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Australian Big Brands Wine Tasting – Can Big Companies Make Good Wine?

Image © sherry.org

Wine is a very fragmented business.  Whereas the five largest soft drink companies control 70-85% of the world market and the top five brewers control 55-70% of the world market for beer, for wine the comparable figure is only 5-7%.  Many marketers have long believed that there is a huge potential prize available for wine brand builders – something seemingly borne out by the [Yellow Tail] story, at least until their recent difficulties.

Aus-Big-Brands-WinesFor many wine lovers, the whole idea of branding – and with it the implied sourcing of fruit from a variety of terroirs in order to build volume and ensure consistency – is complete anathema.  Never mind how the Houses operate in Champagne, there is a class of wine lover that believes that small is beautiful.  Much of Burgundy’s reputation rests on the idea that individual vineyard plots carry with them an ineffable character which is somehow transmuted into the wines.  For terroir obsessives, quality wine brands are simply oxymorons.

The case against Australian wine brands appears to be strengthened by the recent well documented financial difficulties affecting Treasury Wine Estates (Australia’s largest wine company) and Casella Wines.  In recent years these factors have created a groundswell of opinion that Australia’s wine future resides in a smaller industry driven by premium quality wines which emphasise regionality.  So against this background, it was rather brave of Wine Australia to put on a tasting at Australia House under the banner “Who says big companies can’t make good wine?”

Aus-Big-Brands-PricesEight brands were represented, each presenting up to ten wines.  At this self pour there were also nine non-Australian internationally branded Chardonnays from the likes of First Cape and Blossom Hill, which provided a useful benchmark of what else is widely available on UK wine shelves.  The majority of Australian wines were still whites and reds, with 73% of them having a Recommended Retail Price (RRP) of <£9.99.

Inevitably at such a tasting there were likes and dislikes, but (with the exception of the small number of sparkling and rosé wines on offer) I was stuck by the overall high quality of the Australian wines.  Certainly in the Chardonnay category they not only outshone the opposition, but fielded some players with real class and elegance.  Wolf Blass Yellow Label (widely available at £9.99) is very good value, while their Silver Label Chardonnay (currently on offer at Asda) is a steal.  Staying with Chardonnay, the Eileen Hardy 2012, using fruit from Victoria and Tasmania (!) is an outstandingly, delicious, wine with elegance, concentration and subtle use of oak.  Certainly one to pick up, if you can find it (RRP £25).

Of the reds, Wolf Blass, Lindeman’s and Oxford Landing all showed value for money Shiaz’s, albeit without a wow factor.  Decent Pinot Noir’s were thin on the ground, with Eileen Hardy 2012 (RPP £30) being an honourable exception.

One of the attractions of brands for comsumers is the expectation of a consistent product, so it was disappointing that all wines were presented as only a single vintage.  I’d have liked to have seen more information included in the tasting booklet such as production volumes (just how big are these brands?) and technical data (residual sugar, abv, pH etc).  A spot check suggests that the quoted RRP were realistic and in some cases can be bettered when buying multiple bottles (e.g. Jacob’s Creek Steingarten Riesling 2011 at Tesco) or where wines are on offer (e.g. McGuigan Wines Handmade Shiraz at Majestic).

Terroirists will never like these wines on principle but, for the rest of us, they may well provide a glimpse into the future.  Recent advances in the understanding of viticulture and vinification have given winemakers the tools with which to produce reliably high quality fruit in increasing quantities.  Unencumbered by restrictive European legislation, the likes of Jacob’s Creek, Eileen Hardy and Wolf Blass are demonstrating that high quality wines can be produced in volume using fruit from different regions.  Based on this tasting, I’d say that the debate over the future direction of Australia’s wine industry is not yet over.

 

Climate Maps of the Iberian Peninsula

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There are a number of factors which contribute to an individual vineyard’s terroir but climate goes a long way towards understanding a particular wine region.  In the case of Spain and Portugal, climate is governed by the competing influences of a number of different Climate Components.

