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Quality upshot of low-yield vintage

THE grapes are still rolling in for this year’s WA vintage but already it has become apparent that yields are going to be the lowest on record – a result of the coolest and driest summer in memory.

Rather than the result being a premium price for their grapes, WA growers now will be able to settle on maintained prices with demand, both domestically and internationally, struggling to match supply.

White grape yields have fallen in some areas by 50 per cent and red grapes, still being picked, are likely to go the same way, according to Wine Industry Association WA president Denis Horgan.

Winemakers’ Federation of Australia chief executive Ian Sutton said a WFA survey of the 2002 vintage indicated yields were below average around the country.

He characterised the vintage to date as five-star for quality but one-star for volume.

WFA industry analyst Michelle Tustin said the dry WA conditions had resulted in reduced berry size, few diseases and excellent flavour profiles.

“The seasonal conditions are expected to reduce yields by 5 per cent to 10 per cent compared to last year and vintage has been delayed by three to four weeks,” she said.

Statistics released by Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation show that WA’s prominence as a good growing region has increased, with the amount planted more than doubling since 1997. In the past year the number of hectares under crop has increased 32 per cent to 11,000 hectares as farmers seek to tap into the premium WA wine market.

The continued strong interest in WA, albeit from a lower base, was not reflected nationally. Australian plantings increased just 6 per cent during the past year to 148,000 hectares under vine.

Though grape supply has continued to grow unabated, signs are emerging that the export stimulus appears to be slowing. While Australian wine production increased 28 per cent in 2000-01 compared with the previous year, exports climbed only 21 per cent, putting pressure on producers to increase the per capita wine intake among domestic consumers.

WA premium wine exports fared better, increasing by 34 per cent to 3.3 million tonnes during 2001 but still failed to match the 67 per cent increase in wine production.

Original data for January from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show Australia exported 21.4 million litres valued at $99 million – 40.6 per cent lower than December export sales. The largest drop in export demand was for red wines, with volumes falling from 17 million litres to 12 million litres during the month.

The sharp fall-off in world demand for Australian wines was a result of a 50 per cent fall in demand from the United States and declining demand in Europe. European sales in January fell by a third compared with September 2001 sales.

However, Mr Horgan said the drop off in January sales was seasonal and followed from strong pre-Christmas December sales.

He said the American market provided new opportunities for growth in a largely untapped area.

“There is obviously a very interesting market opening up in America. The American market has almost doubled every year,” Mr Horgan said.

He said a New York Times feature spread on the Margaret River region had provided a huge boost in interest across the United States.

Mr Horgan’s winery, Leeuwin Estate, and Cullen Wines are being flooded with requests across the US for wine tastings.

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