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Australia's Wine Identity

Heaven help Australia. All that fretting over the growing and making of our wine; all those trips by all those winemakers to all parts of the world to learn various tricks; all those decades of winemaking experimentation, invention and development; all that and then the gatekeepers – holding baseball bats, you’d reckon – tell us that Australian wine doesn’t have a strong identity, and it needs to develop one. Pronto.

To illustrate the problem, I was sitting at a table in Italy’s Valpolicella wine region recently with a collection of international wine folk when someone asked where Australian wine is at. “It’s in the healthiest state imaginable,” I said, proudly. 

“The offering is astonishingly diverse now,” I continued. “Low fi, hi fi, old school, new school, classic varieties, obscure varieties, everything. Twenty years ago there was a planting boom; 10 years ago there was a lot of good wine being made; combine those two and you have lots of mature vines across all sorts of varieties and the quality has moved from good to very good, if not higher.”

Self-praise is no praise, but I thought I’d done pretty well at encapsulating Australian wine. The response, though, to my surprise, had the brightness of three-day-old sunburn.

“Australia’s problem,” someone cut in, or cut down, “is there’s no clear message. It’s like a tasting plate where everything’s good, but you can’t remember any of
it afterwards.”

Baseball, bat, time.

The view to down under

The wine world, it turns out, hasn’t been sitting around waiting for us to out-do it. No matter how good our wine is, the wine world is a brutal place, determined to protect or extend its patch – not to mention its pre-conceived world view. 

Two things are important to note here: a) the fight for international market space is not just about the wine in the bottle. It’s about the message, how it’s told, and who’s telling it. Wine is both the most symbolic drink in the world and the most emotional. Out in the big bad world, therefore, a clear wine identity matters enormously.

b) The wider wine world could burn in hell, for all we’d care, if Australian wine production was based around domestic consumption only. But that boat sailed a long time ago. Australia produces far more wine than it could ever domestically consume; what the world thinks of our wine matters, and matters a lot.

A usual suspect

The irony, of course, is that for a time Australia did, internationally at least, have a clear identity and message. Australian wine was either sunny and cheap or big and melodramatic. These messages were brilliantly clear and effective. But the majority of Australia’s wine community has spent the past decade either trying desperately to expand on these messages, or trying to tear them to shreds.

Why? Because they sell Australian wine too far short. “You can’t generalise about Australian wine for over a million reasons,” Sarah Crowe of Yarra Yering says. Virginia Willcock of Vasse Felix is of the same view. “Wine is so complex and so is Australia. We need to break it down.”

This is the thing – simple messages don’t really fit Australian wine anymore. They don’t because, to state the bleeding obvious, Australia is so large, and therefore geographically diverse. Our wine, when it’s good, reflects that. It’s not the tyranny of distance, it’s the tyranny of size. To make matters worse, perceptions of Australian wine in world markets can go to infinity and beyond.

“Each export market,” Sarah Crowe says, “would have a different response (if asked of Australia’s wine identity). Having just been in the USA, it’s frightening to read (wine writer) Joe Czerwinski’s Facebook feed when he was asked what would make people buy Australian wine.

“The comments are stuck in the 2000s for the most part. Export market perception is largely mono-dimensional South Australia or South Eastern Australia, which maybe they think is one and the same thing. It’s nowhere near a representation of what’s happening across this vast country.”

Jeff Burch of Burch Family Wines agrees, and then widens the lens. 

“It depends where in the world,” he says. “Asia – particularly China – has a very high acknowledgement of Australian wine, right up there with the top French. Much better recognition than Spain, Italy, Chile. USA though – poor recognition, not on the radar, a lot of work to do for quality Australia wine. 

“UK/Europe, very Euro-centric for the top end, they’re only interested in value wine from Australia. Hard to see a future for quality Australian wine there.”

Sue Hodder, senior winemaker of Wynns Coonawarra Estate, is more up beat, though cautiously so. 

“Perceptions of, and knowledge about, Australian wine has pleasingly shifted upwards in the last two years. Younger, better wine-educated, and more widely-travelled trade professionals have helped. In the first instance though, we’ll be happy if international consumers just know that Australian wine is a diverse offering.”

A dirty word

Diverse. This has become the most commonly used word to describe Australian wine. It’s the word we’re hoping will become our identity, because it’s the most accurate. The problem is that a lengthy explanation is usually required as a follow up; diversity can be a hard sell. It’s not snappy and all-encompassing in the way, say, of the gold-standard identities of French Champagne, Barossa Shiraz or, indeed, mere mention of Burgundy.

And wine identity is like humour; if you have to explain it, there’s a problem. 

There’s an argument that use of the words ‘Australian wine’ has us trying to achieve ‘cut through’ with the broad side of the blade. Virginia Willcock is certainly of this view. 

“The broad term ‘Australian wine’ drives me insane,’ Virginia says. 

“While we have common varieties across the country, the diversity of regions is significant and shouldn’t be thrown into a generalised country.” 

New world countries like Australia Argentina Chile, New Zealand and strive for a clear national wine identity. Old world countries more commonly lead with their regions; the country is a given.

“Our winemaking styles have changed over the past 15 years,” says Alexia Roberts winemaker at Penny’s Hill. 

“I remember when I first started out in McLaren Vale in 2004, whites were all made from Chardonnay, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. It would be difficult to find a regional McLaren Vale white made from any of these varieties nowadays.

“International markets have welcomed these changes, (but) we are still struggling with the Australian image and key message. Our message is so diverse that I do think this could be diluting the key facts. The heroes are our regions.”

 Virginia agrees. 

“My theory about ‘Australian wine’ is that the best way to break it down is by region and regional strengths to give clarity for quality and diversity,” she says. 

“Then, if someone loves a strong regional wine, they might try other varieties from that region.”

No probs, really

Of course, this is a nice problem to have. Australia’s wine identity or message basically is: we have so much to offer now, we don’t know where to start. 

“What I produce is different from what my neighbours produce,” is Sarah’s way of putting it. “The diversity is why people want to discover more and engage with new wines and discover new producers. For better or for worse, it is a complex topic and should be spoken about as such.”

There’s strength and comfort in numbers, but the time is fast approaching, if it hasn’t already past, where the notion of an Australian wine identity is shown the door and real one-on-one engagement, region by region, takes hold. After all, no one falls in love with a race; they fall in love with one clear object of their desires.

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