Arts & Entertainment

Harvest Time Brings Grape Expectations

Bargain-priced wines from Australia may soon become the norm worldwide.

American wines may be an entirely different story.

Recent bumper crops have increased the supply of wine grapes and helped drive down prices Down Under. Now, South Australian vines in particular are showing promise of a good grape crop: i.e., another wine glut.

Paul Clancy, chairman of the Wine Grapes Council of South Australia, told the Aussie broadcaster ABC Rural that last year’s crop was more than 500,000 tons and this can’t be sustained year after year. He says that with overseas and domestic wine markets stagnating, many grape growers soon will have no buyers.

“I think in the next few years, growers will find that the contracts that have been written by some of the companies won’t be renewed,” he said. “And it’s not a big bang catastrophe. It’s death by a thousand cuts.”

Domestically, the story from coast to coast is quite the opposite.

On Long Island, for example, New York grape growers are calling 2008 one of the most challenging in years. Heavy spring frost hit young grape clusters, including a deluge from the former Hurricane Hanna in September. The result: plumped the grapes and diluted sugars.

Depending on the grape varietal and location, growers say the crop yield is off 10 percent to more than 50 percent.

And in California’s Sonoma County, I watched field workers whip through fields of chardonnay grapes in record time because smoke from wildfires, plus early frosts and growing season drought had reduced the overall crop.

Essentially the same story is being repeated across much of the nation.

All of this means that if consumers demand certain types of wines whose supplies have been diminished by a weak harvest, the prices will go up.

Meanwhile, Australia may have found a way to be more specific with its wine production without having to simply dump or plow under grapes as it has done in the past to combat gluts.

Researchers in South Australia claim to have unlocked the genetic code of wine yeast. That would mean scientists now can develop new strains of yeast to create wines for specific tastes and markets.

Sakkie Pretorius, managing director of the Australian Wine Research Institute, says the institution has decoded the 6,000 genes that make up the genome of a wine yeast.

“Our wines will probably be better shaped for what consumers will like,” he said in a statement. “So first of all, it might be that our wines will now out-compete some of the competitors in export markets, and if our wines are improving in terms of quality, it means that maybe the profit margins of some of our producers that are now on the squeeze might . . . become more sustainable.”

(William M. Dowd covers the world of adult beverages online at

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