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A Modern Tragedy (April 17, 2008)

Water is the major component of the human body – and the same is true of the grape.

The pH of your stomach acid is about the same as the pH of wine (which is why wine is good for the digestion).

So it may not be too much of a stretch to suggest that wine, being the most human of beverages, will be subject to the same forces that govern population growth. Thomas Malthus, the eighteenth-century British demographer and political economist, published a paper in 1789 in which he posited the theory that population grows at geometric proportions while the food supply grows only at arithmetic proportions. Mankind, he argued, will not be able to sustain itself if we go on procreating as we have been doing. There are checks, however. Wars, pandemics and natural disasters are Nature's way of controlling population growth.

I'm beginning to think the same thing is happening to wine. Okay, so there are no wine wars, but look what's occurring around the world. Wine lakes in France; drought in Australia; glassy-winged sharp shooters in southern California; global warming threatening Portuguese and Spanish vineyards. Isn't this Nature's way of controlling the amount of wine being produced?

Take Australia, for example. On October 23, 2006, Food & Drink Weekly published this information: "Australian wine exports have fallen in value for the first time in 15 years as the effect of a surplus of grapes slashed selling prices in key overseas markets. Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation data show that export volumes increased by 7 percent to 738 million liters in the first nine months of 2006, but the average price per liter fell by 7 percent over the same period, resulting in an overall 0.6 per cent decline in the value of exports to $A2.78 billion."

Now what happens the next year? Nature steps in to correct the situation. The 2007 vintage in Australia was cut by 40 per cent because of frosts, bushfires and drought. The 2008 vintage is even more threatened with the possibility of the worst drought in living memory reducing Aussie wine production by as much as 60 per cent. Lack of water in 2007 already damaged the vines and restrictions on irrigation in southeastern Australia, where most of that country's grapes are grown, mean that grape growers are restricted to a mere 16 per cent of their usual water supply. And remember, five years ago Australia surpassed France as the largest wine exporter to the US in both volume and dollar value.

Today vineyards in the Riverina and Murray Darling regions of New South Wales are being abandoned because of the lack of water. This is the area where the major share of bulk wines are produced (think Yellow Tail). But even the most sought-after vineyards are not immune for the effects of drought. Peter Gago, Penfold's head winemaker, told me that he ordered the drip irrigation system taken out of the fabled Magill Vineyard on the Adelaide plains because it had never been used. Now he has had to reinstall the lines just to save the Shiraz vineyard that provided the grapes for the first Grange wines.

Is the spectre of Dr. Malthus hovering over the Australian vineyards? Or is this more to do with a cosmic correction that speaks rather to the whims of Dionysus, the god of wine? Dionysus, you may recall, is also the patron deity of the theatre whose myth is the source of Greek tragedy. It is thought that this theatrical form started as a choral lyric in honour of Dionysus and developed into the story of the downfall of a noble hero through his overweening pride or arrogance. What the Greeks called hubris.

Maybe that's what happens when you get too successful.




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