After years of unrelenting drought, the lush valley soils of southeast Australia’s Riverina wine belt are becoming cracked and dry, putting the competitiveness of best-selling labels such as Jacob’s Creek at risk.
The drought has now lasted nearly a decade, and is the worst in the past century, hitting not just the wine trade but the way of life of outback farming communities.
It has ruined some sheep and wheat farmers, and turned many rural settlements into virtual ghost towns. More than 10,000 families have been forced off the land in the past five years. In some outback schools, a generation has grown up without ever splashing through a large puddle.
It is Australia’s version of the Dust Bowl.
Worst hit have been the creeks and streams of the Murray-Darling river system, where around 1,300 growers produce more than 400,000 tons of mainly Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay grapes, about a quarter of Australia’s total. To produce reliable supplies for big-selling labels such as Lindemans, vineyards have relied on highly regulated irrigation systems flowing from enormous reservoirs in the nearby Snowy Mountains.
But storage levels have now fallen to about 40 percent of normal, and with the current winter the driest since records began 118 years ago, fears are growing that the diminishing water flow could lead to a reduction in grape yields – ultimately increasing the price of a bottle for consumers.
Any harvest reduction could have a domino effect, said Brian Simpson, head of Australia’s Wine Grapes Marketing Board.
“If there aren’t price rises at the retail level, growers will leave the industry,” he told the London Telegraph.
So far, winemakers have escaped the worst of the crisis. Their business is so important to the local economy that it has been guaranteed water. But for other inhabitants of the Murray-Darling basin, a vast expanse of land the size of France and Germany combined, the consequences are much more serious.