Australian wine on the world stage
What's my scene?
Dave Brookes speaks with a host of Australian wine experts on whether Australian wine has truly come of age on the world stage.
The story of the rise of Australian wine on the global stage is a remarkable one. Larger-than-life characters, dramatic sun-drenched landscapes and exotic wildlife, and pure wines from cheap-andcheerful to those that compete with the world’s best.
But in recent times, it seems we are having a moment of introspection. Pausing for breath and indulging in an extended session of chin-stroking, staring inwards and asking ourselves:
“What is Australian wine?"
I can imagine there would be more than a few muttering “crikey, do we have to?” in the room, but there is no denying it is a pertinent question to be posing at this particular juncture of our vinous evolution as a nation.
There was a wonderful Monty Python audio sketch from 1972 entitled ‘Australian Table Wines’, where a ‘wine expert’ (voiced by Eric Idle) presented the following classic statement:
A lot of people in this country pooh-pooh Australian table wines. This is a pity as many fine Australian wines appeal not only to the Australian palate but also to the cognoscenti of Great Britain.
Black Stump Bordeaux is rightly praised as a peppermint-flavoured Burgundy, whilst a good Sydney Syrup can rank with any of the world’s best sugary wines. Château Blue, too, has won many prizes; not least for its taste, and its lingering afterburn.
Quite the reverse is true of Château Chunder, which is an appellation contrôlée, specially grown for those keen on regurgitation; a fine wine which really opens up the sluices at both ends.
Fast-forward a handful of years and Australian wine was taking the UK by storm. Indeed, some may recognise the quote above from the trailer of the wonderful documentary Château Chunder: A Wine Revolution from Electric Pictures, which documented our wine industry’s meteoric ascension in the UK wine market (and which is well worth hunting down and watching if you haven’t seen it).
We’ve certainly had our victories, and there’s no doubt we have made more than a few missteps along the way. But what do consumers and the wine trade around the world see when they think of Australian wine today? We posed the pointy questions to the following respected industry voices:
- Andrew Caillard MW - AUS Master of Wine, Wine Ambassador & author of the upcoming three volume magnum-opus on the history of Australian wine, The Australian Ark
- Mark Davidson - Head of Education Development, Americas for Wine Australia
- Chuck Hayward - Proprietor of Vinroads, Aussie wine champion and ex-wine buyer for JJ Buckley & The Jug Shop in SFO.
- Robert Joseph - Editorial consultant at Meininger’s Wine Business International, wine scribe.
- Jeremy Stockman - Managing Director at Watson’s Wine, Hong Kong.
- Jim Boyce - Beijing-based wine writer and consultant, Founder of The Grape Wall of China website.
Château Chunder: A Wine Revolution (2012) documented our wine industry’s meteoric ascension in the UK wine market.
Mark Davidson, Head of Education Development, Americas for Wine Australia (Image Credit: Wine Australia).
What does the world think of Australian wine today?
When quizzed if there is a cohesive narrative for Australian wine through international eyes, and if so, what it is, the vast majority replied in the negative.
“I don’t think there is a cohesive narrative,” Caillard comments. “While some individual wineries and brands have excelled with promoting their identity and values, the overall picture is fragmented, stale and undeveloped. This could be easily fixed, as our wine story is wonderful.”
Joseph says, “There is no cohesive image. Once, like it or not, it was ‘sunshine in a glass’. Now it’s a country that does all sorts of stuff, but nothing specific that enough people are thirsty for.”
In the US, Hayward disagrees. “I would say yes, if you look at where the category has come from over the past few decades. If you really dig into it, I think we now know that there is more than Chardonnay/Shiraz to the category; there are a multitude of growing regions that reflect their unique growing conditions, and there is a slow movement away from the bigger styles to ones of finesse.”
Caillard concedes that “perceptions vary depending on the view point and marketplace.” Although there is negativity in some places, there is respect and optimism in others: Jim Barry The Armagh’s success on La Place de Bordeaux highlights a curiosity and willingness to support Australia’s fine wine agenda from some of the most hardened and focused wine merchants in the world.
“But the stats, lame communications, and analysis devoid of EQ has promoted a sense of schadenfreude within the media,” says Caillard. “This has not been helped by the corporate rats seemingly abandoning our ship. It’s a simple question, but a very complex answer.” Sobering indeed.
Penfolds and parent company Treasury Wine Estates are known and regarded worldwide (Image Credit: Wine Australia).
Andrew Caillard, AUS Master of Wine, Wine Ambassador & author of the upcoming three volume
magnum-opus on the history of Australian wine, The Australian Ark (Image Credit: Jette Cheung).
Australian Wine in the United Kingdom
The UK market, for instance, was the one that really catapulted Australian wine forward, but today it is a different story. Joseph explains that “in the UK there were two factors that have to be considered and are often overlooked in Australia: the change in UK retail distribution, and the declining power of the wine media.”
