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

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.


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

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 Grape Varietals of Galicia’s D.O. Ribeira Sacra

The relatively unknown wine region of D.O. Ribeira Sacra was in the news recently when it emerged that a red Peza do Rei 2011 would be served to President Obama at a Gala dinner.  This producer usually makes red wine with 100% Mencia, but what other grape varietals are available in the Ribeira Sacra vineyard?

Ribeira-Sacra-Production-byUnlike the neighbouring Galician D.O. of Rias Biaxas (whose vineyard is dominated by the white varietal Albariño), the D.O. Ribeira Sacra vineyard is dominated by black vines.  White grapes have made up less than 10% of total grape production for every year this century and for the last eight years their contribution has been under 5%.  The D.O. regulations permit the white varietals Albariño, Godello, Treixadura, Loreira, Torrontes and Dona Branca.  Of these, Godello is the most important and typically contributes >70% of white grape production.  Albarino is the second most important white grape with a contribution of ca. 15%.

Ribeira-Sacra-Black-VarietaThe black varietal vineyard is dominated by Mencia, which has comprised >90% of black grape production every year this century.  Apart from Mencia, the other recommended black grape varietals for D.O. Ribeira Sacra include Brancellao, Caino tinto, Merenzao and Souson.  These varietals make up a tiny part of the vineyard and in 2012 their combined contribution was <1% of black grape production.  More important is Tempranillo (also recommended) but more important still is the permitted varietal Garnacha tintorera, which made up 6% of black grape production.


Winners and Losers in Spain’s Evolving Vineyard

Spain had ca. 1 million hectares of land occupied by vineyards in 2012, the largest of any country.  Yet only a quarter of a century ago, this figure was  50% greater (1.5 million ha).  As the national vineyard continues to evolve, which of the country’s regions are winners (expanding) and which are losers (decreasing)?Spain-Vineyard-Area

In the second half of the 20th century Spanish winegrowers faced the twin threat of decreasing per capita wine consumption at home and increasing competition from New World producers in export markets.  Domestic wine consumption went from ca. 60 litres per capita per annum in 1980 to about half that figure by the end of the century.  Demand for table wines were particularly hard hit as Spanish consumers turned their attention to quality wines.  With vineyard yields and wine stocks increasing, whilst prices were falling, Spain began to reduce the size of its vineyard in 1980.  With Spain’s entry into the EU in 1986, it became subject to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which then subsidised vine-pulls, especially for lower quality vines.  All these factors contributed to not only the overall shrinking of Spain’s national vineyard, but for those vineyard areas outside of Denmonación de Origen Protegida (DOP) regions to be disproportionately affected.Spain-DO-areas-declining

Since 1990 Spain’s total DOP vineyard area has remained roughly constant at ca. 600,000 ha.  Yet within this space there has been much jockeying for position, reflecting the ease, or otherwise, of commercialising the wines from a particular DOP.  The greatest vineyard losses in the 21st century have been in La Mancha DOP (down by ca. 31,000 ha) and Jumilla DOP (down by ca. 18,000 ha).  A number of much smaller DOPs have lost between a third and a half of their vineyard area including Alicante, Méntrida, Montilla-Moriles, Calatyud and Condado de Huelva.

Spain-DO-areas-increasing-2Those DOPs that have been able to significantly increase their size in the 21st century are presumably enjoying a greater than average commercial success.  They include well known DOPs such as Rioja (+ ca. 5,500 ha), Ribera del Duero, Rueda, Rias Baixas and Priorat.  Yet the greatest vineyard gain in the 21st century has been at Extremadura’s less well known Ribera del Guadiana DOP (+ ca. 18,000 ha),   Only established as a DOP in 1999, Ribera del Guadiana’s success appears to based on vinifying Tempranillo in a fruity “New World” style.

Progress in Planting New White Wine Varietals in Rioja

Rioja has a long history of winemaking and in 1925 became the first wine region in Spain to obtain Denominación de Origen (DO) status.  At both home and abroad, Rioja is most well known for the production of red wines.

