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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
2 Mar 2009

The Australian wine industry, deeply concerned about plummeting demand for its wines outside Australia, is understandably fixated by the facts and figures surrounding the latest vintage. The Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation has accordingly released preliminary estimates of the 2009 grape crop only halfway through picking and admits that some grapes will be left on the vine, or picked straight on to the ground, because so much stock from earlier vintages is still in the distribution system.

It looks as though the 2009 wine grape harvest, shrunk in many areas by the recent record high temperatures, will be about 1.63 million tonnes, 11% less than the 2008 crop - although 2009 will still probably be well above the drought- and frost-affected 2007 harvest of 1.34 million tones that helped to mitigate Australia's grape surplus.

Australia's long-running drought was alleviated somewhat by cool, wet weather in many areas towards the end of 2008. This affected flowering but means that water allocations have been increased slightly in many of the inland regions supplying Australia's most basic wine. Maximum water allocations have been made in most of New South Wales wine regions while in Victoria and South Australia there has been lively trading in temporary water entitlements. The AWBC's monthly Winegrape Water Monitor is one of its most keenly monitored services by grape growers.

The total area of productive vines continues to increase in Australia with an additional 2% coming on stream in time for the 2009 vintage. The AWBC expects the average yield in tonnes per hectare to be 11% down on 2008 levels and 20% below the long-term average, thereby making grape growing less and less attractive to farmers and investors. Because of the timing of the extremely hot weather in late February, white wine grapes will probably be worse hit than those for reds, which may have a chance to recover before they are picked.

It is still too early to be certain about quantity and quality overall, however, especially for red wines and the more southerly wine regions where the harvest is not yet underway. Yields in the cooler regions are expected to be even more reduced than those in the earlier-picked inland regions although there are hopes that reduced crop levels will result in good quality wine.

The AWBC's interim report comments: 'The Victorian bushfires have profoundly saddened all Australians and have had devastating effects on local communities. The full impact and consequences are not yet known and will take some time to be completely understood. Moreover, at the time of writing, fires are still burning in parts of Victoria. Nevertheless, the direct impact on vineyards has so far been on a small scale in the local settings and represents an even smaller impact on the national scale. In the largest of the affected Victorian regions, the Yarra Valley, 5% of the planted area is estimated to have been directly impacted and all of the regions most affected by the bushfires account for less than 5% of the national harvest.

The impact of smoke taint is still being assessed and indeed, understood. With fires still in progress, afull assessment is not yet possible. Considerable industry effort is underway to measure, predict and mitigate smoke taint effects.'