Go walkabout in uncharted Australia

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Indy Lifestyle Online

For the first time ever, Australia bundled the French into second place last year as the biggest supplier of take-home wine in this country. Given this astonishing success story, it's no surprise whenever I ask wine students which country is the world's biggest wine producer that the name Australia comes boomeranging back. Odd to think then that Australia wouldn't even fill half the great vat of wine produced in the South of France alone.

For the first time ever, Australia bundled the French into second place last year as the biggest supplier of take-home wine in this country. Given this astonishing success story, it's no surprise whenever I ask wine students which country is the world's biggest wine producer that the name Australia comes boomeranging back. Odd to think then that Australia wouldn't even fill half the great vat of wine produced in the South of France alone.

That it's made such huge strides, despite its relatively limited size as a wine producer, is down to a long-term strategy of providing the sort of matey, deliciously drinkable wines that hit the sweet spots of extremely good value and immense satisfaction. Jacob's Creek and its ilk have become the wine consumer's everyday staple comfort drink.

But it's tough at the top, so maybe it should come as no surprise that cracks have started to appear in the Australian dream factory. While its share of the cake grew last year, Australia's exports to the UK dropped by 5 per cent for the first time in a decade. The average cost of Australian wine also fell. As good value as its brands may be, open-ended supermarket promotions have become as hard to maintain as Victoria Beckham's singing career.

Some 80 per cent of Aussie wine comes from the Big Four: Southcorp, the Hardy Wine Company, Beringer Blass and Orlando. Everyone's at the promotions game, but the finger of blame is jabbing most accusingly at Southcorp, the juggernaut which, since taking over Rosemount in 2001, announced a loss of nearly a billion Aussie dollars last year. The owners of a broad range of wines from the value brands Lindemans Bin 65 and Wynns to the iconic Penfolds' Grange, one of the darlings of the consumer has become the scapegoat of the Australian wine industry for its injudicious promotions handouts.

Value for money from other parts of the globe and the domination of the Big Four go some way to explaining why our love affair with Australian wine has cooled a little. Yet while familiarity will always breed a mixture of contentment and contempt, the irony is that Australian wines are generally more diverse, more interesting and more quality-driven than they've ever been. The reality is that Australia, in the throes of a painful adolescence, is having to make adjustments as it tries to fit its maturing frame into the straitjacket of increasingly limited high street wine ranges.

I counted 216 producers showing wines at January's Australia Day wine tasting and that's just an eighth of the country's wineries. Compared to our knowledge of France and the rest of Europe, we're still on the first rung of grasping the complexities of Australia's regional styles and flavours. If we can name an Australian region, our knowledge tends not to extend much beyond Barossa Valley, Hunter Valley or Coonawarra, all of which have a resonance of sorts because of a long-standing cultural heritage or link to a big city.

Once outside the traditional regions, the picture gets hazier, yet any Aussie wine drinker worth his or her salt will tell you that excitingly perfumed pinot noir comes from Tasmania and the Mornington Peninsula, world-class chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills, cabernet sauvignon from Margaret River, crisp dry riesling from the Clare, Eden and Frankland Valleys and sumptuous shiraz from McLaren Vale. It may be taking us a while to get used to the idea, but the future bordeaux, burgundies and rhônes of the wine world are more than just an outline on the Australian map.

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