by Tim Atkin

Aussie wines and The Ashes

How good was that? For an Englishman who’s passionate about sport, nothing compares with beating the Aussies at cricket, not even a win on penalties against the Germans or a last minute touch down against the French.  And yet somehow this doesn’t feel quite as satisfying as 2005. The series was close – nerve-shreddingly so at times – but there’s no denying that the Aussie cricket team is not what it once was.

Is there a parallel with the wine industry Down Under? I don’t want to push the comparison too far, but I think there is. It, too, has lost its way in recent times and is concerned about the future. Just like the cricket team, many of its star names have either retired or are approaching the end of their distinguished careers. For Warne, McGrath, Hayden and Ponting, read Blass, Halliday, Croser and Lehmann.

When the cricketers arrive home in a few weeks’ time, questions will be asked. Being Australian questions, you can bet that they will be blunt and to the point. The wine industry is also doing a lot of navel contemplation at the moment, most of it behind bolted winery and boardroom doors, but some of it in public.

The recent story in OLN (14th August) about Australian Vintage pulling funding for this year’s generic marketing campaign is the latest example of internecine feuding. The company’s decision has highlighted a debate that is central to the future of the Australian wine category: should the Aussies concentrate on a generic message – pushing “Brand Australia”, presumably with its barbie, surfing and sunshine in a bottle associations  – or should they stress diversity and so-called “regionality”?

There’s no reason why Australia shouldn’t do both, of course, but it’s a difficult tight rope to tread. The first implies, at the very least, that branding and wine styles are more important than origin. This, lest we forget, is what Australia’s mass market success was built upon. (Remember all those comments about the French obsession with terroir? Cricketers aren’t the only people who are prone to a bit of sledging.)

The second, meanwhile, is something of a new direction for Australia. Good growers and winemakers always knew that certain vineyards and sub-regions were better suited to particular varieties and wine styles than others, but the generic mantra was that it was fine, even preferable, to blend across, and even between, states. Trust us Australians to produce a good drop, it insisted, and forget about where the liquid comes from.  Blending and branding were what mattered.

As far as the big companies that dominate the industry are concerned, that is still pretty much the case. Brands such as Penfolds and Eileen Hardy notwithstanding, parent corporations such as Constellation, Foster’s and Australian Vintage are more interested in case sales than in regional heroes.

And yet it is these very companies that have diminished the image of Australian wine, with their emphasis on discounting and supermarket shenanigans. Indeed, you could argue that the biggest problem facing Australia at the moment is that consumers have no idea how much its wines are worth. Is the half price Shiraz at £4.49 really worth £9, or was it blended to a cheaper price point from the start?

There is plenty of mileage left in Brand Australia. Punters still like the bright labels, fruit forward styles and the sense of irreverence that have brought Australia so much success. But I think they also want something beyond that. More and more people are interested in where the food and drink they consume comes from, how it was produced and who made it. Australian wine is no different.

In the 2008 vintage Down Under, 40% of the grapes came from areas with a geographical indication. Some of these were subsumed by catch-all South Eastern Australia blends, but an increasing percentage are labelled as region specific wines. This makes a lot of sense to me. If a consumer can distinguish between, say, Bordeaux and Burgundy, Rioja and Jerez or Puglia and Tuscany, why shouldn’t he be interested in the differences between wines from Margaret River, McLaren Vale, Tasmania and the Yarra, Barossa and Clare Valleys?

One of the most heartening pieces of news I’ve heard from Australia in recent months is the formation (and launch at the end of this month) of a new initiative, called Australia’s First Families of Wine. The 12 companies (Brown Brothers, Campbells, d’Arenberg, De Bortoli, Henschke, Howard Park, Jim Barry, McWilliam’s, Tahbilk, Taylors, Tyrrell’s and Yalumba) have got together to communicate the fact “that Australia produces high end, quality wines with real character” and aim to put the country “back on the front foot in terms of image and quality”. Given the wineries concerned, my hunch is that regionality will be a key part of their PR pitch.

Australia may have lost market share in the UK and the US, its two biggest markets, but its critics would be ill-advised to write it off. There are too many good winemakers, not to mention good marketers, Down Under for Australia’s downward slide to continue. Its cricket team won’t be the fourth best in the world for long either.

Originally published in Off Licence News 

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