Riverland wine report – Vinex
Riverland is the undisputed engine room of Australia’s wine industry, producing huge volumes of wine every year, much of it destined for the bulk wine sector.
It is the country’s largest wine producing region and home to over 1,000 grape growers with more than 20,600 hectares of vineyards.
This long-established warm climate region which benefits from long hours of sunshine and low humidity is located east of the Barossa Valley, following the twists and turns of the Murray River as it winds its way 330km from Paninga all the way to Blanchetown.
The region accounts for a full quarter of the total Australian production, and 60% of South Australia’s volumes, with around 80% earmarked for export markets.
Size of harvest
2017 saw 470,123 tonnes of grapes harvested, up from 456,988 in 2016 with Riverland growers producing 80% of the region’s crush, and over 63% of the nation’s annual crush.
From Arneis to Zinfandel, the region grows a wide array of grapes, though production is still dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Chardonnay – with Riverland producing more Chardonnay, for example, than the combined total of all other South Australian regions.
But as the region continues to grow and adapt to changing conditions, grape growers are increasingly exploring and experimenting with new grape varieties, such as Southern Mediterranean varieties Montepulicano, Vermention and Nero d’Avola, all said to be showing “real promise” according to Wine Autralia.
Value of grapes
The total estimated value of all grapes from the 2017 vintage increased from A$114 million to A$162million, reflecting an increase in the overall average price paid, as well as the increased volumes.
Greater yields, lower prices
Noticeably in 2000 the average tonne per hectare in the Riverland was 16.95, but by last year that figure had shot up to over 22 tonnes.
However, over the same time frame, average prices per hectare have nearly halved, down from A$11,043 per tonne in 2000 to just A$6,922 in 2017 according to Riverland Wine figures.
Average prices per varietal
But last year the average prices for most major varieties experienced increases.
* Chardonnay was up by 6% to A$310 per tonne
* Sauvignon Blanc by 10% to A$380
* Pinot Gris by 5% to A$503 per tonne.
* For the whites, 65% were sold between these two price points, while 35% sold for less than $300 per tonne.
* Shiraz jumped by 18% to A$396 per tonne
* Cabernet Sauvignon was up by 13% to A$391 per tonne
* Merlot also climbed 9% to $390 per tonne.
* The vast majority – 97% - of red grapes were sold at between A£300 and $A600 per tonne, compared with only 20% in 2015.
There were 127 hectares of new plantings in 2016, compared with 144 hectares the previous year. Shiraz with 57 hectares and Pinot Gris/Grigio (42 hectares) were the main contributors to the increased plantings, though despite this there was actually a net reduction in total vineyard areas in the Riverland of nearly 300 hectares
The largest wineries in the region produce up to 200,000 tonnes each year, while the smallest only 60. The overall region produces 400,000 tonnes annually, while the annual vineyard income per hectare averages out at A$5,000 per hectare.
Dominant force in bulk sector
But what are the factors that have turned this sleepy corner of Australia into the dominant force in Australia’s bulk wine sector? Chris Byrne, the executive chair of Riverland Wine claims that this is in part down to the region embracing automation and mechanisation in vineyards and wineries resulting in the most advanced and water-use efficient irrigation systems outside Israel.
In addition, the River Murray is a source of plentiful water, the soils are ideal for winegrowing, the region has a mild warm climate with very low pest and disease challenges, unlike most other wine regions.
Byrne explains: “Traditional grape picking and production techniques have evolved to the use of high technological and innovative practices with grand and impressive stainless steel wine storage facilities.
“Water infrastructure evolved from the open channel systems to the current fully automated, water on demand, pressurised systems. On farms, furrows and overhead sprinklers have been replaced with state of the art drip irrigation and undervine sprinkler systems, and water wheels have been replaced with advanced metres and water moisture monitoring equipment used to track the delivery and application of water.”
Riverland’s key export markets over recent decades have been the UK Europe and Canada. While they remain loyal customers of the region, Byrne said: “Today’s answer is China, China and China.”
Grape and wine prices are beginning to emerge from more than a decade of severe pressure, the result of the global oversupply of grapes and wine. “The Riverland has experienced three successive years of improving grape price, while prices per litre have been edging up in the past two years and the outlook is positive,” said Byrne.
The key challenges facing producers in the Riverland are water supply and security.
Byrne explains: “Water pressures are increasing as cotton, almonds, table-grapes and citrus generate much greater returns per hectare. Fortunately, those indicators are beginning to change. The fact that wine grapes require less than half the water per hectare that tree crops require is a factor that will assist our producers as water supply and security challenges increase.”
As to the future, Byrne believes prospects remains bright for Riverland and the wine industry: “In general terms the region is on the verge of a new era of prosperity as more internationals learn about the region and it’s attractiveness as a region to invest in as a primary producer, value-adder or a wine tourist.” As for the forthcoming vintage, it’s obviously early days with the vines still dormant, but with a very dry autumn and winter Byrne doesn’t believe the yields will be “any more than average”.
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