WINE drinkers in Britain have been warned that Australian brands are expected to soar in price after crop failures caused severe shortages of popular grape varieties.
Several years in which there was an Australian grape glut meant imports were sold at heavily discounted prices - often below 5 - and put Down Under ahead of more traditional wine-producing countries such as France and Italy in the UK market.
But now some of Australia's biggest suppliers have issued a warning over prices in the wake of a country-wide drought, harsh frosts, bush fires and plagues of locusts during the 2006-7 growing season.
Suppliers said a predicted 30 per cent drop in this year's crop would probably affect prices in the UK, with varieties including pinot noir and sauvignon blanc being particularly hard-hit.
Phil Laffer, the chief winemaker at Jacob's Creek, said: "The oversupply situation of the past three to four years in Australia looks like it is coming to an end this year.
"I expect there will be an impact on next year's growing season into the 2008 vintage. If that happens there will be serious pressure on prices towards the end of next year."
Bryce Fraser, managing director of independent wine merchants Corney & Barrow Scotland, said producers and suppliers were not simply using the drought as an excuse to put prices up.
"People forget, even in mass-produced wineries, this is still a farming activity and is still dependant on weather," he said. "Extreme weather can have a serious effect on the harvest.
And he added: "With a price increase [in Australian wines], I think a lot of European producers at the lower end may become more competitive than they have been in the past.
"We're seeing a significant increase in sales from Italy and Spain and from the lesser-known areas of France.
I think that there is a curiosity to try new things from Europe and that trend will continue."
Recent research commissioned by Vinexpo, the world's biggest wine and spirits fair, showed how Australia has overtaken France as the UK's number one wine supplier.
Between 2001 and 2005 the volume of French imports to Britain fell by 7.58 per cent, while imports of Australian wines rose by 51.7 per cent.
At the same time, imports of wine from the US more than doubled, while imports from South Africa rose by more than 50 per cent.
But The Scotsman wine columnist Rose Murray Brown said the trend could change.
"The Australians were the first who got their act together in terms of New World wine producers," she said.
"They were offering style and that was appealing. When they first came on to the market the wines were offered at reasonable prices. Also, there is a cultural affinity between British consumers and Australian winemakers.
"But I also think that this trend is changing and people, as their palate gets more educated, will move on towards the European style."
BETTER BLOW FOR GRAPES
A NEW technique for preserving grapes could lead to healthier wine, experts believe.
The process involves blowing ozone over grapes in cold storage.
Scientists have found the treatment not only prevents decay, but also supercharges grapes with antioxidants.
Ozone-treated grapes had up to four times more polyphenol compounds, which are believed to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, than untreated grapes.
Wine made from the grapes would also be less likely to trigger allergic reactions, such as asthma attacks.
Sulphur dioxide is currently used to preserve grapes, allowing them to be stored at low temperatures for several months.