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Australia: how cheap and cheerful wines have spelt its downfall

UK consumers’ love for cheap, cheerful wines fueled Australia’s success. Is the same market now contributing to its downfall, asks Robert Joseph

These are not good times to be a proudly competitive Australian. The Lucky Country has not only just lost the Ashes for the second time in four years, with its cricketers dropping to fourth place in the global rankings, but publications ranging from Decanter to The New York Times have been packed with coverage of the disastrous state of the Australian wine industry.

Worth pointing out, then, that just as the Ashes were only lost by a single match, so British consumers still drink a lot more wine from Australia than they do from France – and at a very similar average price per bottle. Of course Australia’s winemakers are facing a very tricky time, but so are the Spaniards – who annually send a third of their harvest to be turned into industrial alcohol. Today, my least favourite Australian w(h)ine is ‘Whyyyyyyyyyy doesn’t anybody understand us any more?’

In a recent decanter.com interview, Andrew Caillard MW declared that he was ‘surprised at the level of spite, exaggeration and disingenuous debate that is currently doing the rounds’. He shouldn’t be. His was the country that invented the concept of chopping down tall poppies. Besides, is it any shock that fans of traditional European wines (and winethose with a European axe to grind) are revelling in the schadenfreude of Australia’s current plight, coming as it does after triumphant years when they seemed to be kicking sand in the eyes of every other winemaking country?

Today, the rallying call of former Decanter Man of the Year Brian Croser to his countrymen is that, ‘We have to make sure that the world’s wine consumers know that Australian wine is just as good as traditional France.’ Traditional France, unless I am mistaken, is the country that has just slipped to fifth position behind Australia, the US, Italy and South Africa in the list of exporters to the UK, a ranking that’s even more embarrassing than the one currently enjoyed by Australia’s cricketers.

In his aim to be taken seriously, Croser wants Australia to place greater emphasis on ‘fine wines’ – by which he means any wine from a specific region. ‘When you and Oz Clarke first came to Australia in the early 1980s,’ he recently said to me, ‘that’s what you were looking for: fine wines.’ This is not actually true. As Oz confirmed to me, what he and I fell in love with were wines, in Oz’s words, that had ‘brilliant, exciting flavours we’d never come across before’. Intense, minted-Ribena Cabernets of Coonawarra; Petaluma’s steely Clare Rieslings; the dry lemony-peachy unwooded Semillons from the Hunter Valley; the sexily intense Shirazes of the Barossa; Brown Brothers’ and Morris’s Muscats; Tahbilk’s Goulburn Marsanne; and the limey Verdelhos from Western Australia: none of these were ‘fine wines’ as we were used to them from the Old World.

Unlike the Californians of those days, the Australians weren’t trying to copy Bordeaux and Burgundy. They were trying to make something that tasted really good and could be sold at an affordable price. At the mass market level, their wines grabbed us by the scruff of the neck and engaged us in conversation; they wrapped themselves round us in warm hugs; they seduced us. We admired how Napa Cabernets and Chardonnays could match the Médoc and Meursault; but we loved the audacity of blending Shiraz and Cabernet in ways that seemed deliberately conceived to give the French apoplexy.

Anything goes

And we were just as won over by the Aussies’ free-wheeling attitude to blending grapes from different regions. Most famously, of course, this was the hallmark of Penfolds and Wolf Blass. Most of their wines restricted themselves to South Australia, but I remember the label of a vintage of Bin 707 that admitted the inclusion of fruit from Margaret River. At the commercial end of the scale, wines like Lindemans Bin 65, Penfolds Koonunga Hill and Jacob’s Creek Cabernet-Shiraz made no pretence of being from a single region. And they were none the worse for that. Bin 65, in particular, was a masterful cocktail of Chardonnay enthusiasm for wines such as these that gave the Australians the courage to build a world-class wine industry, it was UK wine merchants and writers like me who then led them up a blind alley. We forgot to tell them that our fidelity to their wines relied on their maintaining the same prices over two decades of inflation and duty rises. Bin 65 is still on sale for under £5 – its price in 1989 – and we have the gall to complain that it doesn’t taste as good as it used to. Electronic goods may grow cheaper and better over time; agricultural ones rarely do.

Worse still, we eagerly encouraged the Australians to plant vines in new, cool regions. The only trouble was that when these inevitably pricier wines arrived on UK shelves, they generally gathered dust. In a market where less than 4% of wine sells at over £7, Australia’s premium efforts not surprisingly had as hard a time as those from most other countries. Just ask the British-based drinks giant Diageo why it doesn’t even try to import its premium Chalone and BV Georges de Latour Napa wines. The answer is that they’re far too busy slaking the UK public’s thirst for Blossom Hill and Piat d’Or.

The frustrating truth is that Australia is still delivering brilliantly competitive wines at all sorts of price levels. And, as Hazel Murphy – who as the former head of the Australian Wine Bureau is credited with helping to introduce Australian wine to Britain – says, the best of them, from producers like Grosset, Cullen and Clairault, have no difficulty finding buyers. Most are available from specialist merchants, but there are plenty of gems to be found on the high street. Tesco has long been a source for Tim Adams’s brilliant Clare Valley Rieslings – terrific value at under £10; Majestic and Waitrose both sell Nepenthe’s delicious Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc, and Asda’s Extra Special Coonawarra Cabernet 2005 is a steal at under £6.

These wines are certainly not an endangered species, but their presence on UK shelves – and certainly the examples selling at more than £10 – certainly is Awardsendangered. Unless we seek them out and introduce them to our friends, the wines will simply be sold elsewhere – in America, Asia and places like Germany, Sweden and Poland. To quote Peter Jackson, head of Fosters, whose range includes several Decanter Award winners: ‘The UK market is very difficult… we have found that demand for our more premium products is increasingly coming from our European customers.’

But the best reason for taking advantage of Australia’s premium wines is that they’re actually very good value. One day, we’ll all wake up and find that cheap Aussie Shiraz is as much of a thing of the past as cheap Chablis, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Barolo. And when that day dawns, the Australians will almost certainly find that their place as top wine exporter to Britain has been taken over by a competitor with lower costs. Australia’s over-£10 wines will be as hard to find in this country as the best efforts from Italy, Spain – and Germany, that other producer of great wines that the UK resolutely refuses to recognise. But that’s another story.

Written by Robert Joseph

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