“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





11 December 2011


Another Year Of La Niña Damp?
Rain Washes The Science Away
Huge Gaps In River Discussion

VINTAGE 2012: The weather has mercifully dried in the 48+ hours since the following piece was written, and it’s cool, moderately humid, and breezy here at McLaren Vale’s north-eastern extreme. The forecast for the next few days looks like more of the same. Growers everywhere across south-eastern Australia are praying to Bacchus that the La Niña scientists have got their damp vintage forecast wrong.

It’s a bit early to be writing vintage reports, but the berries are forming, it’s quite warm, and there’s steady drizzle outside. The sky doctors have been warning us that while it won’t be as extremely wet as 2011, 2012 will be another damp La Niña year.

So far, they seem to have nailed it.

Because we’ve not a had a steady burst of normal dry heat, grape-growers are extremely tetchy about mildews and moulds that have remained active since the last sopping harvest – after the dreaded 1974, 2011 was the second wettest since records began.

The thought of another year cursed with the uncontrollable moulds of 2011 is terrifying. Pray to Bacchus that if the scientists have it wrong, it’ll be drier than they predicted. The thought of it being wetter is off the wall.

Insiders are now beginning to see the quality of the bulk market grog that was made in 2011. This is now being bought and sold and examined, and much which should never have been vinified will be bleached and tricked up and blended for packaging by somebody. Maybe they could send some to our sister city: Austin, Texas, where somebody dumped a truckload of Australian bladder packs that were meant to be drunk in 2008.

“The worst wines we tasted were also the oldest wines,” reported Wes Marshall in The Austin Chronicle. “Some Australian wines had been packed as far back as 2008, and they were uniformly undrinkable.”

Just wait for some criminally stale 2011s, Austin – we’ll get them to you by 2015.

It’s hard not to be facetious and cynical in this eternally slow train crash.

Look at the Murray-Darling debate. Never has any part of the Australian environment had such intense press coverage. While the initial froth of outrage settled somewhat as last week progressed, and traces of serious debate began, there are still two glaring omissions from the agenda.

The first concerns global warming. Nobody wants to mention what is inexorably happening anyway to the big rivers, regardless of the irrigation debate.

Other than his pert piece on the ABC Environment blog, Dr Paul Sinclair, Healthy Ecosystems Manager at the Australian Conservation Foundation was not widely reported when he pointed out that science was taking a back seat.

“The CSIRO review of the draft plan that was quietly uploaded onto the Basin Authority website after the Minister Burke and the Authority chair did their press conferences on Monday”, he wrote, “concludes that the ‘level of take represented by the 2,800 GL/year reduction scenario is not consistent with the currently stated hydrologic and ecological targets given the available evidence’.

"They are forcing the irrigators
to stay in these districts
and die a horrible, slow death."

“According to the CSIRO report, returning 2,800 billion litres (GL) only ‘meet[s] 55 per cent of the 'achievable' [environmental] targets’, he continued. “The report also concludes that the draft plan will shift most of the risks from any drying of the climate onto the environment. This is likely to accelerate the degradation of the river system.”

On his scholarly blog, Larvatus Prodeo, Robert Merkel wrote “Comprehensive analyses of the expected effects of climate change on the Basin don’t appear to be in the public domain, but this CSIRO fact sheet suggests that a ‘medium climate change scenario’ will result in an expected reduction in water availability of about 1450 GL in the lower Murray by 2030. However … emissions and temperatures are tracking well above most ‘median’ scenarios used in modeling ... So if any farmers think that this is the last they’ll see of buybacks from the Basin, they’re likely to be very much mistaken.”

This should surely be loud and clear at the top of any river agenda. The entire debate seems based on the unlikely presumption that the current La Niña wet is the new normal. Stand back a bit, and unless you can see something I can’t see, the normal droughts of the last decades were not much like the second wettest vintage in history. I think it was Professor Di Bell who suggested that people were acting as if the freak rain had miraculously washed all the science away.

The second glaring omission is a question about the irrigated bulk wine business: the bladder pack racket. Given the international wine glut, the shortage of water, the parity dollar, the minimal incomes and then the associated public health bill that comes from the consumption of this impossibly cheap plonk, surely there’s no better time to ask whether this industry is at all sustainable.

Bacchus only knows the extra health bill we’re incurring dealing with the depression and stress those thousands of grape-growing familes are enduring. This will be ongoing.

And it takes only a hour’s glimpse through a random selection of wine blogs in our major discounting markets, UK and USA, to realize that the image we’ve earned ourselves as quality wine exporters has been trashed by our persistent sales of these droll-to-undrinkable wines which show little or no profit.

Bill McClumpha, a Sunraysia grapegrower without a contract told The Age “It's a bitter political struggle and it's been won hands down by the irrigator lobby who purport to represent irrigators … I very much dispute that the pressure groups who are determining the debate are acting in the interests of irrigators. They are forcing the irrigators to stay in these districts and die a horrible, slow death. It's appalling.”

It IS appalling. The thought of amorphous sweet bladder plonk made from over-irrigated vineyards masquerading as a national food security issue makes me reach for the spitbucket. Most of what the Basin produces goes overseas. There’s enough water to grow plenty of food for Australia - perhaps even a little good wine – and fix the big rivers.

Given such glaring omissions from the current national discussion, McClumpha’s summary is not only pertinent, but will be ongoing.

“This is not a food bowl,” he said. “It's a killing field.”

As I write, from Blanchetowne to Bourke, from the Southern Flinders to Kangaroo Island and right across the south-east to The Hunter, growers still struggling to pay their huge fungicide bills from 2011 are right now sitting in their sheds staring at the rain, or at the premonition of it, wondering how much more credit they can squeeze from their suppliers, and if indeed it’ll be worth it. After spending money they didn’t have spraying 2011, many couldn’t sell the crop anyway.


A-B Grower said...

Your quote from the grower in Sunraysia was perfect. Unfortunately, almost no one will get it. Governments pick winners whether they do something or nothing.

Another note - one of the best explanations i've heard about the grape market - "grades A,B,D and E are in slight undersupply. Grade C (which can be grown virtually anywhere) is in such oversupply that it is drowning grades D and E and still killing prices for B because people try to substitute."

I reckon this weekend's weather was the end of hoping for inland areas (and a few others).

Finally, how does the bladder pack shit (e.g. Austin TX gear) get past the AWBC if AWBC is there to protect the world from bad producers in Australia? Meanwhile small super premium producers regularly get knocked back for being "different"? This one needs some explaining. might be a good place for the light to get in.

BC grower said...

They can't say they weren't warned, Whitey! Interesting conundrum: if the Murray-Darling people think this weather is back to normal, and the usual thing or whatever, they'll have to admit that the new normal is so much mould the whole thing's unsustainable anyway.


GOOD POINT BC - if this is normal, what did we have before? From where I sit, the drought is normal, and will return, and if there are are grape growers left when these La Nina floods recede we'll be back arguing about buybacks and allocations and things will be much much worse for inexpensive wine.