The New World order takes on Europe's winemakers: Australian wines aren't sniffed at. They're copied. Jason Bennetto on the rise of the Down Under vine

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WANT to impress discerning British wine drinkers? Forget 'chateaux', or 'Cotes de wherever'; in fact, forget anything French. To lever open their wallets nowadays, you need the word 'Australian' - even if the wine comes from Italy, Eastern Europe - or France.

Australian wine sales have leapt 40-fold since 1985, making it the fastest growing exporter to Britain. Last year we bought 3.5 million cases, lifting Australia to fourth place behind France (22.5 million), Germany (15 million) and Italy (5.7 million).

Now, as the industry celebrates our increasing taste for the stuff by declaring this week National Wine Week, everybody wants to get in on the Australian act. Even France, whose UK market share is down from 38 to 36 per cent, is copying Aussie techniques and hiring their experts.

Some producers are playing the Australian connections, however slight, for all they are worth. Take 'Volcanic Hills' ( pounds 3.49 from Oddbins), a new range of four wines. On the label is a large, Australian-style picture of mountain scenery, with a large label saying Chardonnay. The description on the back starts: 'Australian winemaker Nick Butler has produced . . .' In smaller letters on the front of the bottle is 'Produce of Hungary'. Sainsbury's Italian Vino da Tavola Rosso ( pounds 2.99) boasts on the label: 'Italian wine made in the Australian style.' It is produced by the Hardy Wine Company of South Australia.

Not everyone is delighted at the spreading influence of the Australians. Some French producers have branded them a 'fad' and accused them of threatening traditional varieties with a glut of indistinguishable wines. New World supporters reply that they are producing quality wine at reasonable prices.

The 'Australian technique' involves large-scale production of wine using temperature-controlled fermentation, which can include harvesting the grapes in the cool of night. Meticulous hygiene is important. Producers concentrate on three or four varieties, such as chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and shiraz.

Helen Sugarman, marketing manager for Hardy, which also uses French vineyards, said: 'When we first started there was mirth and ridicule from many of the French producers. This has turned to great interest.' Commenting on the use of the 'Australian connection', she said: 'The British public is always interested in something new. Australian wines are currently trendy so producers are using this as a good selling point.

'Australians are sharp businessmen, whereas some French producers are arrogant and steeped in the past.'

James Herrick, a British/New Zealand winegrower who learned his trade in Australia and has three vineyards in the South of France, added: 'It's deliciously ironic that we are teaching the French something about wine. We were told if no one blew us up it meant we were welcome.'

Jeremy Roberts, UK director of two French wine producers, Peter Sichel and Val D'Orbiu, believes the New World technique is a 'fad'. 'The wines tend to be one-dimensional, it all becomes a bit boring. Where will they be in five years' time?'

Indeed, France is fighting back. Food and Wine From France, a French marketing agency, is about to launch an advertising campaign promoting French wines. Meanwhile, French growers have been adopting Australian techniques to upgrade lower quality wines.