White varieties grow rampant as minor reds take plunge
IN a week or two I will peer into a murky crystal ball and hazard a few predictions about the 2008 Australian vintage. But the release of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2007 report on the wine and grape industry caused me to look back before turning to the future.
The 2007 vintage was the smallest since 2003 and almost on a par with 2001. The tonnages were 1,391,082 (2001), 1,329,596 (2003) and 1,370,690 (2007). The bumper 2004, 2005 and 2006 vintages were all about 1.8 million tonnes.
But the gross figures tell only part of the tale. Going back a little further, to 1998, red grapes accounted for 38 per cent of the crush (rounded to whole numbers). That share rose to 42 per cent in 1999, 48 per cent (2000), 56 per cent (2001 and 2002) and 58 per cent (2003 and 2004) before easing to 56 per cent (2005 and 2006).
In 2007, it fell back below 49 per cent, a substantial change given the long-term trend. You may wonder whether frosts, drought and smoke taint from bushfires were responsible for a one-off change and whether, when and if growing-season conditions return to something approaching normal, the dominance of red wines will be reasserted.
Although it may come as a surprise, total plantings increased by 4985ha from 2006 to 2007, and plantings in bearing rose by 5784ha. The increase in total plantings was shared equally between white and red grapes. It’s not rocket science to realise that the yields a hectare were much lower in 2007 than 2006, and that reds were harder hit than whites. The overall yield fell from 12.5 tonnes a hectare in 2006 to 9.2 tonnes a hectare in 2007, but the drop in red yield was 32 per cent compared with 18 per cent for the whites.
That caused me to look at the trendy new varieties and see what was happening there. I wanted to compare 2003 with 2007 but found that one of the key varieties, pinot gris, did not make its appearance in the ABS reports until 2004, so I had to settle for that.
It will come as no surprise to friend and foe of pinot gris that it has been the star performer in recent years. In 2004 there were 329ha of it, of which 207ha were in bearing, producing 2094 tonnes of fruit. In 2007, 1362ha were bearing from total plantings of 2469ha, and produced 12,340 tonnes. Like it or not, there is an awful lot of pinot gris coming our way.
Viognier has grown from 683ha total and 462ha in bearing in 2004, with a yield of 3903 tonnes, to 1369ha total, 1059ha in bearing, and 8370 tonnes in 2007. A portion is not released as a white wine but is co-fermented with shiraz, which some suggest is the best use for a difficult variety.
While in no sense a novelty, the insatiable demand for sauvignon blanc-semillon blends is adding to the pull of each variety as stand-alones and has seen sauvignon blanc rise from 3425ha total, 3033ha bearing, 39,774 tonnes, to 5545ha total, 4545ha bearing and 36,515 tonnes.
In other words, in every case there has been a significant increase, with more to come. What then of sangiovese, nebbiolo, petit verdot, durif, zinfandel and tempranillo? In the case of the first three it is the opposite. Sangiovese has declined from 511ha total and 486ha bearing to 479ha total and 450ha bearing; nebbiolo from a tenuous 121ha-105ha to an even tinier 90ha-84ha; and petit verdot from 1623ha1526ha to 1387ha-1335ha.
The Italian varieties are more temperamental and difficult to satisfy than an opera diva, but petit verdot is harder to fathom. Perhaps it is all too promiscuous: it has the highest yield of all the vitis vinifera red varieties yet produces wines of deep colour and flavour in any growing circumstances. Its soulmate, durif, has fared better, but with a modest rise from 339ha-313ha to 452ha-439ha.
It’s early days for zinfandel, up from 95ha-88ha to 136ha-118ha, which leaves tempranillo as the one new variety with energy, rising from 257ha-194ha to 354ha-317ha. It is an early ripening variety, suggesting it should do best in cool regions, but its small plantings are so widely spread that making a call about its long-term potential is of little value.