A Modern Tragedy

By / Magazine / May 26th, 2008 / 3

Water is the major component of the human body — and the same is true for grapes. The pH of your stomach acid is about the same as the pH of wine (which is why wine is good for your 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, in a 1789 paper, posited that population grows in geometric proportion while the food supply grows only in arithmetic proportions. Mankind, he argued, will not be able to sustain itself if it goes on procreating the way it has been.

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 at what’s happening 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 announced the following: “Australian wine exports have fallen in value for the first time in fifteen years as the effect of a surplus of grapes slashed selling prices in key overseas markets.”

Now what happens the next year? Nature steps in to correct the situation: the 2007 vintage in Australia was 40 per cent less plentiful because of frosts, bushfires and drought. The 2008 vintage is being threatened by the worst drought in living memory — estimated to decimate 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 the country’s grapes are grown, means that grape growers have access 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 is produced (think Yellow Tail). But even the most sought-after vineyards are not immune from the effects of drought. Peter Gago, Penfold’s head winemaker, told me that he had 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 does this have more to do with a cosmic correction that speaks to the whims of Dionysus, the god of wine? Dionysus, you may recall, is also the patron deity of the theatre; his myth is the source of all 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 because of his overweening pride or arrogance … What the Greeks called “hubris.”

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


Tony Aspler has been writing about wine for over 30 years. He was the wine columnist for The Toronto Star for 21 years and has authored sixteen books on wine and food, including The Wine Atlas of Canada, Vintage Canada, The Wine Lover's Companion, The Wine Lover Cooks and Travels With My Corkscrew. Tony's latest book is Tony Aspler's Cellar Book.

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