The Australian Wine Industry: oh boy!

January 7, 2010

The new year has started slow for me as a wine blogger. I have a couple of pieces in the making, for instance on my winery tour in Thailand where we visited three wineries and tasted their produce. But reading through the mail on the internet does not lend itself to optimism if you are an Australian vintner like me.

Here are some of the facts, suggestions and ideas for 2010 and beyond:

– rip out 35,000 ha of vineyards to restore a balance between demand and supply

– overproduction of 20-40 million cases of wine equivalent to 300,00 to 500,000 tonnes of fruit, ergo the need to rip out between 20,00 and 40,000 ha

– “clean skin” bottled wine available for A$ 1.99 or “two buck chuck”

– wine surplus being sold for 50 cent a litre

– grape prices of around A$ 150-200 per tonne of fruit

– in only seven years, I guess from 1995 to 2002, Australians planted 75,000 ha which was meant to be planted over a 25 year period

– estimated financial losses in the Australian wine industry of about A$ 124 million in 2009

-medium-sized producers such as De Bortoli Wines (our neighbour in the Yarra Valley) posted a loss of A$ 1.6 million in 2008-2009

– vineyards are unsellable, Cockatoo Ridge Wine, for instance, could not sell its Monash Winery (valued at $14.3 million) in Riverland

– more than 300 grape-grower contracts cancelled in the Murray

– Murray Valley Winegrowers removed about 2,000 ha of vineyards.

I could continue this list of bad news (for instance mentioning the strong Australian dollar) but do not want to depress you further. However, there is good news too. Consumers can finally enjoy good quality wines at much more affordable prices. I can feel this even in my Bangkok supermarket where Australian wines sell cheaper than last year.

I personally think that Australian wine prices were too high in the past. In my native Germany, many family wineries survived on much lower producer prices for many years. In my hometonw Trier you can get an excellent Riesling wine bought from the producer directly for about 5-8 EURO/bottle (A$ 8-12). These are Riesling wines from ultra steep cliffs, and everything is done by hand. On an aggregate, of course, German farmers and vintners are supported by various government subsidy schemes which we (alas) do not have in Australia.

Peolpe who say, that “the Australian wine industry did not know where to stop” are of course mistaken in their analysis. In a market economy the “overshooting” is punished by declning prices and unsold produce which in turn will lead to the reduction in production capacity. But since wine is an agricultural good which relies on a three to four year growing period before you can have additional grapes, the delay in decision-making can be costly.

The “irrational excuberance” was in fact the result of rational decision-making. Investors wanted to make a profit. That some of it was tax-fuelled is proof of irrational government interference by providing wrong incentives (tax credits). The second group party blamed for the glut is “lifestyle winemakers and vintners” to which I also belong. I still hope that my long-term view will “save” me and that I can indulge in grape growing and wine making after my retirement for a couple of more years. Since there is no succession plan, our enterprise might be short lived but such is life.

Cheers folk, after such heavy stuff I need a drink. Maybe, as Jancis Robinson suggest in her latest column, a German Riesling. How about a Forster Ungeheuer from the Pfalz or a Van Volxem Riesling from the Saar?

2007 Forster Ungeheuer, Grosses Gewaechs


Riesling, Riesling….heaven on a stick

March 16, 2009

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My welcome meal consisted of wild boar goulash, mushrooms and Suebian dumplings (Spaetzle). What a treat, so delicious. I washed it down with a bottle of my house wine, a ‘2007 Alte Reben, Van Volxem Riesling’ from Wiltingen, Saar river. I just love the Van Volxem wines.

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The very same day, a parcel arrived for me containing a bottle of wine which I won when participating in an opinion survey of a German wine magazine, Weinwelt (www.weinwelt.info). I could not believe it. What a pleasant surprise this was. The wine is a “grand crue” (GG: Grosses Gewaechs) from the Pfalz, a ‘2007 Forster Ungeheuer GG, Reichsrat von Buhl in Deidesheim, Rheinpfalz. I decided to taste this wine another time and cellared it in my “treasure trove”. Thank you Weinwelt.

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However, I could not resist to buy some more bottles of Mosel Riesling. I decided to try wines from Bischoefliches Konvikt. The two terroirs are very famous, one is Ayler Kupp at the Saar, the other is Eitelsbacher Marienholz from the Ruwer, another tributary of the Mosel.

The ‘2007 Eitelsbacher Marienholz Riesling’ I had with another serve of wild boar goulash the next day. It had all the zest I expected from a fresh Riesling from the Ruwer. The wine from the Saar I packed into my suitcase. Destination: Bangkok and reserved for a leisurely Sunday family meal in the tropics. I can only say: visit the Mosel and its tributaries. Here you’ll find heavenly Riesling wines. Cheers and zum Wohl.


Germany’s Best Riesling Wines 2007

August 30, 2008

Riesling vineyards in Olewig, Trier

The wine magazine – Weinwelt (Aug./Sept. edition) – I picked up at Frankfurt Airport when leaving Germany in August carried an article on the best Riesling wines in 2007.

About 1.500 wines were entered into this tasting and the overall winner (with 93 points) was

● Weingut Geheimer Rat Dr. von Bassermann-Jordan, Pfalz wine region with a
‘2007 Auf der Mauer Riesling QbA, dry’

Among the top seven wines were 4 from Pfalz, one from Austria, one from Rheinhessen and one from Franconia. For someone like me, a native of the Mosel, it is devastating that no wine from my home region was among the best seven.

