Facing new challenges: Senior winemaker Adrian Sparks at the Mount Pleasant winery in the Hunter Valley. Photo: Ben Rushton
Winemaker Adrian Sparks relishes the suspense leading up to harvest time when the grape vines are approaching full flourish and expectations are at their highest. Every vintage is a new opportunity, a chance to right past failings or best past records.
It's a tense and tough time, he says, the start of the whole winemaking process, when everyone is working around the clock, and every decision debated with vigour.
The Hunter Valley harvest is now under way. It's among the first of the 14 NSW wine grape growing regions in vintage.
While yields are low because of the long dry spell, the quality is high. Mr Sparks believes this vintage has the potential to be one of those magical years. Wet weather in recent years has wreaked havoc in the Hunter Valley with mildew and fruit rot. However, the dry weather this season together with controlled irrigation has provided better conditions for ripening.
For the senior McWilliam's winemaker, a good year could herald a resurgence of the industry.
''It has been tough going with everyone feeling it,'' he says. ''I think there is a new wave of winemakers and enthusiasm getting everyone motivated, including me.''
In Australia wine grape production increased by 152 per cent over a 10-year period to 1.58 million tonnes in 2011-12. However, demand has slumped in the past five years, mainly because of the higher dollar, increased competition in some export markets and a disconnect with the domestic market.
The average wine grape price per tonne fell by 64 per cent in real terms from the record achieved in 2000-01, Wine Australia found. The fall in profitability led to a significant shakeout of NSW wine grape producers, with 200 vineyards no longer growing grapes for wine or distillation, the Bureau of Statistics says.
Tom Ward, the NSW Wine Industry Association president, said the shakeout was sobering.
However, he said the industry had emerged with a renewed vigour and greater innovation. Mr Ward cited the expanded NSW Food and Wine Festival as evidence of this renewed enthusiasm. The festival, which runs from February 21 to March 21, was created in conjunction with growers, winemakers, artisan food producers, chefs, restaurants, sommeliers and bars.
To kick off the festival, the top wineries of NSW head to one of Sydney's favourite events in Hyde Park, Sydney Cellar Door. Taking place from Friday, February 21 to Sunday February 23, food and wine lovers can sample from the state's wine regions at tasting tents.
''The opportunities for the industry are now at home rather than overseas,'' said Mr Ward, who runs the Swinging Bridge estate in Orange with his wife Georgie.
''Our industry has become extremely innovative with a lot of new, young and determined players. We have seen an improving consistency and higher quality with winemakers wanting to create more of an experience, especially tied with good food.''