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Six Reasons Why Wine Australia’s #InspiredTasting Was A Hit

Australia grapes

Wine Australia held a wine tasting event for Press and Trade in London last Friday (September 12th, 2014) entitled “Inspired Tasting“.  Given the number of tastings that are being held in London this month, never mind this year, you could be forgiven for thinking that this would not have been particularly remarkable.  Yet amidst a crowded tasting calendar, this event shone brightly.  Here’s why.

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1.  Australia’s Winemakers Have Upped Their Game

Changes that have been implemented in the Australian wine industry over the past 5-10 years are now becoming evident in bottle.  In the vineyard, more widespread Precision Viticulture, attention to choice of clones, and better water management are some of the changes which have lead to improved fruit quality.  Meanwhile, in the winery, changes have been made to fermentation temperatures with less racking and a reduction in the use of new oak barriques.  The combination is producing some outstanding vibrant and complex wines which show more typicity of cultivar and place.  Still on the wish list?  More earlier picking for those of us who find a bottle of 14.5% abv heavy going over dinner.

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2.  Every Wine Has A Tale To Tell

The Inspired Tasting event was first held in 2013, with the twist that each of the wines was chosen not by Wine Australia, but by a member of the Trade who had visited Australia.  Not only that, but attached to each wine was a label with comments from the nominator as to why they had selected that particular wine.  This approach, repeated this year, serves to present wine in its totality, with many nominators speaking not so much of the tannins and acidity but rather of the the sun, the food, and the people that they encountered at the winery.  Whatever wine educators may say, wine isn’t just about its composition.  The stories behind the wine are all important.

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3.  There Were Only A Hundred Wines

Wine tasting is hard work.  Swirl, sniff, sip, repeat.  Oh, and try to think about the wine, how it compares to others, make a judgement and record some legible, meaningful, notes.  Spend, say, 3 minutes on a wine (not terribly long as any Diploma student will tell you) and 100 wines is already 5 hours of steady work.  So big tastings can be a nightmare.  The Beautiful South Tasting at Olympia had many, many, good points this year, but the sheer number of wines on show was overwhelming for many attendees.

4.  Top Rate Masterclasses

Masterclasses are a great opportunity for promotional organisations to educate consumers about aspects of their wines.  Yet all too often it’s an opportunity lost.  Too frequently we hear something like, “the vines are grown on limestone soil, which is why the wines have retained such crisp acidity”, or similar nonsense.  Fortunately, Justin Knock, really knows about Australian wine, the changes taking place in the industry, and has the ability to put across his knowledge in a clear, no-nonsense, manner.  Other promotional organisations, please take note!

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5.  Location, Location

Australia House is centrally located and, for many people, an easier venue to reach than, say, the ExCeL Centre or even Olympia.  It’s a building with a grand interior, and also spacious relative to the number of attendees.  At the tasting there was room to breathe and not to be constantly jostled by others.  The Masterclasses were held in a separate room which was quiet, spacious and with plenty of natural light.  How fortunate are Wine Australia to have such facilities at their disposal.

6.  Use Of Social Media

Social media isn’t for everyone, but many wine experts and consumers have found Twitter to be a particularly convenient way to share thoughts, recommendations, facts and ideas.  The hastag #InspiredTasting used for this event was clearly publicised and gave anyone interested an opportunity to share their thoughts while the tasting was still taking place.  And @Wine_Australia was interacting with the posted comments.  Hardly rocket science for 2014, but another attention to detail that helped make the event such a success.

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Development of the Tasmanian Winegrape Vineyard

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In a relatively short period of time, Tasmania has developed a reputation for its ability to produce high-quality still and sparkling wines.  Anyone unconvinced by this statement should try, for example, Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2010 or Jansz Brut NV to get some appreciation of the high quality production potential from this cool climate region.

Tasmania-Vineyard-GrowthThe Tasmanian vineyard has expanded considerably since 1993.  Then the bearing area as reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) was only 177 ha, but their latest report suggests that this had expanded to 1,229 ha by 2012.  Wine Tasmania has released their own vineyard data which suggests that the total vineyard area for Tasmania in 2013 was 1,538 ha.  (There are some inconsistencies between these two datasets which are currently being investigated.)

Tasmania-Rainfall-Temp-vineSince Tasmania has a pronounced topographic relief with mountains reaching above 1,500 m, vineyard plantings have so far been restricted to alluvial plains and valleys.  The prevailing westerlies are responsible for western Tasmania receiving most of the rainfall, having lower temperatures and making it unsuitable for winegrowing.

