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Pollies’ folly fuels grape misery


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It’s Groundhog Day.  Every summer now, no sooner do the radios cease keeping us awake playing “Silent Night” than the wine-grape growers of the Murray Mallee begin a great howl of grief about their rattly future.

They rarely look at their past.  Let’s face it, 250,000 Australian servicemen and women returned from World War I to find most of the jobs filled by men before the war were now taken by women, who cost half as much. Add to that the shellshock, the jitters, the illnesses and the onset of the Great Depression, and you have a twisty challenge for politicians addicted to the opiate of power through re-election.

After WWI, we had only four million people, total.  A quarter of a million votes was a goldmine for the cunning powermonger.

What they did was inspired, but tragically ill-researched. To fill up the great empty spaces in the hinterland with easily-managed electorates, they sold troops cheap blocks and encouraged them to plant crops. By 1915, South Australia alone had allocated 11,247sqkm of country for 3240 settlement farms.

Berri, Waikerie, Cadell, Renmark, Cobdogla, Chaffey … all these arid locations were sliced up and allocated to blokes who were encouraged to use water out of the Murray to grow grapes, fruit, vegetables and cattle for milk or meat.

This was a lot cheaper and easier than offering the buggered troops proper psychological support as part of a thorough debriefing/rehabilitation regime.  It was also cheaper, easier and quicker than conducting a little science to work out what the Mallee can honestly grow for ongoing real profits.

After World War II, another 350,000 soldiers were discharged, and the pattern was repeated, adding Loxton to what we delightfully call the Riverland, as if it were the French Riviera.

Mallee grape-growing was always an up-and-down business.  Initially, this was largely for dried table fruit.  Kids ate sultanas at school, just as we drank free milk.  When we couldn’t possibly eat any more “tanas”, this fruit went to fortified wine or brandy.  Politicians taxed the huge brandy business into oblivion in the ’70s, so the white grapes that had gone into the stills suddenly became white wine, although the technology for sound and stable white had barely evolved.

All this happened without any real research into varieties which made premium wine in arid land.  Thanks to the ebullience of the Chardonnay evangelist Len Evans, Chardonnay and Semillon replaced much of the Sultana by the mid-’80s.  To be honest, much of the bulk Chardonnay and Semillon  was pretty much indiscernible from the Sultana wine anyway.  But then the Chardonnay grape came from Champagne and Burgundy, where there is much higher background humidity than in the Australian Mallee, and it also snows.

Semillon came from Bordeaux, whose climate very roughly resembles that of Tasmania or the bottom corner of Western Australia.  Apart from over-rated, bling-bedecked, hard-to-find Semillons from Evans’ beloved Hunter Valley, Semillon is second only to Chardonnay in tonnes produced.  But we’re just as likely to see the word Sultana on the bladder packs which contain it.

For the ideal desert-friendly red grape, the CSIRO at Mildura crossed Sultana with Touriga Nacional to make Tarrango, which few took seriously, other than  the late Stephen Hickinbotham, who used it to make his slurpy Cab Mac.

Generations of politicians have enjoyed playing with Murray Valley voters by pleasing them with gentler taxation of very cheap wines, and manipulating their rights to water, regardless of how much there was.  At the same time, they play with the votes of drinkers all over the rest of Australia by keeping the price of bladder packs artificially low.  The Wine Equalisation Tax ensures that higher-quality, more expensive wines are priced artificially high.

Bladder packs comprise nearly half the wine made in Australia; most of them come from the Mallee.

Now the annual sackcloth and ashes wailing has begun.  2014 will be the fifth vintage in a row where most of them won’t make a profit, despite all this nonsense about tax and water and the billions spent on gabfests up and down the Big Rivers.  Not to mention the actual subsidising of some electorates, with taxpayer-funded pipes and channels. The mantra seems to be “if you can’t give ’em more water, make it easier for ’em to get”.

In the meantime, the big wine refineries have advised Riverland growers that their 2014 crop will bring even lower prices than last year, when they were already way below the cost of production.

Last week, ABC Rural reporter Sallese Gibson suggested “farm gate income in the Riverland could plunge $27 million this year”.

Grower Jack Papageorgiou told Gibson: “If indications out there what they are showing, nobody’s going to survive. It’s going to be pretty tough … not just for the grape growers, it’s going to be getting tough for our small business and the Riverland economy … what we need to be sitting down with winemakers and say, ‘OK, enough is enough; we need clear direction.’ Where do we sit as grape growers for their future requirements?”

Given the history, and the politics, the answer’s simple: If you want to see the future of your relationship, look at its past.

The refineries’ future requirements, given the quality of the fruit in this enormous ill-founded adventure, will be for cheaper and cheaper grapes.  And regardless of the Abbott regime’s confounding attitudes, cutting irrigators’ costs by providing cheaper water is a tricky business when there’s not enough water in the river.

Especially when we return to the normal drought.

The executive director of Wine Grape Growers Australia, Lawrie Stanford, told the ABC the problem was simple: Australia is still producing too much wine.

It’s breath-taking.  Endless haphazard attempts to keep the region alive by soft wine taxes, irrigation system subsidies and impossibly cheap water never rate a mention.  And there’s a cruel multiplier in the health and violence issues and incredible hidden costs in the abuse of this artificially cheap wine.

What Stanford most noticeably failed to say was that despite all these taxpayer-funded prop-ups, arid Australia produces too much low-quality fruit in a world increasingly interested in better, finer wine.

Wine which requires less irrigation per unit; wine which returns more dollars and jobs per unit to the communities which grow it. Wine which, despite the scandalous tax system, is already more profitable.

So what’ll happen?  When the refineries discover the true tonnage of the 2014 crop – and it’s going to be down 16 per cent in McLaren Vale, for example – they may find a few extra cents per tonne for the odd exceptional Mallee grower, especially if they have a new variety ending in O. We may even see a percentage of bladder-pack fruit going instead into bottles, where it’ll masquerade as better wine.

But if Tony Abbott has a sudden burst of consistency and applies his car industry attitude to irrigated viticulture in the desert, and lets the market rule, then I guarantee that within a few years our cheapest wine will be coming from China, which has announced it will double its grape harvest in five years.

China is already far and away the world’s biggest grape-grower, to which most Riverlanders will respond: “But they’re table grapes!”  China, however, is very determinedly pursuing a dead-serious premium wine industry, and there’s plenty of snow and water on the Tibetan Plateau to outgrow anything Australia can manage.

Besides, we know from history that table grapes make the sort of wine that many Australians love to guzzle from the cosy old silver pillow. As long as they’re cheap.

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