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AUSTRALIA: A quiet revolution

Australia is still rightly proud of its big, bold classics, but a new breed of fine Oz wine is stealing the limelight, says Sarah Ahmed.

sydney.jpgRolling out the big guns (wines valued at more than AUD$40,000), starting with Penfolds’ Bin 95 Grange 1955) created a palpable sense of excitement at the Landmark Australia Tutorial masterclass, “An Historic Perspective”.

The bold classics upon which Australia forged its reputation have been, and remain, very effective ambassadors, but even more inspiring was an emerging generation of “quieter” wines.

A new era

Masterclasses on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Shiraz and sparkling wines reinforced the alacrity with which Australian winemakers are ratcheting up quality and complexity by successfully embracing new regions, varieties, clones, techniques and philosophies.

In his Pinot Noir masterclass, Yabby Lake’s Tom Carson captured the zeitgeist when he referred to a new way of working “with an intuitive feel for what needs to be done and, more importantly, what shouldn’t be done”.

It’s affecting classic regions like the Hunter Valley too. Tyrrell’s red wine maker Mark Richardson told me “in the last 20 years we tried to follow the market and make bigger woodier styles, but there’s been a sea change”.

The outcome is a return to the so-called “Hunter Burgundy” medium-bodied style of old, which, with lower alcohol and a region-wide campaign to improve cellar hygiene, has helped eliminate brettanomyces spoilage.

In the Grampians, Mount Langi Ghiran’s Dan Buckle reckons Australia’s Pinot Noir phenomenon has had a knock-on effect – “consumers are not looking so much at power and weight, which allows you to explore medium-bodied Shiraz in a way previously not possible”.

Australian-based wine writer Max Allen’s book The Future Makers describes the men and women behind this new breed of wines. They do not share the ambivalence, scepticism even, about terroir, organic and biodynamic methods as the more technocratic, interventionist old guard. Nor do they have the same vested interested in the big four varieties (Shiraz, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot).

Australia is on the brink of a new era and this shake-up on the ground has consequences for how the category is promoted. Speaking at the conclusion of the Landmark Tutorial, leading industry commentator James Halliday opined “the industry has not seriously relied on fine wine until now”, but “now is the time”.

Challenging perceptions

Just as importantly, it’s an invaluable opportunity to revise outmoded perceptions about Australian wines in the UK where Andrew Cheesman, CEO of the Australian Wine & Brandy Corporation (AWBC), admits: “The challenge is to raise awareness about what is unique about Australia and to reinvigorate and restore some excitement and buzz… We need a greater presence/representation across channels and price points.”

According to Cheesman, savings generated by last year’s restructuring of the AWBC will be redirected into promotional activities, including Landmark masterclasses in all markets and the evolution of the Regional Heroes Foundation Programme.   

But how easy is it for a generic body to promote the complexities and contradictions inherent in an increasingly diverse industry, as opposed to the relatively simple “brand Australia” message? Not very, judging by October’s well-documented exchange between Paul Henry (ex-AWBC general manager, market development) and Paul Schaafsma (general manager UK and Europe, Australian Vintage), who were at loggerheads over whether promotional activity should focus on value or volume respectively.  

The value-versus-volume issue is not the only source of tension. The industry also has a tendency to tie itself in knots about how to promote diametrically opposed propositions like multi-regional blends and regional/single site wines, also conventionally farmed grapes and those made from organically or biodynamically sourced grapes. But does it have to be an either/or choice? For Cheesman, the key to unity “is inviting trade and consumers to look at Australia through a lens other than price and every-one in the sector will benefit from that”.  

Still, Allen queries whether the AWBC should be making all the running. Likening the industry to “a battleship, slow to turn”, for him 2010’s big story is the groundswell of independent initiatives launched by a “flotilla” of winemakers. Fuelled by an “amazing grassroots energy” and broadcast via social media, he says the industry is sounding like fun again and people, including consumers, want to be a part of it.  

Grassroots energy

The most prominent of these initiatives is Australia’s First Families of Wine (AFFW), 12 leading, family-owned producers (Brown Brothers, Campbells, d’Arenberg, De Bortoli, Henschke, Howard Park, Jim Barry, McWilliam’s, Tahbilk, Tyrrell’s, Wakefield and Yalumba).

At May’s London launch, then chair Tahbilk’s Alister Purbrick explained its mission was “rebuilding brand Australia from a platform of credibility and excellence” and quashing the notion that “Australia only makes sunshine in a bottle and Australia and fine wine don’t go together… we want to bring perception and reality together”.

Several months later current chair Ross Brown says: “We’ve reengaged with the UK media at the highest level – a disconnect had developed; as the market had grown, we’d appointed export managers, so the market was not seeing the people behind the wines.”

Australian specialist importer, Liberty Wines’ David Gleave MW agrees: “There’s no substitute for shoe leather. We need less PowerPoint and more pouring from Australian producers.” He plans to repeat last year’s producer-led Premium Australian Wine Tasting and nationwide series of smaller events and workshops.

Brown says social media is “a critical project for the [AFFW member’s] young generation because national retailers talk about price, we need to communicate nuance and social media is where the story will be told over the next 20 years”.

