Bruce Tyrrell, whose Hunter Valley-based winery is among Australia's largest, either did or did not call the wine buyer for the British supermarket giant Tesco a "wanker" (a not very nice piece of British and Australian slang) last week. Tyrrell reportedly said it in response to a warning that the Aussie wine industry is about to repeat the mistake France made by not taking its competition seriously and changing the style of its wines accordingly.
Although one respected Australian publication quoted Tyrrell as using the epithet, he promptly denied it. But whether Tyrrell said it or not, the flap over the matter underlines how short Australian wine producers' tempers have become. Australia is approaching crisis mode.
The wine world is changing fast, and Mother Nature has thrown some haymakers at the Aussies. Now a big-shot Brit addresses a conference of Australian wine pros and says they had better make lighter, more refreshing styles, otherwise they will lose out, just as France did when it was slow to modify its wines to keep up with the competition, which, ironically, was mainly Australia.
Tyrrell makes a serious point, however. France's big-volume wine producers, especially in the south, refused to modernize their winemaking to make wines that tasted fresh instead of stale, fruity instead of earthy. That allowed Australia, with its technically correct wines, to steal the low-end U.K. market from France. Tyrrell thinks consumers won't prefer the current competition from Chile, Argentina or a revamped Southern France, arguing that they can't match Australia's ripe, fruit-forward flavors.
We can snicker behind our hands here in America, but this is definitely going to affect us. Basically, we seem to like the ripe, generous wines that are Australia's hallmarks. But the rapidly changing dynamics of the Australian wine industry and the weakness of the U.S. dollar spell trouble.
In the 1990s, you could get roughly three Aussie dollars for two greenbacks. The Aussie dollar now is rapidly approaching parity. This puts upward pressure on wine prices. How high they go will depend on how much of a bite the producers and importers are willing to take out of their profits.
Just how the drought in Australia, currently at seven years and counting, will affect what we see in the wines has yet to be determined. The big question is whether this dry spell is an anomaly or, thanks to global warming, has become the new norm. Australia got some rain this winter (it's coming into summer there now) but not nearly enough to make a dent in the drought.
In the short term, that means the 2008 vintage won't be any larger than 2007 was, which was down 40 percent from 2006. Two years ago Australia had an enormous lake of unsold wine. The lake is dry. Even with rainfall levels at statistically normal levels, experts say the vineyards won't completely recover until 2012.
The hardest-hit areas are the warm inland regions that produce the big-volume wines. There, the heavily irrigated vineyards are fed by the Murray River, which is virtually dry. At best, growers will get only 20 or 25 percent of their normal water allocations this summer. Inevitably, some vineyards will die. Maybe a lot of them. If that happens, kiss those under-$10 Aussie quaffers goodbye.
Things are not quite so grim for the cooler coastal regions, which produce the quality wines we prize, but the effects of the drought on them are tough and getting tougher. Some wineries, particularly newer, more precariously financed ones, aren't going to make it.
All of this is happening just as a growing number of leading Australian winemakers are making more supple, elegant and graceful wines that are less alcoholic and marked by less overt oak flavors. These are wines to appreciate for what they are, not because they are cheaper than competitors. That's the best future for Australia. I don't know how the price-quality ratios will shift, but quality always wins.
Glenn S Lucash — December 10, 2007 6:17pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 10, 2007 6:25pm ET
Glenn S Lucash — December 10, 2007 7:55pm ET
Brian Loring — Lompoc, CA — December 10, 2007 8:40pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 10, 2007 8:52pm ET
Brian Loring — Lompoc, CA — December 11, 2007 9:56am ET
Rick Denton — December 11, 2007 1:07pm ET
Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — December 11, 2007 1:24pm ET
John Miller — Windsor, CA — December 11, 2007 6:47pm ET
Pete Taliancich — Frisco, Texas — December 13, 2007 4:35pm ET
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