This article appearded in the June/July 2006 edition of Connections Magazine (Ireland)
Well priced, massively fruit-forward, quaffable Australian wines seem fairly ubiquitous these days, and why not? Who hasn’t picked up a bottle of Jacob’s Creek, Rosemount, Hardy’s, Banrock Station or [yellowtail] lately? They’re the cheap, cheerful, user friendly wines that rescued us all from the effete grip of the snobby French! So how could they be headed for a fall?
On the surface, things look very good for the Australian wine industry. Looking back a few years, they seem to have come out of nowhere with just a small domestic market in the 1980’s to become the world’s fourth largest wine exporter. They are now also the top importers in both the US and the UK, having recently surpassed France, Italy and Spain. Their flying winemakers are in demand throughout the world to show how it’s done. Even the French are modeling their wine marketing efforts after them. So what’s the problem? Unfortunately their new found success is not without growing pains especially in the perpetually difficult business of the global wine trade. Their export market is still growing rapidly but they’re plagued with massive overproduction, fierce global competition, a declining domestic market and the perception that they’re a one trick pony, with little beyond easy drinking entry level wines.
Overproduction and fierce competition go hand in hand. Can you imagine an industry that consistently overproduces by 15 to 20% year in year out? That’s the global wine market! For the last decade, overproduction has hovered between 15 and 20%, which roughly amounts to the entire wine production of France. This surplus – commonly referred to as the “wine lake” – is usually made into vinegar, distilled into alcohol or just poured down the drain. Why is this so? Wine is not a rational thing. Governments tend to pump money into wine production as it’s one of the most potentially lucrative – not to mention romantic – forms of agriculture, hoping to get results like Australia. Australia pumps money into their wine industry because it is Australia. The problem now is that Australia’s massive growth in wine production has exceeded its massive growth in demand and they’re now in the same boat as the rest of the wine world.
Their declining domestic market certainly doesn’t seem much of a surprise. There’s a real disconnect between popular perceptions of rugged outdoor life – sailing, surfing and crocodile wrestling – and the popular high-alcohol, full-bodied, slightly sweet Shiraz wines that Australia is identified with. When I think of high-alcohol sweet heavy red wines, I usually think of Port and everything that goes with it: being portly, smoking cigars, Winston Churchill and generally living the sedentary good life. I don’t get the impression that Mr. Churchill was a big surfer or made any pretensions of having an active lifestyle. Also not surprising is that domestic sales of Australian red wines are falling faster that the whites. Yes, beer, soft-drinks or at least a lighter wine seems more in tune with the outdoor sporting life.
So is Australian Wine a one-trick pony? Just walk into your local wine purveyor and see for yourself. Take a look at the Australian Reds and try to get something that isn’t a Shiraz or a Shiraz blend. The main alternative seems to be a similarly styled – high alcohol, full-bodied, slightly sweet – Cabernet Sauvignon. Not a huge difference. Now go to the French Red section and see the variety in a typical selection from lightweight Beaujolais, elegant Burgundians, powerful Rhones, fruity Vin de Pays and austere Bordeaux’s. Obviously there’s a bit of stereotyping here but you get the point: Australia sells more wine to both the US and the UK than France but doesn’t come even close in terms of variety. A look at the famous fine wine dealer Berry Brothers and Rudd’s red wine selection reveals the same thing: 17 out of 26 Australian red wines on offer are either Shiraz or Shiraz blends. And the white wines aren’t much different, dominated by full-bodied Chardonnay and Semillon.
So what’s wrong with being a one trick pony, especially if your trick’s pretty good? The big danger is fashion. Just take a look at the recent surge in popularity of Pinot Noir and the subsequent decline of Merlot sales all caused by the wine related movie Sideways. But to get a better idea of what can go wrong with an entire country; let’s take a look at the German wine industry. German wines are just starting to recover from a massive image problem caused by cheap export-only Liebfraumilch, which is better known as brands Blue Nun and Black Tower. Liebraumilch was originally named for the vineyards around the Leibfrauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) in Worms and literally means “Milk of Our Lady”. The Germans liked the name so much that it became used as a generic name for halb-trocken (half dry or slightly sweet) white wines that were wildly popular in the US and UK from the 1920’s to the 1980’s. The famous 21 Club in New York City had 15 Liebfraumilch on their menu back in 1945. The same menu listed the most expensive German wine, a 1934 Dr. Thanisch Bernkasteler Doktor spätlese, at $18 or almost double that of a 1934 Château Lafite-Rothschild which sold for $11. Today a a 2000 Dr. Thanisch Bernkasteler Doktor spätlese retails for about $45 while a 2000 Château Lafite-Rothschild would be hard to find for less than $450 a bottle. What sunk Germany’s good fortunes? Liebfraumilch.
The German wine industry was very successful in promoting Liebfraumilch as a cheap popular casual wine and sales rose consistently after WWII until the 1990’s when they took a nosedive. All of the sudden Blue Nun and Black Tower were considered naff and the entire industry was tarred with the same brush. Another big problem with German wines was that there was no middle ground for all the Liebfraumilch drinks to climb up as most German wines were either cheap or expensive. So all of the people introduced to wine with Liebfraumilch had to turn to other country if they were determined to climb up the quality ladder. Brand Australia is also in danger of having its image seriously damaged by the popularity of its low-price easy drinking wines. Is a nosedive immanent?
Of course the Australian wine industry, with all its marketing savvy cleary understands the problem and is now doing its best to promote diversity. The great Australian wine writer James Halliday has made the point clear: “The problem is persuading the millions of consumers of Australian wines around the world to look beyond the horizons of yellowtail et al. The distressing fact is that exports of Australian wines costing more than $100 FOB per case have declined in volume over the past two years, while total volume has continued to soar.” Surprisingly enough, Australia does have wide variety of wine styles, regions and grape varieties seldom seen in UK and US shops. A recent book Emerging Varietal Wines of Australia by Darby Higgs, mentions over 100 different grape varieties now used to make Australian wine. Riesling, Pinot Noir and northern Italian varieties such as Sangiovese and Barbera are now increasing in popularity and all produce lighter food friendly styles of wine.
