Australians don’t do pessimism. They’re generally such a chipper, stop-moaning-and-get on with-it nation that they’d rather share a hot tub with a great white shark than be accused of whingeing like a Pom. But hang around anyone who works in the wine industry at the moment and whingeing is exactly what you’ll hear.
An irreverent, sunshine in a glass message, based on images of barbies, beaches and (initially at least) Crocodile Dundee, has served Australia well for more than 20 years, but increasingly that vessel is full of something much darker. Not quite an eclipse, but I’ve never known so many Australians sound so miserable.
Why the long faces? It’s hard to know where to start, but the fundamental problem is that Australia is making way too much wine. One industry magazine estimates that there is currently the equivalent of 600 million bottles sitting unsold in tanks and warehouses: two and a half times what Australia ships to the UK, its second biggest export market, each year.
The recently completed 2010 harvest is smaller than 2009, partly because drought has reduced yields in vineyards dependent on increasingly scarce irrigation water, but Australia is still facing huge problems. To regulate supply and demand, the Aussies will have to uproot 20% of their vineyards.
To deal with the ongoing crisis, Australia’s snappily-entitled Wine Restructuring Action Agenda is holding a series of workshops across the country, talking to grape growers about their future, or lack of one. Among other things, attendees are encouraged to invest in a computer programme to assess the profitability of their vineyards. In many cases, it will be surplus to requirements. All growers need to do is look at their bank balances or the unpicked grapes drying forlornly on their vines.
What about the UK market? On the face of it, things aren’t so bad here. One in five of the bottles of wine we drink is Australian and the average price of £4.56 is still ahead of the market (£4.39). Just as significantly, three of our top five wine brands (Hardys, Jacob’s Creek and Lindemans) are Australian. The French, whose sales have plunged off a cliff in recent years, would love to be in such a position.
And yet the image of Australian wine is not what it was. Most of it is flogged on promotion, often on some ludicrously improbable deal, where a wine is “reduced” from a notional £8.99 to £4.49 or less. To many consumers, commercial Australian wines have become virtually interchangeable, tasting as if they’ve been drawn from the same anonymous vat.
Most Australian wine is sold by big companies and a good deal of it is mediocre or worse. The two biggest culprits are Constellation and Foster’s, who have devalued the industry with witless cut-price offers and dull wines. Not before time, the latter has recently expressed its intention to off load brands like Rosemount, Wolf Blass and Lindemans and pull out of the wine business altogether.
But that’s only part of the story. Crisis or no crisis, small and medium-sized wineries are making better and more diverse wines than at any point in Australia’s history, developing new varieties, styles and regions. Aussie commentator Max Allen says that the “grand mistake of the last decade, when the big companies tried to turn our wine into a commodity, is behind us. In its place, we’re seeing lots of innovation, enthusiasm and energy”.
I agree with him. The likes of Grosset, Henschke, Clonakilla, Cullen, Yalumba, De Bortoli, Bindi, Leeuwin, Torbreck, Howard Park, Yabby Lake, Mount Langi, Greenstone, Charles Melton, D’Arenberg, First Drop, Ashton Hills, Tapanappa, Shaw & Smith, Peter Lehmann, John Duval, Freycinet and Bass Phillip are producing wines that are as good as anything from the New World, most of them at affordable prices.
Australia’s biggest hurdle — and it’s linked to the demise of that sunshine in a bottle cliché – is to persuade people that it makes as broad a range of wines as France, Spain or Italy. For years, it has promoted itself as a source of reliable grog that is as easy to drink as it is to understand, as a place where vintage and precise origin were almost irrelevant. Now in a time of adversity, it has the chance to tell a different story.
2006 Asda Extra Special Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon (£6.78, 14%) Coonawarra is one of the two best sources of cabernet in Australia, and this wine from Wingara is typical of the place, with mint and blackcurrant aromas, polished tannins and fresh, lightly-oaked flavours.
2008 Taste the Difference Barossa Shiraz (£7.99, 14.5%, Sainsbury’s) This gold medal-winning own label is still quite young, but you’ll be hard pushed to keep your hands off it, such is its spicy, blackberryish complexity. A big wine, but with lovely balance and oak integration.
2009 Tesco Finest Tingleup Riesling, Western Australia (£8.49, 12%) The price of this delicious riesling from Howard Park may have gone up by 50p, but it’s still well worth the money. Zesty and crip, with fine acidity, lemon and lime flavours and a palate-tingling finish.
2007 D’Arenberg The Laughing Magpie Shiraz/Viognier, McLaren Vale (£12.79 each for two, Majestic) Despite its comparatively high alcohol, this is a very harmonious wine, with the 10% of the white grape, Viognier, adding perfume and a hint of apricot to the smoky, brooding flavours of the shiraz.
2006 Penfolds Bin 311 Tumbarumba Chardonnay, New South Wales (£14.99, 13.5%, Waitrose) From a comparatively new area for (still) chardonnay, this is the kind of thing that could give top white Burgundy a run for its euros, showing toasty oak, lovely minerality and poise and refreshing acidity.
2007 Greenstone Heathcote Sangiovese (£26.95, 13.5%, Liberty Wines, Noel Young, Wimbledon Wine Cellars) Sangiovese is not exactly an established grape in Australia, but this one, made by Italian consultant Alberto Antonini, is the best I’ve tasted from outside Tuscany. Fresh and complex with notes of cherry stone, tea leaf and raspberry.
Originally published in The Times