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Aussie wines adapt to water, global crises

THE global economic crisis has hit the wine industry badly. While rare wines are still fetching record prices at auctions, last week's Bordeaux en primeur prices are an indication that general spending on fine wines is dropping and producers need to find new ways to encourage consumers to part with their money.

The Australian wine industry has long suffered crisis after crisis, both financially as well as due to producers' struggles with terroir.

Drought remains a clear and present problem at the moment, although Aussie viticulturists are becoming better equipped to deal with the issue.

"A lot of wine companies and vineyards are being managed in an entirely different way with respect to water," said Australian best-selling wine writer Jeremy Oliver.

"About 25 years ago we were throwing water around; I remember flood irrigation in South Australia, imagine that now. Evaporation everywhere," he said.

"These days we are thinking more about what the vine really needs and about cropping levels. Instead of cropping at 10, 12 tons per acre (0.4 hectare) in the vineyard, pumping it out for a wine that sells A$12 (US$8.47), what would happen with the same vineyard if we pumped less water on it and cropped at 3 tons per acre?

"Is it sustainable? Can this vineyard then produce a wine good enough to justify A$30 bottle? If it can, then the next challenge is to convince the world not to be looking for wine at A$15 but A$25."

As far as the local market is concerned, Chinese wine enthusiasts are blank slates who are only just coming to terms with the image of Brand Australia. Oliver feels the big brands - especially Jacob's Creek, Penfolds and Wolf Blass - are well-established here and still have a hierarchy of levels that enables them to have a high level of penetration.

"Australia has strong brands but those brands are still in a competitive position," he said. "Most of the key Australian medium to large companies have got distributors here and there are very good distributors in China.

"I suspect the principals of the Australian wine industry are focusing more and more on China," he added.

"There's certainly a belief in Australia that China will snap out of what's going on around the world quicker than just about anyone else and I think Australia wants to hit the ground running when things pick up again," the 46-year-old said.

The 2009 vintage could be a stumbling block however, and Oliver, who is a trained wine maker and has been in the industry for 24 years, is concerned about its potential.

The country was plagued by immense heat over the summer (Adelaide, South Australia, for example, recorded six consecutive days of temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius), while bush fires consumed 1.5 percent of vineyards in the Yarra Valley near Melbourne and others in the vicinity and surrounding regions risk smoke taint.

While Dr Tony Jordan, president of the Yarra Valley Winegrowers Association, recently claimed smoke taint not to be an issue after tasting samples of his wines at Domaine Chandon, Oliver is skeptical whether the industry should be commenting so early after harvest.

"There are still a number of theories regarding how long it takes for smoke in the atmosphere above a vineyard to affect wines, but I have a lot of experience of more than five years (in the issue) because I share an office with a company that has a machine that takes smoke taint out of wine," he said.

"I am very, very fearful, because the chemical that produces smoke taint is similar to what causes brettanomyces, and it is possible to remain under the human palate threshold level till after bottling.

"This means wine makers can bottle wines that for all intents and purposes can taste free of smoke taint, but later on it just tastes like you're licking an ash tray.

"So if heat or the fire didn't get you, then smoke taint might," he said.


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