Another Riesling competition in Bingen/Rhein in July had a record entry of almost 2,000 wines (1,937 to be exact) from 754 producers from almost all wine producing regions in Germany and from Austria, Canada, Australia, Luxembourg, France, USA, and New Zealand. Most of the non-European Riesling wines came (surprise), of course, from Australia.

The show is conducted every two years and 160 judges of an international jury assesses wines according to the international wine bureau (OIV) standards. The full report of this tasting can be found on www.riesling.de under the rubric “best of Riesling 2008”. In the category “dry Riesling wines”, the winner came from the Rheingau wine region:

● Weingut W.J. Schaefer in Hochheim for the
‘2007 Hochheimer Kirchenstueck Spaetlese’.

Number 2 came from the Mosel:

● Weingut Frank Brohl, Puenderich for the
‘2007 Puendericher Nonnengarten Spaetlese’

and from Pfalz,

● Weingut Emil Zimmermann in Wachenheim for the
‘2007 Wachenheimer Koenigswingert Spaetlese’.

In the “semi-dry Riesling category” wines from Rheinhessen, Mosel and Nahe could be found among the three top wines. However, the “sweet wine category” was dominated by Mosel wines.

There will be many more shows and wine tastings in the coming months. In July this year, when we tasted the 2007 vintage at Van Volxem Winery (Wiltingen, Saar), the “grand cru” wines were not yet presented because their release was scheduled for fall.

Given the fact that most wineries have not yet officially released their “gand cru” or, as the Germans say, “grosse Gewaechse”-wines, we will witness great quality Riesling wines of the 2007 vintage hitting the market later this year. That’s what I call wonderful prospects for us wine lovers.

My favorite Riesling from the Saar

PS: From October 14-18, 2008 the 2008 Canberra International Riesling Challenge will be conducted. For the first time in the history of the event, the number of entries has surpassed 500 wines (506 total entries), with a record number from Germany (99 entries). Let us see what the outcome may be.


Sunday Lunch with Riesling from the Saar River

January 29, 2007

What a wonderful weekend this was. It goes without saying that I had “to weber” some of our food; to be precise it was my task to barbecue Sunday’s lunch. As our house guest David is vegetarian it meant that I had a lot of “veggies” (as Australians commonly call vegetables) to prepare. But we had also fresh fish, a Pomfret as it is commonly known. There are two varieties, the white and the black pomfret. The Indonesians call the former “Bawal Putih”. White pomfret has an excellent flavour and is commonly used for a dish called Ikan Asam Manis (sweat & sour fish); needless to say that it is very delicious either steamed or grilled.

The White Pomfret

The White Pomfret (from Kaarin Wall “A Jakarta Market”, page 53)

First, I grilled the vegetables: potatoes (after they were boiled), onions, capsicum, green peppers, and zucchini. The fish was marinated with black olives and capers and wrapped in aluminum foil to keep it moist. I put it on for only about 20 minutes. The food was delicious and we had the right wine to go with it.

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My Weber with the vegetables

We drank one of my last two bottles of Van Volxem Saar Riesling 2003. This wine estate is located in Wiltingen (www.wiltingen.de), a village about 20 km south of Trier at the Saar River, a cool climate region belonging to the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer area. The lower Saar is a very small winegrowing region but has some of the best Grand-Cru locations for Riesling (for instance Schwarzhofberg) on which its reputation is based.

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The 2003 Van Volxem Riesling

Van Volxem is the oldest estate in the Saar. Formerly a monastery, the estate belonged to the Van Volxem family for four generations. In 1999 it was purchased by Roman Niewodniczanski of the beer brewing Bitburger family. Based on old tax records, many excellent and sometimes forgotten vineyard sites were newly acquired when the estate was expanded. Most of the more than 20 ha are planted with Riesling vines. The first vintage was bottled in 2000 and ever since elegant wines with excellent ratings were produced under a system that avoids the German “Praedikat system”. Unfortunately, the estate’s internet presentation is still under construction. Therefore, we have to wait a while longer until you can visit www.vanvolxem.de.

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A typical Saar vineyard

The soils of the Saar are based on blue-black slates and very stony. The vineyards are located at steep southerly slopes. The key for the Van Volxem Estate’s success are late harvests and low yields, environmental friendly practices (no pesticides) and low input cultivation techniques (no chemical fertilizers), relying in the cellar on natural yeasts fermentations and maturation in oak barrels. The 2003 dry Riesling blend has 12% alcohol. It was the first vintage producing dryer wines. 2003 was a ripper year as regards the weather and this might explain the higher than usual alcohol content of the 2003 vintage. Some of the wines are produced from more than 100 years old vines. The 2003 Riesling is medium bodied, had a buttery aroma and displayed some sweetness. It showed some mineral characteristics, had a fruity nose and a long finish. It is terrible that I have only one more bottle left of this excellent vintage (www.riesling.de). Wines do not age well in the tropics, even if you keep them properly refrigerated. There is always the odd power failure which destroys your well thought through cellaring program.

The drinking of Saar wine reminds me of my youth when my father and his friends used to go hunting in Schoden, a village further upriver. Often groups of hunters would descend on the Saar villages after successful campaigns and dine in one of the old rural inns (Gasthoefe). When at home with my mother in Trier, we often set out for long walks in the forests covering the hills above the Saar. From there one has a magnificent view of the lovely countryside.

From Schoden

Vineyards in a distance

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The Saar Valley, the village of Biebelhausen in front on the left side of the Saar, behind the terroir “Ayler Kupp”, and to the left further back the famous village of Ayl.