Swan Valley Sun-Dried Muscat Grapes

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The Muscat grape (Vitis vinifera Gordo Blanco) can trace its origin back to ancient Egypt and Persia, where it was traditionally used for wine production and as dried fruit. It arrived in Australia, along with the tradition of producing dried grapes, with the beginnings of the wine industry, which began in Western Australia in the 1840s. With the influx of population to the goldfields during the Western Australian Gold Rushes from 1885, production increased, using traditional sun-drying methods.  

The Swan Valley sun-dried Muscat grapes are hand-picked, bunches are selected for drying, and traditional methods are used for a long period of natural, sun and air drying on wire frames or wire racks. The bunches are regularly inspected and turned over to ensure evenness of drying. This process is well suited to the climate of Swan Valley, with its wet winters and dry summers. These traditional methods are now threatened due to the use of industrial processes rather than the traditional, natural sun-drying process.  

The influx of population into Western Australia due to the gold rushes caused a demand for small farms, and large proportions of large estates were divided into farms between 10 and 40 acres in size. Many of the owners of these smallholdings were predominantly from the Dalmatian area of former Yugoslavia with some from Italy. The nature of farming in the Swan Valley changed between 1900 and the early 1920s from wheat farming to the production of dried grapes (currants, sultanas and dried Muscats) and table grapes for export and local consumption.   As of 2015, there are no currants or sultanas grown for local consumption as dried grapes. However, the production of Muscats for drying has survived. With only a handful of small producers remaining, however, the product is on the verge of extinction, and production levels have decreased from hundreds of tons per year in the late 1960s to just a few per year today. Until the 1990s most vineyards had drying racks or frames, but many have not been maintained and most have been dismantled. Furthermore, recent trends have seen seeded grapes replaced by seedless varieties due to a change in consumer demand.  

The sun-drying process is very time-consuming and hands-on, and requires physical labor to lift and carefully spread the fresh grapes on racks. Depending on the weather conditions, the grapes have to be turned by hand to ensure even drying. When the grapes are dry, the bunches have to be meticulously sorted and selected by experienced vineyard workers, to ensure quality of color, size and berry and bunch formation. This is not possible as a large-scale production due to rising labor costs. To save this endangered product, there must be greater interest in education and marketing to encourage consumers to appreciate the local, traditionally grown and picked product that uses natural means of preserving, as opposed to imported, factory-preserved dried grapes.

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Fruit, nuts and fruit preserves