously trying to drink our favourite specialist wineries through the crisis. Small, high-quality producers will need faithful support like never before.
We will see the continuing, phenomenal rise of China as a player in the wine market. The first paper to report those Italian figures, for example, was the Shanghai Daily. They’re onto it, and they’re increasingly getting into it.
As for the little matter of all the money in the world suddenly disappearing, Tony Bilson says his three-star temple of gastronomy in the Radisson in Sydney is still packed with tourists at dinner, but the business gamblers who’d filled it for years each lunch - at, what? $200-$500 a head? - are now down at his Number 1 wine bar on Circular Quay, hassling the staff about the price of cleanskins.
We will see the continuing tightening of control of restaurant outlets, with wine lists being bought and chopped up by one or two of the transnationals, who might then allow a big family show, like Yalumba, Taylors, Angove's or McWilliams in to add a bit of colour. Unless you can buy your way in, new producers with wines over $25 can pretty much forget it. That, of course, will include hundreds of brands which are hobby or vanity additions to family vineyards planted in the wrong places to the wrong varieties for all the wrong reasons of fashion and whimsy.
The liquor retail world will continue to constrict as Coles and Woolworths ruthlessly undercut the indies with their share of that 2 billion litres. Desperate money’s flying everywhere in retail, as floor and shelf space goes to the highest bidders. Check out the brochure Yalumba’s just produced for The Edinburgh – there’ll be more of that. If you have a specialist wine store that stocks your favourite littlies, coddle it.
Which is not to say that the big guys are limited to swill: the phenomenal cheapie imports Jeremy Stockman buys for Vintage Cellars and 1st Choice have staggered me this year for their range and quality. The exotica they’re bringing in should inspire our winemakers, providing lots of ideas for new flavours.
In the kiddylikker sector, expect a return to the original coolers of the late ’eighties, when they were made from denatured or disguised wine bases rather than spirits, and tasted pretty much the same.
In the premium regions, led by McLaren Vale, we will see more determined replacement of the old petrochemical spray regimes with an internationally-unprecedented wave of rigorous organic and bio-dynamic techniques. Margaret River, Clare, the Victorian Alps ... more and more regions are seeing this beautifully healthy and brave conversion.
And, fittingly, 2008 will see McLaren Vale – Trott’s View sell out. You can buy the last copies at Wakefield Press in Kent Town. This beautiful volume of photographs of the late Trott’s favourite folks, events and locations is our last glimpse of the Vales that used to be.
The fight to retain what’s left will reach fever pitch in 2009.