One way or another, water has been a problem for the

Australian wine industry this year. There's either been

too little of it, as some wine regions sweltered through a

prolonged drought, or too much--floods severely dam aged the vineyards of the Barossa Valley in South Australia at the beginning of March.

The availability of water is, of course, critical to the siting of any vineyard and in Australia the settlers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries planted their vines in areas with more-or- less reliable rainfall. With the exception of the Swan and Margaret rivers of Western Australia, those areas are in a half- moon band in the southeast corner of the country. Starting just north of Sydney, scattered through southern New South Wales, then down into Victoria and west to the valleys near Adelaide in South Australia, they are the areas with winter rainfall.

It's a good thing that Australian winegrowers haven't relied on the heavens for their water. They can irrigate from rivers and dams. Yet in a country with frequent droughts, irrigation was a bad word in the wine industry until the '60s. If you wanted to produce good quality wines, you did it the European way--without extra water.

Today there is a better understanding of irrigation, of how and why to control the supply of water. Yet it's still not as widely used as it could be. Looking at the ripening vineyards of the Rutherglen area of Victoria in January, I wondered why. Irrigated vines had a full leaf cover and healthy bunches. The others had burnt, shriveled leaves and unformed grapes.

Fortunately, what troubles one area may not touch another. Mudgee in New South Wales was reported to have little in the way of a crushable crop, whereas its nearest neighbor, the Hunter Valley, wasn't affected by the drought. When picking started on a fresh, misty late January morning, producers in the Hunter were predicting a great year for their whites.

What does that mean to the average Australian wine drinker? Do they care whether one year is better than another? Of course. Aussies drink twice as much wine as Americans do (that's not saying much), and their tastes have changed over the past 20 years in much the same way. Fortifieds have lost their place to drier table wines, and reds to whites. Imports are negligible in a market dominated by an Australian invention, the low priced bag-in-the-box wines. At the other end of the scale, some small production specials rival Californians in price.

In whites, there's increasing interest in chardonnay, with good results, and, more recently, in sauvignon blanc. The semillon, or Hunter riesling, continues to be a staple for fuller- bodied whites. Reds are cleaner, less baked, than in the past, with the best often being a blend of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz (locally called hermitage).

I'm delighted that more of the better quality Australian wines are coming into our market. If we're going to judge all Australian wines by the quality of their exports, let's have the good ones. Don't expect them to be cheap, however. They're not cheap at home.