The SW Summary: On Australia’s low 2023 vintage, watering wine, contour farming, and more

By Hanna Halmari
Australia records lowest vintage since 2000

In Decanter Martin Green reviews Australia’s 2023 harvest, noting how this year’s vintage is the lowest recorded since 2000. Trade group Wine Australia estimated the overall vintage to be 1.32 million tonnes, falling 26% below the 10-year average.

Producers report that conditions were the “most challenging in at least 20 years,” having battled with relentless rainfall, flooding, and an unusually cool climate throughout 2023.

According to Peter Bailey, market insights manager at Wine Australia, the smaller vintage is estimated to reduce the wine available for sale by 325 million litres. “[This will] likely have a considerable impact on the bottom line of grape and wine businesses all around Australia, at a time when the costs of inputs, energy, labour and transport have increased significantly,” he says.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Green notes how the “exceptionally cool season should lead to high-quality grapes,” which can be used to meet the growing demand for premium wines in the UK and USA. Read more here.

Why some producers are adding water to wine

Writing for Wine-Searcher, Barnaby Eales comments on the ‘open secret’ of watering wine in France. This practice is permitted in the US to facilitate fermentation, but is prohibited in the European Union. However, as winemakers in France grapple with the impacts of global warming, many are arguing for the legalization of watering.

The regulated addition of water can reduce alcohol levels and prevent stuck primary fermentations. One Bordeaux winemaker states, “Soon, we’ll have no other option but to add water to musts. What will I do when I have shrivelled grapes, low yields and 16 percent ABV? My wines would be unsellable.”

The OIV (International Organisation of Vine and Wine) remains opposed to watering, arguing that the procedure can “dilute wine, weaken color, and increase yields and volumes.” An alternative to illegal watering is the use of spinning cones and reverse osmosis machines. However,  this equipment is expensive and financially unfeasible for most EU producers.

Instead of waiting for cumbersome legislative change, some winemakers are “[taking] the law into their own hands. A Wine-Searcher investigation revealed that several producers in Bordeaux and southern France added water to musts in 2022. “It is illegal, yes, but comprehensible too,” commented one Bordeaux winemaker.

Some winemakers in Portugal’s Alentejo also admitted to having added water to musts during recent hot and dry vintages. However, some producers are wary of watering. If unregulated, it could lead to yields increasing beyond permitted limits. It also alters the pH level in wine, which is a bigger concern for Paulo Amaral, winemaker at producer José de Sousa. “Adding water is not a magical solution”, he notes. Read more here.

Worker well-being: Profit-sharing models in the wine industry

In Ambrook Sara Ventiera discusses the emergence of profit-sharing models in the wine industry. The agriculture sector is “notoriously asset-heavy [and] cash poor,” and relies on low-paid migrant workers. Although profit-sharing models remain “far from the norm,” Ventiera notes how various forms of this have been on the rise in the wine industry. For example, Grassini Family Vineyards in Santa Barbara County, which gives back a portion of is profits from a particular blend to its farmers. Over in Napa Valley Turley Wine Cellars and Trinchero Family Estates invest a share of their profits to employee retirement funds.

Profit-sharing models can help wineries tackle key issues such as rising costs, labor shortages, and cost-of-living struggles, as well as to address social sustainability issues in the industry. Studies show that profit-sharing companies have higher productivity. Research led by Joseph Blasi, the J. Robert Beyster Distinguished Professor at Rutgers‘ School of Management and Labor Relations, has found that successful profit share schemes must be based on “a fair base wage, a sense of job security, and be significant enough to garner employees’ attention.” Read more here.

To contour or not to contour

That is the question Danielle Beurteaux explores in SevenFifty Daily. Contour farming is a natural farming method that involves “planting across a slope and building small ridges at right angles to the land’s natural slope.” This keeps the farmed land on a constant grade and the ridges will slow down water runoff, thereby reducing soil erosion.

Allen Thompson, a professor emeritus at University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources explains how “contouring is probably one of the cheapest [methods] that you use in agriculture to help control erosion and control runoff.” Contour farming also leads to more efficient drip irrigation, which typically uses very low water pressure. Changes in elevation impact this pressure, so by maintaining the vines on a similar elevation, the water pressure is kept more consistent. 

As issues such as soil erosion and drought become more common due to climate change, an increasing number of growers are turning to contouring. However, it’s not a suitable tool everywhere, especially not for very flat or very steep land. Thompson points out that it’s most suited for land with a grade from three to eight percent. Read more here.

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About the author

Hanna Halmari

Hanna Halmari is the editor at Sustainable Wine and the head of conferences at Innovation Forum. Hanna specialises in sustainability research and events across various industries. She holds an MSc in international development from Kings’s College London, where she developed a strong interest in political economy and post-communist transformation. Hanna speaks Finnish, Bulgarian and English. In her spare time she is a dedicated Radio Lollipop volunteer at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, enjoys travelling, and tasting new wines.