When Australia was enjoying its British heyday (in terms of variety and quality), wine drinkers could choose to buy from Oddbins, Bottoms Up, Wine Rack, Thresher, Unwins, Davisons and Wine Cellar. Today, almost all of those stores have gone – a loss of around 4,000 shops. Worse still, says Joseph, the best of these retailers acted as a spur for the supermarkets. “That’s no longer the case, and supermarket ranges of all wines – not just Australian – are far less interesting than they were.”
What this means in the UK, says Joseph, is that where Australia once was king in terms of volume and buzz, it is now one of a number of countries competing for attention, albeit still enjoying a number of dedicated fans.
Australian wine in the United States
The US, on the other hand, has largely proven to be a happy place for Australian wine, despite the intricacies of the US three-tier distribution model and the fact that it’s a tricky market to navigate. The impact of high scores from Robert Parker, the success of Yellowtail, and the influx of ‘critter’ wines (and the negative impact of their dumping on the market by large wine behemoths who collectively controlled around 90 per-cent of the market) all had an effect.
As such, in the 90s and early 2000s, Australian wine was on a high... until suddenly it wasn’t. As Matt Kramer in Wine Spectator wrote, “Australia’s fall from grace had a velocity I’ve never before seen. I can’t think of another wine country that, Icarus-like, flew so high and fell so far in such a short time.”
When quizzed about the US perception of Australian wine, Mark Davidson – Head of Education Development Americas for Wine Australia – observes that “many segments of the market understand the diversity on offer, but finding restaurants and retail with a proper cross-section of Australian wine is a bit slim currently. Getting people to trade up is slow.”
He explains how large retail chains, with one or two exceptions, continue to show that it is all about price.
“Yellowtail and 19 Crimes are still case-stacked in many. I would say that there’s a large chunk of people who view Australia as a source for cheap and cheerful and/or big, rich reds as a result of what they are seeing in places like this.”
Australian wine continues to be held in regard globally despite its changing fortunes.
Australian wine in China
In recent years, China has played a huge role in the Australian wine landscape, as we attempted to regain traction in other markets, until some political argy-bargy and adjusted tariffs sent that fairytale crashing back to earth. Industry thoughtleaders and magazines prompted producers to go all-in, FOMO took hold and now, more than a few people are hurting.
In light of the current situation and rumours that things could soon improve, Jim Boyce from the excellent Grape Wall of China website says “Australia has a good reputation for wine and there are plenty of reasons for that. Many Australian wines in the market use commonly-known grapes like Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon and are typically ripe, full-bodied and easy to drink for both novices and aficionados.”
Australia has a good reputation for wine and there are plenty of reasons for that.
Boyce continues. “Australia has a well-known flagship brand in China, Penfolds, the biggest money maker among New World wines before Covid and the tariffs descended. It was a no-risk brand that guests knew and respected... in fact, in late 2019, I broke down the import stats to show that the value of just Treasury Wine Estates (including Penfolds) was higher than every other import nation except for France.”
Jim Boyce also touches on the difficulty of such a sizeable market, adding “I think there are some major overall challenges in communicating Australia’s story to China. First is the sheer size and diversity of the market, with different climates, cuisines, income levels and so on across the country. You really need multiple strategies if you plan to sell in different parts of China. And you need to do so in a market where other competitors, such as baijiu and beer, are much better established.”
Jeremy Stockman adds, “The dominance of Penfolds is obvious. Then there are well-known labels like Henschke, but after that names we know very well in Australia are known only by the real aficionados... I would like to see more work from industry, producers and government bodies around premium wines from around Australia in relation to other great regions.”
While there is little doubt that our wines have never been better in terms of quality and diversity, these comments from industry insiders suggest there is plenty to be done if Australian wine is to rise back to its previous levels of global adoration.
Henschke is recognised amongst international wine lovers (Image Credit: Wine Australia).
Dudley Brown, McLaren Vale winemaker and industry commentator with his blog 'The Wine Rules'.
There is a wonderful blog called ‘The Wine Rules’, written by McLaren Vale winemaker and industry commentator, Dudley Brown. It lays bare where Australian wine has gone wrong, what it has done right, and what we can do now to achieve a sustainable wine industry as we move forward. It offers great research and solid, common-sense advice, but the suggested action points would require some substantial changes within the industry. And people don’t like change, especially those with the most to lose.
One final quote from Andrew Caillard is telling.
The big challenge is mindset. There is a tendency to believe that money can sort things out, but politics and conflicting agendas have promoted wasteful agendas and skewed narratives.
Right now the sustainability, diversity and inclusiveness bandwagon are being pushed out. Our differences are our national character, our landscapes, our history, and the taste of our wines.
We just need more creative and imaginative people in leadership teams. We won’t get very far if we persist with ticking boxes and being led by spreadsheet warriors.
The Australian wine story, its people and its wines are captivating, compelling and unique. And while we are currently sailing in choppy waters, hindered somewhat by mixed signals, I have no doubt that we will again ascend to past heights with a sustainable future for generations of growers, winemakers and wine consumers. Cheers to that.