Editors Note: As many of you know, we invite guest writers to bring different experiences and perspectives on the world of wine. Today, James Scarcebrook, the Intrepid Wino of Melbourne, is here to give us his take on his homeland wines of Australia. I met James on a recent trip while heading to Barossa, and I found his viewpoints valuable, enlightening and engaging. I think we as Americans perceive Australian wine as this singular view of all things high octane, highly oaked and non-descript—wines that are lifeless and boring. James puts things into perspective with his first instalment, which is an eye opening, untold, must read story about Australia’s regional diversity and experimentation. It is with great pleasure to introduce you to James…Intrepid wino, take it away!
I think you would struggle to find any wine consumers around the world who aren’t aware that Australia makes wine. If you weren’t aware then you definitely didn’t know that Australian wine exploded in the ’90s in Europe and North America thanks to strong marketing and the clarity of varietal labeling. Australia became the number one country imported into the United Kingdom and in many other markets second only to Italy or France. Its brands seemed indestructible based on quality and value alone. Undoubtedly, with a certain amount of glee the rest of the world has watched Australian wine fall from grace over the past five or more years. Having made some of the most important advances in commercial wine production along with the United States in the ’70s and ’80s, Australia has seen other countries in South America, Europe and Africa beat them at their own game.
It costs a lot to produce a bottle of wine in Australia. The major cost is labour, in some cases representing up to half of the total. Standards of living are some of the highest in the world which makes even basic things like food and rent very expensive. People need to earn more money which means minimum wages are very high. People can certainly earn more money in the cities and in any case aren’t that interested in the rural life working on a farm. There also is very limited access to migrant workers (legal or otherwise) who are happy to do this kind of work for little money. Use of machines in the vineyards is actually a necessity, not simply a cost-saving practice. And yet people are still needed to run the machines, and thus any competitive advantage is eroded.
The response from the federally supported governing body Wine Australia has been to shift the focus of promotion towards more premium categories, highlighting the exceptional quality of Australian wine. This is a very wise move considering the recent glut of low-quality wine in Australia has become more difficult to reduce thanks to the decrease in sales. Much of the initial blame for this fall must go to the Global Financial Crisis, which is still being experienced, particularly in Europe. The high value of the Australian dollar further decreases the value of Australian wine versus our South American competitors. Volume production clearly is not the answer considering the Mendoza region in Argentina alone produces 30% more wine than all of Australia. Quality is the answer.
Australia already has a reputation for producing great wine, but the reputation is really only for one kind of wine; full-bodied, often heavily oaked, high-alcohol wines from warm climates, mostly made from shiraz. These wines characteristically have everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them but can lack subtlety and elegance particularly in youth. Are consumers simply paying for winemaking? This of course isn’t to suggest that Australia has the authority on this style of wine, but nowhere else is this kind of wine more closely associated. An argument could be made that the association is partly the fault of the way Australia is promoted as a tourism destination, all beaches and outback bathed in sunshine. I always find it amazing that there seems to be a perception that Australia is a totally homogeneous climate and landscape in spite of the fact that it is roughly the size of Europe.
The six largest wine companies in Australia produce about 80% of the wine, and the majority of this is from warm-hot regions at the lower price points. As these six companies are responsible for almost all the wine exported from Australia they have the weight behind them to promote Australian wine the way they want to, and to dictate to governing bodies as the largest levy-paying members. There are over 1200 wineries in Australia, most of which make less than 100,000 cases, that are not really being represented.
Consumers in Australia have accepted the quality of the wine production, and have moved onto the right grape varieties and styles for the right places, which in essence is what terroir is all about. I am of the somewhat biased opinion that Australia is currently leading the new world in terms of regional diversity and experimentation. There are amazing wines being made in Australia from over 50 different regions, many of which are cool-climate, but the rest of the world doesn’t know much about it. In spite of what you might hear, Australian wine is not all machine-harvested, fermented in huge stainless steel vats with oak chips and offering nothing but lots of fruit and alcohol.
Stay tuned for future articles where I will introduce a number of regions that are outside of the classic Australian mould, as well as grape varieties you may have never known were in Australia. I plan to visit and speak with a number of iconic and up-and-coming winemakers who are working hard to revolutionise the way Australian wine is thought of both here and around the world.