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.
For 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?”
Eight 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.