There’ll always be a market for fruity full bodied easy drinking wine as most countries do produce them and people like to drink them. However, to really appreciate wine is to appreciate the diversity it can offer. The next time you’re buying wine, surprise yourself by seeking out some of the more interesting wines Australia offers.
A Few Notes on Australian Wine Grape Varieties:
Ubiquitous worldwide, this is the most widely grown white grape variety in Australia. The sad reality is that on the lower end of the price scale, it’s grown in too hot a climate for the full complexity of flavors to develop and often depends on added oak and acid for flavour and balance. At the higher price ranges, however, Australian Chardonnays – especially those from Eden Valley, Adelaide Hills and Margaret River go head to head with best from California or Burgundy.
Originally a Bordeaux variety most famous for the sweet wines of Sauternes, dry Sémillon from Australia is most commonly known as a rich blending partner for Chardonnay. Like Chardonnay, they are best appreciated beyond the lower end of the price spectrum. The Hunter Valley produces a distinctive and unique unoaked Semillon.
This great German variety some believe to be the future of Australian white wines. It was more widely grown than Chardonnay until the early 1990’s when it became unfashionable. Dry, aromatic, with the distinctive aromas of lime and petrol they are most often compared with the great white wines of the Alsace.
Plantings have increased, but it always seems to play second fiddle with the more famous but similar Sauvignon Blancs from neighboring New Zealand.
Truly an Australian oddity, Verdelho is more well know in fortified Madeiras. Its uniqueness is now considered more of an asset than a liability; like Riesling it is now seen as part of the post-Chardonnay future of Australia whites.
By far the most widely grown grape in Australia, it seems to be suffering from its recent good fortune. Australian Farmers were paid by the government to pull it up in the 1990’s – to be replaced by more fashionable grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon – until it enjoyed a surge of popularity. Know as Syrah in France’s Northern Rhone, Australian Shiraz is usually weightier and employs more oak, often imparting a light sweet vanilla spice. One note: The greatest (and most expensive) Australian Shiraz, Penfold’s Grange, is made in a much lighter, elegant and structured style in contrast to lower priced Shirazes.
If you consider Chardonnay the vanilla of wine grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon is the chocolate. Along with the varietally correct aroma blackcurrant, Australian examples often have pronounced mint and eucalyptus. It is also very widely grown in Australia and has a hard time distinguishing itself in the global wine lake.
More so than Cabernet Sauvignon, Australian Merlot seems to have a very, very hard time distinguishing itself from global completion. Unfortunately much of it is not very good.
The second most widely planted red grape variety in the world after Cabernet Sauvignon but much less famous. A major part of Southern Rhone wines like Côtes du Rhone and Chateâuneuf-du-Pape, it thrives in hot climates like Australia’s.
Italian grape varieties like Sangiovese (the principal grape in Chianti), Barbara, Dolcetto and even the obscure Lagrein are becoming much more popular. They grow well in many parts of Australia and also go well with many popular Italian dishes.
Some good entry-level introductions to less well known Australian wines:
2004 Annie’s Lane Riesling
, Clare Valley 11.5% vol.
Drivers start your engines! This is a racy Australian Riesling with a powerful dose of the classic Riesling aroma of diesel fuel (in a good way), coupled with pickled limes, roses and a long mineral finish. It’s a light refreshing aperitif or accompaniment to seafood dishes. ₤7.59
2004 Jane Brook Jame’s Vineyard Verdelho
, Western Australia 12.5% vol.
Lemony, lightly spicy and grassy with the slight pungent tang of orange peel. This is another excellent aperitif that is perfect with fish pies; well balanced, with a slightly bitter finish (again, in a good way). A more widely available good alternative is the 2004 Fox Creek Verdelho. ₤9.99
2005 Brown Brothers Tarrango
, Victoria 12.5% vol.
This is the kind of wine you’d imagine Australians couldn’t get enough of: light, charming and refreshingly fruiting. Made from the 1965 lab-created Australian variety Tarrango, it’s similar in style to a Beaujolais; a simple, cheap and cheerful quaffer full of ripe cherry and raspberry fruits. Serve slightly chilled with white meats or cold cuts. ₤5.99
2001 Garry Crittenden Barbera
, KingValley 13% vol.
This wine beautifully shows off the potential of Italian grape varieties in Australia. Black cherries with savory spicy roasted tomatoes combine with good acidity to make an elegant, medium-bodied food-friendly wine. ₤10.99
2001 Nerpenthe Tryst,
Adelaide Hills 14% vol.
Made from 60 % Cabernet Sauvignon with 25% Zinfandel (a major California grown grape) and 15% Tempranillo (the famous Spanish grape), this is a truly international combination. While dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon with flavors of eucalyptus, blackcurrants and mint, there isn’t any oak to get in the way of perceiving the plum and spice that the other grape varieties contribute. Perfect with a big juicy steak. ₤6.99
Non-Vintage De Bortoli Show Vintage Muscat
, South East Australia 18% vol.
OK, this fortified wine is not a light-weight alternative to Shiraz but instead, an excellent introduction to the great desert wines of Australia. Known as “stickies”, they are widely acclaimed as some of the best desert wines in the world along with Sauternes, Hungarian Tokaji and Trockenbeerenauslese. Rich, powerful and sweet with flavors of raisin, spice and wood this can be drunk as a dessert in itself or as one of the few wines that pair well with chocolate. ₤6.99
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