Happy January! The snow’s on the ground and the ice is on the roads, and if you’re walking through a vineyard in the northern hemisphere, somewhere in Germany or Washington or upstate New York for instance, the frost is probably on the vine and the dirt is crunching beneath your feet. If, however, you’re part of the 10% of the world’s population that lives below the equator, your January vineyard stroll involves warm sunshine and dry air. In fact, if you’re walking through an Australian vineyard, you won’t be wishing you had grabbed a pair of gloves on your way out the door. Your thoughts are more likely to be along the lines of “So this is what the worst drought in a hundred years looks like.”

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It’s easy to forget the opposite of the seasons in the lands down under. But January in Australia is actually the middle of summer, and fall harvest usually takes place between March and mid June. Hence it’s not surprising that in the wine growing regions, growers and makers are anxiously watching the ripening fruit, gauging the quality and quantity of this year’s harvest.

Unfortunately for many of them, 2008 isn’t looking too good. Recent warnings from industry groups, including the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia, and Wine Grape Growers Australia, have confirmed that 2008 grape yields are expected to be much lower than those of recent years. Instead of the 2.1 million typical tons, this year’s harvest is expected to produce between 0.9 and 1.5 million tons, which could be less than half of normal.

The shortage is due to what many are calling the worst drought to hit the continent in a century. Water shortage is no anomaly in Australia, a country that’s well known to include much semi-arid desert. But the lack of rainfall in 2007, particularly in the Murray-Darling river basin, (located largely in the states of New South Wales, Victoria and southern Queensland, and home to much of the country’s agricultural and wine production), means irrigation water was at a perpetual premium. And while a wet July led many to hope that the usual period of precipitation was on its way, this turned out not to be the case. According to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, 2007 marks the first time on record that an El Nino drought in the Murray Darling Basin has not been followed by a three month period of above average rainfall. Couple this with the previous 24 months of below average precipitation, and it’s no surprise that some vineyard owners have been forced to rip out vines that were otherwise destined to die of thirst.

There may be a bright side to all this though. British wine writer Jancis Robinson points out that “The most obvious characteristic of the 2008 Australian grape harvest is likely to be a change in balance between fruit sourced from inland irrigated regions and that grown in cooler areas in Australia less affected by drought or problems of access to irrigation water.” And some industry experts note that a year of trimmed grape production is an offset to the grape glut of recent years, and may help turn Australian winemakers’ focus from quantity to quality. According to one spokesperson for the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation: "The opportunity out of the predicted harvest is for the Australian wine sector to shift its focus from volume to value." For the consumer, this may mean you’re less likely to find plonk in your glass when you blindly buy a critter-bedecked bottle at your local grocery store. And even if that cute bottle costs a bit more than it did last year, isn’t that still a small price to pay for a more reliable product?