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Vintage performance for oganic winemakers

Vintage performance for oganic winemakers

Blair Speedy | July 27, 2009

Article from: The Australian

AT a time when the global financial crisis is being blamed for a 10 per cent slump in Australia's wine exports and drinkers are trading down to cleanskins, one part of the market is still surging ahead.

Organic winemakers say they have seen little of the downturn that is cutting a swath through the industry, despite selling at higher prices than most conventionally produced tipples.

Michael Gow from Melbourne-based organic distributor Raw Wine & Beer says he has had 15 per cent annual sales growth since he started his business in 2001.

"We can't get enough wine, whereas every other distributor in the industry has too much and that's why you get two-buck chuck and 'buy one, get one free' sales," he says.

The increased demand has even seen retail giant Coles launch a range of cleanskin -- or generically labelled -- organic wines at $9.99 a bottle among a range of about 50 organic wines at its First Choice liquor superstores.

"You don't see much organic wine at the cheap end of the market -- they're quite high compared to the average bottle," Coles liquor merchandise general manager Grant Ramage says. "It's definitely a growth market. There's more customer interest in sustainability as a whole, and organics is the most easily identified part of that."

Organic wine costs more to produce because the grape-growing process is generally more labour intensive than conventional farming.

In order to reduce the need for fungicidal sprays, vines are manually thinned out so that air can circulate around the grapes. Hand-picking is also preferred because it reduces the need for chemical preservatives added when mechanical harvesters break open the skins, exposing sugary juice to the air and spoilage bacteria. Aptly named organic grape grower Herb Gardner says he obviates the need for chemicals in his Gardners Ground wines by processing the grapes in a nitrogen gas environment, depriving spoilage bacteria of necessary oxygen.

"It's a little bit more expensive, but if you want to sell chardonnay, you'd better have something different," he says.

For Ross McDonald, owner of Macquariedale Organic Wines in the NSW Hunter Valley, going biodynamic -- which is like organic farming with a dash of astronomy -- was a quality issue.

By avoiding the use of chemical fertilisers, the low cropping levels that conventional growers use to maximise fruit quality can be achieved without the need for labour-intensive pruning.

"We can produce better wine -- we crop at a lower level so we get more intense flavours, and so we make wine that's truer to the climate and the soil," he says.

"Sales are really booming along."

Rod Windrim from Krinklewood biodynamic wines in the Hunter Valley says his sales have also been "fantastic", selling out each vintage's production before the next has begun despite raising his prices.

While no industry body tracks organic wine sales, anecdotes of such market growth could only be a cause for envy among wine majors Foster's and Constellation, both of which are trying to slash costs by selling hundreds of hectares of unneeded vineyards.

But Frank Bonic, from Organic One Wines in Jerilderie, southern NSW, doubts that the conventional wine giants would be interested in converting to organic.

"No other winery wants to do what we do because the money's not in it, but when you die you don't take it with you -- I'm living extremely well," he says.