How to find the best Australian wines in the 2020s
It is difficult to generalise about Australian wine - with 65 different wine regions and more than 100 different grape varieties* grown, there is no one style of Australian wine. And yet on the whole the reputation of Australian wine still seems to be very poor - if you type "Australian wine" in the Google UK search bar, one of the Frequent Questions that pops up is "Why is Australian wine so cheap?". This is certainly part of the reason why in the UK Australian wine is the second most imported in terms of volume and third in terms of value - and is number one in the New World imports to the UK. This blogpost looks into the history of Australian wine in the UK market, whether its reputation as cheap wine is still fair in the 2020s and if so, how to seek out the best of what Australia's 2000+ winemaking companies have to offer.
The history of Australian wine in the UK - Boom to Bust
In one of the exams I took in 2010 for my WSET Diploma in Wines & Spirits I had to write about "the crisis" in the Australian wine industry in the late 2000s. After what was considered a boom time from the mid 1980s to the mid 2000s when Australia rose from not even being listed in the top wine exporters to become the 4th largest wine exporter globally (it has since fallen to 5th place), the late 2000s and early 2010s in particular saw huge volumes of surplus wine on the market - remember all those BOGOF deals in the UK supermarkets?
Cause & Effect of the Boom for Australian wine
It was a classic bubble based on two things. First of these was structural over-production. Australia is huge - and its wine-growing area, whilst slightly smaller than the size of Bordeaux and Burgundy combined, spreads over the south east and south west of the country because of the proximity of those two regions to cooling winds from the Southern Ocean, and incorporates many different climates, soils and altitudes. So whilst the potential was there for many different types of Australian wine and for wines of great quality from the cooler and higher regions, large scale production in the larger, flatter areas was easy.
The Australian wine industry encouraged by the UK's largest importers, the powerful bulk wine buyers and supermarkets, produced simple, value-for-money brands which were consistent year on year. The wine glut was therefore largely at the entry and mid-levels and the bubble was also based on the belief that demand for Australia's easy-to-understand, single varietal wines would last forever.
The fall from grace of Brand Australia
However these so-called 'critter' brands marketed with cute Australian animals on the label, consistent wines with lots of fruit but little tannin and acidity, had been created largely to appeal to the US market and whilst the UK latched onto the idea of these very accessible and cheap wines in the early days - the UK used to account for a staggering 43% of Australia's wine exports - eventually it began to fall out of love with the straightforward, often jammy, high alcohol, usually oak-influenced wines. The impact was not just at the lower end of the spectrum however - the credibility of the Australian wine brand as a whole was adversely affected.
The problems in the industry from this drop in demand combined with economic slowdown and unfavourable exchange rate movements saw prices stagnate and led to many wineries closing down.
Changing Australian wine and its reputation
As a result, there was a lot of navel-gazing in the Australian wine industry from the early 2010s. Whilst Australians had created its own independent wine industry free from many of the restrictions imposed on their European counterparts, it was clear that Europe had the lead in the premium end of the market and Australia needed to move towards better quality wines in order to sustain the relatively high costs of production. The industry therefore began to look at its viticulture and methods of production.
Water supply problems meant that irrigation which had enabled the mass production of high yields in the hotter inland areas like Murray Darling and Riverina could no longer be taken for granted. The recent drought conditions in Australia are testament to that. Cooler climate areas are more in favour as they allow flavours to develop before alcohol gets too high and acidity too low.
Winemakers began to take more notice of 'terroir' in order to start producing wines with more character reflecting the abundant diverse terroirs in their country. Similarly they looked to move away from the standard Aussie range of Shiraz, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, and increased the number of varietals grown, planting them in sites more suited to each individual variety. Some of the grape varieties that have increased in recent years are Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Semillon, Viognier, Verdejo, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Tempranillo and several Italian varieties as I have written about in another blogpost. Old vines are now shown more respect - Australia has a lot of old Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvedre vines in particular from their historical fortified wine industry.
The ethos is changing away from grape-processing towards wine-making. There is still a clear division between grape growers and winemakers with many of the latter buying in grapes transported many miles across the country in refrigerated trucks, still a lot of mechanisation in the vineyards and still a relatively small number of very large winemaking conglomerates that accounts for a large proportion of wine produced and exported, the good news is that there is a growing number of independent wineries like Eperosa and Ruggabellus with their own smaller vineyards or with careful sourcing of grapes and more of a say in how they are grown to produce optimal fruit.
In the wineries efforts have been stepped up to keep the grapes and juice cool and to minimise the risk of oxygenation. American oak (often oak chips or resin added to stainless steel tanks) had been used to 'age' both white and red wines creating big oaky wines but the use of more subtle French oak is now more prevalent. Tannins are no longer seen as the enemy; the use of chemicals and of high residual sugar levels is much reduced. Lighter, lower alcohol, more refined wines are now more the order of the day.
80 per cent of Australian wine imports into the UK is still 'bulk wine' which is then bottled over here and intended for the low end of the market; if we discount that we are seeing more mid-range and premium Australian wines hit our shores and that is helping to improve its reputation.
How to get the best out of Australian wine
Ignoring the bulk wine imports c. 256 million litres of Australian wine are imported into the UK each year (that's 340 million standard bottles). So where do you start in order to find the "new generation" of Australian wine that has personality, complexity, balance and elegance.
Here are my tips on selecting Australian wine
- for quality be prepared to spend a little more; it goes without saying that you should avoid those sub £10 (even after discounts) branded Aussie wines. It will be interesting post Brexit to see how wine prices will be affected when a trade agreement is negotiated between Australia and the UK
- as a general rule, look to smaller producers with a more artisanal approach to their winemaking rather than the mass-producing big brands
- avoid broad geographic indications like “South Eastern Australia” which covers approximately 90% of the country’s vineyards and look only at the more specific GIs such as Barossa Valley which guarantee that at least 85% of the grapes in the wine were grown in that region. Do not be misled by "Wine of Australia" or "Product of Australia"; it is a legal requirement to state the country of origin on the label but the wines can come from many different regions
- seek out wines from the cooler climate areas of Australia, which are largely but not exclusively around the south west and the south east coasts, like Margaret River and Adelaide Hills, which benefit from altitude or proximity to the coast or both
- don't disregard wines with a screwcap. Most of Australian premium wines now use screwcap closures rather than a cork
- make sure there is a vintage on the label; this ensures that at least 85% of the wine in the bottle is from that vintage
The improving quality of Australian wine is welcome and a trend expected to continue for years to come. It is possible to find finesse and quality by looking a little deeper into the origins of the wine. And don’t forget Australia is at the forefront of wine tourism - so if you get chance to visit the wine areas of Australia, make sure you visit a few (smaller) wineries to find out more. I'll be covering specific Australian wine styles to look out for in a later blogpost - watch this space!
The Australian bushfires in 2020 & the wine industry
A quick P.S. following the bushfires in Australia in 2020 - whilst unfortunately many people have been directly affected by the bushfires in Australia at the start of 2020, according to Wine Australia the losses to the wine sector have been limited. Sadly some have lost vines, wineries and equipment but this is a very small percentage - only about 1% of the vineyards have been affected by the fires. Wine Australia is working closely with growers and winemakers to help measure the impact of the fires in the lead up to the 2020 harvest but they anticipate that "annual season-on-season" variation is likely to be greater than the specific impact of bushfires. The best way to support the Australian wine sector is of course to keep buying Australian wine!
* Statistics courtesy of WineAustralia.com
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