Iberia-Climate-Components

This provides a handy conceptual framework, but to understand the climate we need to look at real data compilations.  A GIS climate database was launched in 2000 by the University of Barcelona, which integrates data from over 2,000 weather stations.  Aimed at providing a better understanding of the link between climate and vegetation, this database integrates climate data for the period 1951-1999 at a spatial resolution of 200 m.

Iberia-Topography

Summary information from this database was subsequently used to produce the Atlas Climático Digital de la Península Ibérica (PDF)¹, which is a very useful document for anyone interested in understanding Spain or Portugal’s wine regions and from which the following maps are taken.

The topographic map of the Iberian Peninsula shows elevation at 300 m intervals, which brings out major structural elements.  Note, for example, how Castilla y Leon (including the Ribera del Duero wine region) is a high plateau surrounded by mountains on three sides.  By contrast, the Ebro Valley (including the Rioja wine region) has a much lower elevation and a link with the Mediterranean.  Jerez meanwhile is located on low-lying coastal plain at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River basin.

Iberian-Average-TemperatureLatitude, continentality and elevation all influence average temperature.  Note the cool average temperatures of Castilla y Leon, the warmer temperatures of the Ebro Valley and the hot temperatures of Guadalquivir River Basin.  The Atlas Climático also includes average minimum and average maximum temperature maps, which paint a much fuller picture of temperature patterns across the peninsula.  From even a cursory examination of these maps, Ribeira del Duero and Rioja would be expected to be quite different wine regions – notwithstanding the fact that they both grow mainly Tempranillo.

Iberia-Annual-Rainfall

The average precipitation map brings out the strong influences exerted by the Atlantic and by elevation.  Note the extreme range of precipitation across the peninsula.  For parts of northeastern Portugal, much of coastal Galicia and along the southern borders of the Pyrenees,  annual precipitation is >1,500 mm.  By contrast, in southeast Spain the annual precipitation is <300 mm.  From a wine-growing perspective, Galicia’s wine regions understandably exist without any need of irrigation.  Throughout many other parts of Spain and Portugal, either irrigation is required or yields per vine are rather low.

In addition to the Atlas Climatico, very useful climate data can be found in the Iberian Climate Atlas (PDF)², which summarises climate data for the period from 1971-2000.  This atlas includes many additional maps such as average temperatures by month, average number of days with minimum temeratues <0°C and average number of days with maximum temperatures >25°C.

It should be remembered that maps from both these atlases show average values.  Year on year variation, which greatly influence the size and quality of the harvest, require a different type of investigation.

¹ Ninyerola M, Pons X y Roure JM. (2005) Atlas Climático Digital de la Península Ibérica. Metodología y aplicaciones en bioclimatología y geobotánica. ISBN 932860-8-7. Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, Bellaterra, 45pp

² Iberian Climate Atlas (2011)  Produced by the State Meteorological Agency of Spain and by the Institute of Meteorology, Portugal.  ISBN: 978-84-7837-079-5, 80pp

Oregon Wine Grape Vineyard Reaches 10,000 ha – 60% Pinot Noir

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The Oregon Wine Board is the agency responsible for supporting and promoting the wine grape and wine industries in Oregon.  They also have a research and educational role and serve as a central depository for Oregon State wine industry statistics.

Oregon-vineyard-area-by-colThey have recently published the results of the 2012 Oregon Vineyard and Winery Census (PDF), which on this occasion was compiled by the Southern Oregon University Research Center (SOURCE).  It itself includes a wealth of information but, when combined with previous Annual Vineyard Reports by the US National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), shows the extent of the industry’s growth over the past 30 years.

The total Oregon wine vineyard was estimated to be 10,306 ha in 2012 – the first time that Oregon has broken the ten thousand hectare mark.  This represents a significant jump from the reported figures for 2011 (8,262 ha).  The change is due not only to the planting of new vineyard, but to a change in the census approach taken by SOURCE compared to NASS, which probably now makes the census slightly more complete.  Until 1998 white cultivars occupied a greater share of the Oregon wine vineyard than black cultivars. The latter have continued to occupy an increasing proportion of the total vineyard since 1998 as the white vineyard area has shown only very slow growth.  In 2012 black cultivars made up 74% of the Oregon wine vineyard.