With its low cost base and ability to engage a new generation of consumers, social media is being used by various interest groups to challenge perceptions of Australian wine.  

Take the “Rosé Revolution” campaign which promotes savoury, textural, dry and “preferably pale” styles – “serious rosés for grown-ups”.

Cofounder Leanne De Bortoli explains: “What they share in common is that they have detail, an empathy with variety and where they are grown and are seriously quaffable.” Flying the flag for leading alternative grape variety Tempranillo, “Tempraneo” is a group of six producers keen to promote its individuality of expression across region.

The increasingly popular Spanish variety increased its intake by 39% in 2010 and Louisa Rose of Yalumba, one of Tempraneo’s members, reckons it has the potential to build a critical mass. Allen hopes that, in ten years, it will move into Australia’s top three red varieties, displacing Merlot.  

Social media is also being used to stimulate debate amongst producers. Stephen Pannell’s controversial “All for One, Drink Australian Wine” campaign calls for a national celebration of Australian wine. It has come under fire, with accusations of protectionism, but over a thousand Australian winemakers and drinkers have pledged to drink only local wines from 1 January 2011 until Australia Day, 26 January.  

It’s hit a raw nerve Down Under that exports are decreasing as imports increase and, as Allen puts it, sommeliers are “infatuated by Burgundy, etc, at the expense of good wine here”. Pannell says he wants to challenge what’s been dubbed “a cultural cringe” about talking up aspirational wines – “we don’t value our land of origin…we’re a net importer of wines over $20”.

His comments are echoed by Buckle’s observation that “we’ve been downplaying wine for the last 30 years – ‘it’s only a drink, don’t take it too seriously’”, a strategy which Buckle points out simply doesn’t work for fine wine.

Quality begins at home

Pannell’s ideal outcome is for producers to “go into the 2011 vintage with the idea fresh in our minds that if the wines we like to drink aren’t out there, we can make them”. The point has not been lost on up-and-coming Canberra District Shiraz specialist Alex Mackay of Collector Wines, who describes his wines as “more like Burgundy in the context of Australia”.

Referring to increased competition from imports, he says: “Wines here have to be more charismatic. My wines must compare with the best of the Rhône as well as other parts of Australia – they need to be more than slightly interesting.”

Mackay’s top wine is a single-vineyard Shiraz and there’s no question that an increased focus on site is resulting in more individual wines. At the Landmark Tutorial’s Chardonnay Masterclass, de Bortoli’s Steve Webber spoke of the imagination involved in shifting away from producing varietally focused wines towards “site and season in balance with the intensity of the variety”.

For Vanya Cullen, of Cullen Wines: “If you believe the best wines are terroir wines as I do, it’s the purity of this belief that creates individuality and quality.”  

Cullen also emphasises the link between quality and sustainability. While she and fellow biodynamic practitioner David Paxton, of Paxton Wines, agree scepticism about organics and biodynamics remains rife, they also confirm interest is growing.

Winemaker Luke Johnson says much interest comes from conventional growers wanting to learn more and improve their current practices. Conscious that “people struggle to accept that something works, without understanding how it works”, he is undertaking a Phd study to evaluate the impact and scientific basis of organic and biodynamic practices, also their financial implications.

Paxton (who farms 200 acres) reckons “there’s no reason why large operations cannot go down the organic or biodynamic path and remain competitive and profitable”. He also believes that: “In 20 years or less, if farmers have not embraced one or another form of organic farming, their products will be much less sought after in the marketplace.”  

A brand new conversation

As once-niche practices, wine styles and grape varieties are mainstreamed, the bandwidth of Australia’s communication channels is widening and becoming more inclusive. Reflecting that “it shows the real maturity of our industry”, Brown sets the tone when he says of the AFFW, “though fierce competitors day to day, we focus on the bigger picture and work together”.

The AWBC is evolving too. It plans to work more closely with third parties to develop and implement integrated food, wine and tourism strategies, also with regional and state bodies.

Rose co-chairs the South Australia Wine Council, which has secured a commitment of AUD $1m from the South Australian government for a market development programme over the next four years. She envisages that the programme will integrate with AWBC initiatives because “we can create something bigger than both of us… we’re all working towards making Oz wine better”.  

However, the AWBC’s biggest leap is the new A+ Australia Wine campaign which, says Cheesman, “offers all producers and wines a voice”. Described as “a brand new conversation: a new brand conversation”, it provides a social media forum for individual producers to tell their story and engage with consumers directly.

For Allen, providing a forum rather than dictating categories (Brand Champions, Regional Heroes, Landmark and Generation X), is a good example of what the AWBC should be doing to lift Australia’s diversity off the page.

Alan and Nelly Cooper of Macedon Range’s Cobaw Ridge, who plan to use the A+ forum, epitomise the new breed of “future makers” and offer a strong counterpoint to industry stereotypes. In conversion to biodynamic, their single-estate, cool-climate wines include Australia’s first commercial release of Italian red variety Lagrein.

The couple say they welcome a focus on “real people, making real wine” and strongly believe “we must differentiate or die”, as increasingly does the industry.

Sarah Ahmed, January 2011

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