The Trials and Tribulations of Australian Wine Game

There is little doubt that the Australian winegrower has had a tough time of it lately. If it’s not climate change playing havoc with the ripening cycles and rain fall averages, it’s the strength of the Aussie dollar relative to the US dollar—totally devastating the export value of the average bottle of good old Barossa Shiraz…

Photograph courtesy of Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation
Photograph courtesy of Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation

There is, however, another aspect to the trials and tribulations of the industry which is becoming more and more apparent: Brand Australia is no longer the coolest kid on the wine block with the groovy sneakers and matching iPhone.

There was a time not too long ago when the UK supermarkets were bulging with good-value Australian reds that were  being consumed in near-alarming amounts along with the weekend take-away Chicken Tikka dinners and Coronation Street episodes so beloved by the average British household.

At the time, it was cool to rag the French and Bulgarians for lousy low-end wines and visiting Australian winemakers were treated like Mick Jagger on a comeback tour every time they touched down at Heathrow.

These days, it’s the Chileans and Argentineans who have elbowed their ways into the hearts and minds of most UK and US wine shoppers, and it`s hurting back home in a big way.

It has to be said that the average bottle of South American wine is cheaper to produce by a country mile than most Australian wines. They are also producing new and exciting varietals such as Malbec and Carmenere (like Shiraz but mostly sweeter and denser). With most trends the cycle highs and lows are always extreme, and currently my antipodean hackles are being raised by the amount of negative international press we are getting in the global marketplace.

Some of the bad press is justified, as it is fair to say that the impact of Robert Parker’s preference for certain styles of wines have molded a lot of Australian winemaker’s product—only to be left high and dry as the global consumer is nudged toward alternate countries styles and varietals. As  Victoria`s Secret supermodel Heidi Klum is famous for saying  of fashion: “One Minute You are in and the next minute you are out…”

There are green grass-shoots of hope amongst all of this.

Firstly it has forced a lot of producers  to take a look at what they produce and how they produce it. Regions are being examined a lot more closely to understand exactly what varietals work best in a specific place—Riesling in Clare, Shiraz in Barossa and so on. This is a good thing and can only result in more carefully considered wines which have the best chance of showing what they can do best.

The next thing is that it has started to yield interesting and previously unknown varietals out of Australia, like Spanish-sourced Savagnin—which really gives the South Island of New Zealand a run for its money with Sauvignon Blanc. Heathcote is producing some pretty sexy Tempranillo and I tasted a 100% Mouvedre from Coonawarra the other day which would make angels weep.

Winemakers are also traveling more—making wines in different countries and learning more about consumer styles and trends. I was lucky enough to spend some time with Two Hands winemaker Matt Wenk last month—in Singapore to meet, greet and drink with expats at a recent Austcham event.  What was brought home to me in a big way was his commitment to the notion that a winery was at its best if drawing grapes from multiple regions and making the most of the chosen varietals—the experts call this Regional Differentiation. I reckon it is here to stay and will be the foundation of the rebirth of the Australian wine industry in years to come.

Robert Rees works for and runs the ANZA Wine