Australia, new world leaders: First they broke the mould; now they have broken the three-million case mark. Anthony Rose charts the next step

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ON A February morning at a tasting of bordeaux wines in London, Gaston the French frog was fending off a marauding horde of kiwi, kangaroo, impala and llama. France's new green cartoon grenouille has been created in an attempt to turn back the incoming tide of New World wines and is the brainchild of Peter Sichel, the negociant and chateau-owner. Like many of his countrymen, Mr Sichel has a vested interest in culling the growing population of New World wines; unlike many of his countrymen, he takes the threat seriously.

'The New World may offer fruity wines, but France has character,' he said. 'New World wines tend to be showy and to do well in tastings, but French wines go better with food. You can finish the whole bottle.'

Gaston the frog, however, was looking a bit down in the mouth. That morning the pound had dipped below Fr8 and perhaps he had been eavesdropping on the opposition.

John Buck, chairman of the New Zealand Wine Guild, reports that exports to the UK went up by 60 per cent in the last six months of 1992. 'Not bad during a recession,' he said gleefully.

From a comparatively small base, South Africa is now doing well, while Chilean wine increased its share by some 80 per cent in 1992.

Even California, which has long suffered both image and dollar problems, enjoyed an annual increase of around 25 per cent in 1992. As Steve Burns, California's man in San Francisco, points out: 'We've grown out of the idea that we are fighting Australia for a share of the market. The New World as a whole is aiming to improve and increase its share.'

The New World top dog, however, is Australia, which continues to defy the gloomy predictions of the wine trade which, for some time, had been saying Australian wines were last month's flavour.

According to Hazel Murphy, the Australians' UK supremo, when the first Australia Day tasting was held in 1986 exports totalled 85,000 cases. Last year, they reached a record 3.5 million cases, around 5 per cent of the UK market. Jacob's Creek alone sold 600,000 cases in 1992, making it the top-selling bottled wine in a two-month period.

'Australia continues to be the rising star of the wine world,' said Michael Davies of Davisons, the independently owned high street chain of 80 stores in London and the South-east. This statement would not have raised eyebrows were it not for the fact that Davisons is a traditionalist firm which has built its reputation largely on bordeaux.

But, as Mr Davies said: 'In 1992, sales of New World wines in Davisons have risen dramatically. New Zealand wines were up 35 per cent, Australian 34 per cent and California 29 per cent. By contrast, claret sales slipped by 26 per cent, sales of white bordeaux fell by 34 per cent and red burgundies by 17 per cent.'

According to Mr Davies, the secret of the Australians' success is that 'they have been able to combine quality, credibility and price behind the concept of branded wines'.

Helen Verdcourt is a traditional wine merchant based in Maidenhead who specialises in the wines of the Rhone. She, too, has found her sales of Australian wine rocketing. 'My customers adore the taste of Australian wines,' she says. 'It's the fruit, the ripe fruit.'

Which is precisely what was on display when more than 100 wineries set out their stalls at Lord's Cricket Ground at the end of January. 'It is one of our goals,' said Ms Murphy, introducing the tasting, 'to move Australia forward from barbecue country to cafe society, from ubiquitous Australian chardonnay to Tasmanian pinot or Barossa shiraz.'

This logical step to getting across Australia's regional and varietal diversity is not without difficulty. Large-volume wines in Australia still tend to be blends of wines from different regions. So it is encouraging to see enlightened support coming from the bigger companies for a trend towards premium wines which reflect the character of climate and soil.

The trend will not only benefit the smaller producers but will also help customers appreciate that there is more to Australian wine than they think.

This applies as much in the fashionable cooler regions of Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia as in those now undergoing a revival of popularity such as the Barossa Valley. I would be more inclined to put my money, however, on the long-term success of shiraz (the syrah grape of the Rhone) than on pinot noir.

Australian pinot noir is still very much in its infancy, as was demonstrated at one of the side shows, a tasting of nine premium Australian pinot noirs organised by Suzanne Halliday of Coldstream Hills Vineyard.

Apart from her own voluptuously spicy 1991 Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir ( pounds 7.99 at selected Tesco stores) and a superbly fragrant 1990 from Freycinet in Tasmania (unfortunately sold out), there was not much to worry the Burgundy region in France. Nevertheless, Tasmania, with its cooler climate, does seem to be producing some of the country's most exciting pinot noirs. Not all were at the Halliday tasting, but along with Freycinet, Stoney Domaine A, Heemskerk and Pipers Brook are world-class pinot noirs to watch.

Just as interesting was the fizz tasting conducted by Tony Jordan, chief winemaker at Moet et Domaine Chandon, Chandon's Victorian outpost. Dr Jordan believes that Australian premium sparkling wines pose a threat to champagne, not because they are cheap imitations, but because they represent quality styles in their own right.

At the cheaper end, what the Australians call 'fruit-driven' wines such as Angas Brut Classic Chardonnay/Pinot Noir and Seppelts Premier Cuvee Brut have a big future as uniquely Australian in flavour and character.

So, too, further up the scale, do wines such as Domaine Chandon's Green Point that employ the champagne method to create a yeasty, biscuit-like complexity that is still distinctly Australian in character.

As the 'cultural cringe' fades - and Australian winemakers no longer feel the need to imitate the French classics - even the old guard must face the fact that Australian wine is here to stay.

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