Many vignerons would go pale at the thought of hungry sheep roaming among their vines, but in the state’s South West, it is just another way of coping with a difficult year in the wine industry.
Some wine producers are letting sheep in the vineyard in an attempt to sit out a national grape glut.
“There are those vineyards that have actually closed in sheep on the vineyard, which defoliate the vines,” says Silverstream Wines owner Tony Ruse.
“The vine is not killed, but it loses all its leaves and as most of the diseases are green tissue diseases, it’s a really good way of maintaining the infrastructure without producing any fruit for that year.”
While Mr Ruse has not needed to turn the sheep on his Denmark vineyard, he understands the increasing pressures on producers.
“Some people that can’t sell their fruit and can’t sell their wine, they need some measure to straddle this difficult time,” he said.
The oversupply of popular varieties of grapes is not a new problem.
Access to large amounts of grapes has pushed prices down and volumes high, making it harder for producers to get reasonable prices for their wines.
Stephen Strachan from the Winemakers Federation of Australia says the industry has been working through a substantial over-supply for six years.
“In the last few years we’ve seen a big increase in low price bulk wine exports, which is not a good long-term trend for the wine industry and that’s why we’re so focussed on making sure we reduce the oversupply,” he said.
“We’re starting to see growers and wineries responding to this very acute situation.”
Rather than ripping out his vines, Mr Ruse decided to switch some of Silverstream’s chardonnay and merlot plants to more popular varieties in preparation for the coming harvest season.
“We’ve grafted two varieties that are in demand and we’ve taken an acre of chardonnay across to riesling, as there is a waiting list for people who want riesling out of Denmark,” he said.
“We’ve also taken an acre of merlot across to pinot noir. ”
“Both reisling and pinot are areas in the wine market where there is a shortage of grapes.”
The change in production has given Silverstream a boost in the market, but as the vineyard also supplies a local demand, it is somewhat immune to the other major problem facing the industry, the skyrocketing price of the Australian dollar.
“These agricultural gluts do take some time and because the Australian dollar is so high and you can’t get anything through the export market, the wine industry has been trying to get people to pull vines,” said Mr Ruse.
“The export market in Australian wine now has really been knocked for six; they were getting wine into England, Europe and America and now that’s been reduced to a trickle flow.”
Stephen Strachan from the Winemakers Federation of Australia says the combination of the grape glut and the increasing dollar has forced many WA wineries to close.
“It’s survival of the fittest at the moment and a lot of the people we saw coming into the industry are exiting and finding that the future is not there,”
Hope for the future
But it is not all bad news.
The closing of vineyards across Australia means the grape glut looks set to ease through 2011.
“As difficult as it is to see, it is really what did need to happen because the industry needs to get back on a sustainable footing,” Mr Strachan said.
“We need to stop putting a very low priced product into the market place and undermining our brand, so these are the necessary changes that need to happen.”
“The 2011 vintage is pointing to some more dramatic changes and hopefully after that we can see the end of it.”
Even the lack of recent rainfall has had an upside with the dry climate bolstering the 2011 crop.
“The fruit is ripe, it’s pretty much disease free and were going to have some great flavours,” says John Griffiths from the Wine Industry Association of WA.
“Everything is pointing to a brilliant harvest; so far so good,” he said.
“It started very well and if this weather keeps up we should have a great vintage.”
Tony Ruse says vineyard owners are trying to stay optimistic about the challenges brought on by a dropping wine price.
“I suppose it will introduce new consumers to the market and that could be a really positive thing,” he said.
“You are now getting wine cheaper than beer by the glass and if that brings out more consumers, then that could be a solution to the glut.”