Along with most of the Oval, I took great delight in booing Ricky Ponting on to the field as he came out to bat in this summer's final Test. He hadn't quite replaced Shane Warne as the pantomime villain we love to hate, but he made a good fist of it until he was run out by Freddie. At that moment, the Oval rose as one to applaud the bumptious little Aussie batting machine. Winning the Ashes at home for the second time in a row helped us see the Australians in an altogether rosier light. "They are not the old enemy they were, the Aussies and the Poms are on the brink of liking one another," wrote Howard Jacobson. Ironically, the opposite seems to be the case with Aussie wines, which have gone from heroes to zeros in the twinkling of an eye. How so?
It's hard to put your finger on any one particular reason, but it was almost inevitable that Brand Australia couldn't continue its remarkable growth from a million-dollar export industry to a billion-dollar one in just over a decade without growing pains. One of its – and our – problems is that 15 of Australia's 2,300-odd wineries produce 86 per cent of its wines, and most of what finds its way on to retailers' shelves in the UK tends to be at the cheaper, duller, branded end of the spectrum. The situation is aggravated by supermarket promotions and their reliance on cheap Aussie brands at the expense of the large number of delicious premium wines mainly from cooler climate regions. At least Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Majestic and Oddbins are attempting to buck the trend.
What's now at stake in the current tussle between Goliath and David is no less than the soul of Australian wine. Despite the current grape glut and a two-year fall in export prices, the heads of the big players and keen shareholders are buried in the sand. Against a background of the uprooting of 73,000 hectares of vineyards in Europe this year, and a further 55,000 expected to go in 2010, the writing on the wall for Brand Australia is clear. Australia badly needs to overcome the unwanted "industrial wines" image – incurred by the domination of cheap brands and unsustainable promotions – and bang the drum loud and clear for those 2,280 wineries producing, in the words of winemaker Brian Croser, "some very under-promoted and diverse fine wine treasures that deserve consumers' attention".
The refreshingly dry, lime-zesty 2008 Paulett's Polish Hill River Riesling, £9.99, Majestic, shows the excellence of Clare Valley Riesling, while Clairault's 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, £9.99, Marks & Spencer, illustrates Margaret River's ability to bring out the pungently nettley characters of the Loire variety. From the Yarra Valley, the 2008 Shelmerdine Pinot Noir, £11.99, Waitrose, is typical in displaying the seductive cherryish fragrance of the red burgundy variety with a spice raspberryish succulence of texture. Shiraz, Australia's grape for all regions, comes in many shapes and sizes, in a Rhône-style blend, for instance, as in the case of the deliciously drink-me-now brambly fruit of McLaren Vale's 2006 Hardy's Oomoo McLaren Vale Grenache Syrah Mourvèdre, £9.99, Tesco, or the magnificent richness of the spicy, blackberryish 2007 Shaw & Smith Shiraz from the Adelaide Hills, around £18.99, Cooden Cellars, Halifax Wine, Nickolls & Perks, slurp.co.uk. Australia will only resume its former heroic status when it focuses on quality regional styles such as these.