Wine industry’s 'unicorn' vintage is good news for bargain-hunting consumers

Brothers Christian (left) and Michael Dal Zotto of King Valley prosecco pioneers, Dal Zotto Wines.
Brothers Christian (left) and Michael Dal Zotto of King Valley prosecco pioneers, Dal Zotto Wines. Photo: Supplied

Australia's 2021 wine grape harvest will go down in the history books as one of the biggest crops ever.

When Wine Australia published its annual National Vintage Report last week, the research and regulatory body hailed this year as a "unicorn" vintage with near-perfect growing and ripening conditions across most states.

The crop of 2.03 million tonnes – the largest recorded –  came as a welcome relief for growers and wine brands that had been hit by two years of challenging weather conditions, including drought, bushfires, flooding and frost.

Barossa Valley grapes at Peter Lehmann Wines.
Barossa Valley grapes at Peter Lehmann Wines. Photo: Jonathan van der Knaap

South Australia was the largest contributor to this year's haul, with an estimated harvest of 1.06 million tonnes. NSW followed with almost 600,000 tonnes and Victoria with close to 350,000 tonnes. But what does this bounty of fruit mean for consumers?

"Let's be real, there was more wine made this year than the past couple of years, at a time when the Chinese market has ground to a halt," says Barossa Valley-based winemaker Stuart Bourne of Soul Growers.

"That means wine that would have been going to China has to go somewhere else. For a small period of time – maybe a couple of years or so – consumers in Australia will probably have access to really good Australian wine at very competitive price points. Especially in that keenly priced, everyday commercial space."

The nationwide haul of shiraz grapes was up 41 per cent.
The nationwide haul of shiraz grapes was up 41 per cent. Photo: Peter Lehmann Wines

Nationwide, shiraz production was up 41 per cent at a record 538,402 tonnes, but the largest increase in production for red was Spanish variety mourvedre (referred to locally as mataro), which rose 96 per cent to 9552 tonnes.

Malbec, pinot noir and French variety durif also jumped in volume. In terms of domestic wine sales, tempranillo is rising in popularity, while sangiovese and nebbiolo are rocking the market with higher sales, of 90 and 106 per cent respectively.

On the white front, prosecco was a winner. Production of the Italian variety rose 53 per cent, while domestic sales climbed 29 per cent. Sales of German variety gewurztraminer are also on the rise.

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The prosecco boom is great news for Dal Zotto Wines, established by Italian immigrants Otto and Elena Dal Zotto in Victoria's King Valley in 1987.

"We've seen a considerable rise in the national demand for prosecco since we planted more than 300 vines back in 1999," says their son, winemaker Michael Dal Zotto. "We have in excess of 25 hectares planted now. It's quite a considerable jump when you're trying to build a market."

The Dal Zotto family was instrumental in putting King Valley on the prosecco map. "The variety originates from Dad's hometown [Valdobbiadene, in the Veneto region of Italy]. He grew up with it on the table, so there's a really strong connection there for our family as a whole."

Michael Dal Zotto says it's important for Australians to get behind domestic wine more than ever.
Michael Dal Zotto says it's important for Australians to get behind domestic wine more than ever. Photo: Supplied

Prosecco (otherwise known as glera) is a versatile variety, often used to create sparkling wine.

"A lot of people misconstrue it as just a sweet, sparkling wine," Dal Zotto says. "But made properly, prosecco has lovely delicate characters. Where you grow it is really important in getting those delicate florals, nice citrus and crisp apple characters, lovely acidity and that little bit of sweetness."

Meanwhile, chardonnay experienced a 33 per cent rise in production. According to Giant Steps chief winemaker Steve Flamsteed, the quality of fruit this year was particularly exciting.

A truck transports grapes in South Australia, where more than 50 per cent of the nation's wine grapes are grown.
A truck transports grapes in South Australia, where more than 50 per cent of the nation's wine grapes are grown.  Photo: Peter Lehmann Wines

"The 2020 vintage was catastrophically low across the board, particularly for chardonnay," says the Yarra Valley winemaker. "We don't necessarily feel that 2021 was a high yielding year. It was a comfortable year. Sometimes low yields can make quite extreme wines, but in the vineyard 2021 was all about a healthy canopy and a balanced fruit load.

"Flavour-wise, it was the best year we've seen for chardonnay in terms of balance. The wines are strikingly balanced and beautiful. The last time we felt this excited looking at a bracket of chardonnays was 2017. The Yarra used to be all about pinot noir, but there's a real appetite for Yarra Valley chardonnay now."

According to Tim Dolan, senior winemaker at Peter Lehmann Wines in the Barossa Valley, the combination of high yield and China's tariffs will result in some wine companies looking towards new domestic and international markets.

"This 'side-shifting' of volume out of China to markets such as North America, Europe and the UK will see companies like Peter Lehmann Wines facing increased competition," Dolan says.

"This inevitably has the potential to drive down bottled wine prices, particularly at the commercial end. This will no doubt place pressure on grape prices for vintage 2022, particularly if wineries are still holding on to significant bulk volumes of the previous year's wine."

The ongoing effect on grape prices as a result of tariffs imposed by the Chinese government are yet to be seen. For Bourne, the growers are always front of mind.

"Generational growers can recall years of woe and years of elation. The only constant in our lives is change. The wine industry is a long game."

It's all the more reason to buy local, says Michael Dal Zotto. "Producers in Australia make bloody great wine. We always need support, but now more than ever Australians should really get behind Aussie products."