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A jaundiced view of the year in wine


Whitey casts his eye back over the past 12 months – which seemed to bring more bad tidings than good.

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Now that was a year. My hermit life became very challenging after I brained myself on a very low verandah while moving house last Christmas; an injury which rekindled the damage of many other head wounds from my reckless past.

So my written output has been a tad erratic. At times it’s been very tricky to perform and now I look back on the 12 months through the blurred and bent eye of a bloke living in fear of becoming a very shitty old prick.

Apart from the odd notable outing, retweeting other people’s bad news on Twitter seemed about as good as I could do most of the days I could get out of bed.

There were far too many funerals. One miserable morning I removed 13 names and numbers from my phone. That was enough; I drew the line at that. There are more dead ones in there.

Drinking the wines of the dead is little delight when the departure is still raw. The cheapest comfort comes from imagining how much worse it must be in Syria, and that’s no comfort at all. The world is in ruin; our politicians’ treachery easily oozes through their silly thin shine.

There was no writing for pleasure this year. For the first time in my life, poetry seemed impossible.

I tell you this in warning: my recollections of what is normally pleasurable are jaundiced.

Nothing much changed in the big-volume end of the wine industry. The Aussie dollar fell, making export easier, but if the likes of Kingston Estate boss Bill Moularadellis are any guide, electricity price hikes he blames on solar and wind power would appear to have cancelled that relief.

His Riverland refinery processes 5 per cent of Australia’s wine. He exports it in bulk, obviously at the thinnest margin. Maybe he wants a nuclear reactor across the river, like they have in Bordeaux.

It doesn’t take too many outbursts like Moularadellis’s effort in The Financial Review last week to show this belatedly greening world how lost many big Oz wineries are beginning to look.

As this El Niño progresses, and the drought of six and seven years ago repeats, perhaps even more viciously, the irrigated wine business of the Murray Darling is sure to face horrid prospects indeed.

As I reported here in September, when Winemakers Federation of Australia chief executive Paul Evans reported a 5 per cent increase in grape prices, he added: “This is an industry average and many producers in the warm inland regions in particular continue to experience enormous challenges. Our analysis shows that 92 per cent of production in warm inland areas is unprofitable.”

That came as no surprise to those few of us who keep our noses to the winestone. What did surprise and reassure was the number that then emerged from the top end of the market.

Wine Australia’s Export Report September 2015 reported the strongest rate of growth since the peak of October 2007. That was the last time the Aussie dollar was worth zilch and before the blistering drought followed and buggered everything up.

In the 12 months to September 30 this year, the value of exports rose 8 per cent to $A1.96 billion.

This wasn’t the result of Moularadellis’s efforts in the giant bladder-pack business. Uh-huh. A lot of that export bulk came from wine grown at a loss. But wine above $A50/litre rose 54 per cent to a record $A133 million. This is only 0.2 per cent of total exports by volume, but the report shows it’s worth 7 per cent of total value.

As I reported here in October, Wine Australia chief executive officer Andreas Clark said “We’re seeing the strongest rates of growth in our premium price segments. Wines above $A10 per litre grew in value 28 per cent to $A426 million, a record for this segment. Wines in the $A20-$50 segment increased 13 per cent to $A88 million.”

Enough said about that. The industrial revolution in much Australian wine seems to have failed.

While it did that, the predictable counter-revolution preoccupied me for a brief moment. This was the advent of brown and orange hippy wines that called themselves natural. The fad of such wines, those with a shelf life briefer than unpasteurised milk, is mercifully waning.

Smarter premium producers, however, are certainly learning to make much better, cleaner, more environmentally sound wines in larger volumes, which last as well as the most preservative-soused premiums of yore. That’s very cool.

While I quote these reports of the country’s two biggest wine industry representative and administrative councils, I should also report that their continuing failure to grasp the realities of the gap between the premium, profitable end of the business and the vast volume-pumping, loss-making, environmentally-destructive bottom end has never looked so indictable.

While these two, and other bodies, are currently attempting to merge into one supergroup, they continue to miss the point: there are two wine industries in Australia. One is premium and profitable, the other is bulk and simply not. While the biggest investment is in the latter bit, those practitioners need more and more to depend on the pointier, sharper, more respected and profitable end to give them camouflage in the export markets and, to a lesser extent, within Australia.

While these two ends of the business masquerade as one, their propaganda and lobbying efforts are far too easily ignored by significant politicians. I know various key pollies of both sides of the houses at both state and federal levels who quietly say they can’t afford to take too much notice of these wine industry councils.

Which leads me to those who write about wine and its manufacturers. In the major newspapers, the most reliable industry commentaries appear in the better business pages, even when written by folks who are not wine industry specialists.

As their space continues to diminish, the wine recommenders in the food and wine pages become more and more slavish to the wine producers, and less likely to ever publish anything that gets close to honest criticism.

Like the stuttering repetition of the out-of-date wine show system, their relevance seems to fade as surely as the wine industry councils they consistently fail to analyse and report.

The fractal chaos of the blogosphere is not much better. Waves of would-be could-bees quickly subside into forgotten coulda-beens as they realise there’s no money in it unless they get into financial bed with those they hope will keep them supplied with free booze forever.

So there. A jaundiced view from a jaundiced hack. There’s no pleasure in writing this.

But I happily stand by the reviews of the many delicious tinctures I have recommended here throughout the year. Many of them retail for not much more than the cost of three or four pints of beer.

I look forward to having a couple of weeks away from the keyboard while I replace the tasting bench with the drinking and dining table, and continue to get my ratty brain back into line.

Be very careful in the heat and the celebrations. Don’t drive if you drink. Don’t forget the water. Don’t waste money on presents nobody wants – send the money to the poor bloody refugees that somehow manage to stay afloat as they flee the wars we wage.

I’ll leave you with a better summary than I’ve managed here. It’s musical and poetic and perfect and it fits my attitude to all the above and reflects my respect of you, my beloved readers: it’s Guy Clark and Karen Matheson singing Guy’s “Dublin Blues”. Pour yourself a big one and find it on YouTube.

In the meantime, have a very merry thing. See you on the other side. Ka-chink!

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