Tasmania-Vineyard-Regions-m The largest winegrowing region of Tasmania is the Tamar Valley, situated in northeastern Tasmania with ca. 500 ha – about one third of the island’s vineyards.  The East Coast, North East and Coal River Valley regions each have 250 – 300 ha.

Tasmania-vineyard-area-by-cBlack and white grape cultivars have been planted at approximately the same rate so the vineyard area of black and white cultivars has remained roughly equal for the past twenty years.

Tasmania-Vineyard-VarietalsBlack winegrape cultivars are dominated by Pinot Noir.  Chardonnay is the leading white cultivar, but with a less dominant position.  The remaining white vineyard consists mainly of roughly equal amounts of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc.

In contrast with many other parts of Australia where vineyard area is being reduced, the current demand for high quality Tasmanian grapes exceeds supply.  This has led the Tasmanian State Governement to encourage new planting and to seek overseas investment. This will likely lead to additional vineyard planting – but care will be needed to ensure that Tasmanian grape supply does not leap ahead of demand.

 

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.

 

Australia’s Best Wine Regions – Langton’s Classification V

Australia grapes

Langton’s, the important Australian wine auction house, publishes a Classification of top Australian wines every five years. Their latest (Classification V) was published in 2010 and included 123 wines that they regarded as being the “best performing ultra-fine Australian wines”.  What can this classification tell us about the performance of different wine regions and varietals?

Chart showing performance of Langton’s Classification V wines by colour

The Classification divides fine wines into four classes based on auction prices over an extended period.  Hence wines with a limited track record (<12 vintages) are automatically excluded.

The first point to make is that the vast majority (88%) of the included wines are red.  This might can as something of a surprise to lovers of Hunter Valley Semillon, Eden Valley Riesling or Margaret River Chardonnay. All of these wines have representatives in the Langton’s Classification V – just not very many of them.  In 2010, 39% of Australia’s then vineyard total of 152,000 ha was given over to white varietals, so at a top level we may conclude that white wines are an underperforming sector.  Yet varietals such as Pinot Gris and Viognier are relatively recent additions to the Australian vineyard.  Hopefully we can look forward to fine examples of these varietals in future Langton’s Classifications.

Best performing black grape varietals

Unsurprisingly, red wines are dominated by single varietal Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Although Merlot is used in top performing blends, there is currently no single varietal Merlot that makes it into this classification.  Is this one area where the market (and not just in Australia) seems to under-appreciate a potentially great varietal?  Two of the foremost up and coming black varietals in Australia are Tempranillo and Sangiovese, but with a limited track record  it will probably be several future editions of Langton’s before these varietals feature.

 

The best performing states are South Australia and Victoria with strong representation in all four categories.  In 2010, Victoria’s 26,000 ha of bearing vines was only a third of South Australia’s 72,000 ha, so its degree of representation in Langton’s is impressive.  Fine wines are being produced across the state, but with a particular concentration in the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula regions of the Port Phillip Zone.  South Australia’s finest wines are more evenly spread across the state with representations from the Barossa Zone (Barossa Valley, Eden Valley), the Mount Lofty Ranges Zone (Clare Valley, Adelaide), the Fleurieu Zone (McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek) and the Limestone Coast Zone (Coonawarra).

 

The Australian Vineyard Continues to Shrink

Australia grapes

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has just released the latest version of their report Vineyards, Australia.  It contains a wealth of information including vineyard areas by Geographical Indication (GI) and details of the sources of vineyard water.

Australian vineyard plantings and removals

Since 2008 the Australian vineyard has been shrinking and one way to track this is by looking at the amount of new plantings and removals. In 2011/12, new plantings of only 940 ha were the lowest since reliable records began in 1995. Removals in 2011/12 were 2,863 ha, which is close to the long-term trend.

Although the gap between removals and plantings has narrowed considerably since 2010, there still remains an imbalance between grape supply and demand.  National industry wine organisations called for a 20% reduction of the 2009 vineyard area of 157,000 ha as part of their Wine Industry Restructuring Agenda.   This would equate to a net reduction of ca. 30,000 ha, of which about half has been achieved to date.  With 12,357 ha of Australian vineyard left unpicked in 2011/12, we should expect the total vineyard area to continue to decrease for a least the next few years.