Oregon-major-varietalsThe expansion of the black grape section of the Oregon vineyard is almost entirely due to extra plantings of Pinot Noir.  Unlike Washington where a number of different cultivars each occupy a significant share of the total vineyard, here Pinot Noir (6,224 ha) alone makes up 60% of the total vineyard.  Other cultivars are very much overshadowed, with Pinot Gris (1,388 ha) being the next most planted, having taken the second place spot from Chardonnay in 2000.

To put the area of Oregon Pinot Noir in context, the total Pinot Noir in some other New World countries in 2012 was estimated as follows: Australia (4,767 ha), Chile (3,500 ha), New Zealand (5,388 ha).  Oregon’s Pinot powerhouse looks set to play an increasingly important role in supplying Pinotphiles, both in the US and overseas.

The Washington State Wine Grape Crush

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As well as growing grapes for juice and jelly, Washington is the second largest wine grape producing state of the U.S.  It produces wine at a variety of price points, but a number of producers aspire for it to be recognised as a premium wine region.  This is an area which is experiencing growth and where growers are adapting to find the most suitable (and profitable) mix of grape varietals.

Washington-wine-grape-crushIn 1993, wine grapes in Washington occupied a total of 4,496 ha, of which 36% were black and 64% white. By 2011 the total vineyard area was 17,745 ha of which black varietals now represented 57% of the total wine grape area.  These changes to the vineyard have had a marked effect on the harvest and crush.

Most obviously, the size of the crush has increased.  In 2000 the Washington crush totalled 81,600 metric tonnes (t), it reached a record breaking 170,500 t in 2012 and is expected to be larger still in 2013.  Another significant change has been in the ratio of black to white grapes, with 2012 being the first year that black grapes crushed exceeded that of whites.

Washington-white-grape-pricOf Washington’s white grapes, Chardonnay has historically commanded a significant price premium, but since 2002 its price has converged with the other major white grape cultivars.   These have all stabilised at an average price of US$600-800 per metric tonne (t), representing an average decline in real terms over the past ten years.  An emphasis on grape (and wine) quality and increased marketing efforts will probably be required if future price increases of white grapes in real terms are to be achieved.  Washington Reislings may be very well respected by critics, but this is a varietal that still struggles to obtain widespread consumer acceptance.

Washington-black-grape-pric

The average price of black grapes over the last ten years has risen steadily and in 2012 was in the range of US$1,000-1,300 per metric tonne for the major cultivars.  Lower yields are typically obtained for black compared to white grapes.  In Washington’s 2011 crush, the black grape yield was 6.9 t/ha compared to 10.9 t/ha for white grapes.  When yields are taken into account, the price differential between black and white grapes seems somewhat less dramatic.

If 2013 does indeed prove to be a bumper crop for Washington State, perhaps wine lovers outside the US will soon have more of a chance to drink some of the increasingly sophisticated wines being produced in this underrated wine region.  The 2012 entry of E&J Gallo into the Washington wine scene (via their purchase of Columbia Winery) might just hasten Washington’s bid to receive a deserved wider audience.

 

Ribeira Sacra Wine Region in Figures

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Exports from Galicia’s stunningly beautiful Ribeira Sacra D.O. are tiny.  In 2012 they totaled only 299 hl (40,000 bottles), yet they’ve still managed to impress a number of critics on both sides of the Atlantic.  Sufficiently so for President Obama to be served a Peza do Rei 2011 at a recent Gala dinner.

Ribeira-Sacra-Location-mapHow has a wine region that seemed to be in serious decline not so very long ago been able to reinvent itself?  The answer  includes improvements to rural infrastructure and producers with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to quality.  The five page free to download PDF Ribeira Sacra in Figures tracks the region’s recent history through data compilations to help explain a part of the story.

 

 

Rueda Wine Region in Figures

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Rueda is Spain’s leading D.O. producer of white wine.  Since 1970 it has been at the vanguard of introducing new technologies and approaches in order to reinvent itself.  The 6 page free downloadable PDF, Rueda in Figures summarizes the readily available data to help explain the Rueda story.