Over the last quarter century, the total productive vineyard area of the Rioja D.O. has increased from ca. 40,000 ha to just over 60,000 ha.  During this period black varietals have increased their area whilst white varietals have shown a small decrease.  As a result, white varietals have moved from occupying 23% of the total productive vineyard area in 1985 to occpying only 6% of the total vineyard in 2012.

Over the last five years the areas of total black and total white varietals have remained more or less unchanged.  Yet this should not be mistaken for a period of stasis in the vineyard. Following years of consultation, the Consejo Regulador for D.O Rioja allowed the introduction of nine new varieties in 2007.  This led to a minor revolution in the vineyard, the results of which are only just beginning to be experienced.

White Rioja is produced predominantly from the varietal Viura (which is known outside of Rioja as Macabeo).  In 2008 Viura accounted for 96% of the white varietals vineyard, but in the wake of the new regulations growers have taken the opportunity to replace Viura with other varietals.  The apparent reason for this is that Viura, with its tendancy towards low aromatics and neutral characteristics, often yields wines which are of simple nature and soon forgotten.  Only careful vine management, which usually means lower than average yields on sites away from the valley floors, can produce quality fruit.  A small number of producers such as Allende and Marqués de Murrieta couple carefully selected fruit with barrel fermentation and battonage which yield complex wines capable of ageing, but these are perhaps of minority interest.

The traditionally permitted blending partners for Viura have been Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca.  Together these account for less than 100 ha of vineyards, so supply is very limited.  The Consejo Regulador revisions of 2007 permitted the use of three native white varietals, namely Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca and Turruntes.  More controversial was the decision to allow plantings of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo, which are neither native nor traditional varietals.  To date growers have tended to opt for the non-native varietals, with Tempranillo Blanco being the only new native varietal to be taken up to any significant extent.  Verdejo is now the most planted secondary white grape varietal in Rioja.

The Restructuring of the Sicilian Vineyard

The recent release by the Instituto Regionale Vini e Oli (IRVV) of data concerning the area of grape varietals in Sicily in 2012 provides an opportunity to take a look at one aspect of how the Sicilian vineyard has restructured during the 21st century.

In 1987 Sicily had 202,000 ha of wine vineyards.  The following year the EU introduced a vine pull scheme in response to its structural problem of wine overproduction.  This resulted in the uprooting of many Sicilian vineyards, so that by the beginning of the 21st century the Sicilian wine vineyard totalled ca. 138,000 ha.   White varietals then occupied 78% of the  vineyard area.  During the early 21st century the total vineyard area has continued to decrease and had declined to 108,595 ha by 2012.  Initially decreases were primarily due to the loss of white varietals, but more recently the overall ratio of black to white varietals has remained roughly constant at approximately 36% to 64%.  There is though considerable regional variation.  Western Sicily (provinces of Trapani, Palermo and Agrigento) contains 90% of the Sicilian vineyard, of which 71% is white.  By contrast, in eastern Sicily (provinces of Catania, Messina, Siracusa and Ragusa), which contains only 6% of the Sicilian vineyard, 90% of the vines are black varietals.

White Varietals

The removal of white varietals from the Sicilian vineyard has disproportionately affected native varietals and, in particular, Catarratto.  Used mainly to produce grape concentrate, or sent for distillation,  Catarratto has often been thought of as an inferior varietal.   Renewed interest for use in table wines has seen the vineyard area of  the biotype Catarratto Bianco lucido increase at the expense of the less well regarded Catarratto Bianco comune.   Neither Inzolia nor Trebbiano are commonly used to produce quality table wines and both have been major casualties of the continued Sicilian vineyard restructuring.

Chardonnay is the most notable white international varietal in Sicily and is used to produce table wine, sparkling wine and even desert wine.  Its growth pattern appears to have leveled off, as does that of the more recently introduced Viognier.  Grillo has traditionally been used as a component for high quality Marsala.   Increased recognition of its potential as a table wine has come about as clonal selections have helped reduce problems of coulure.  Grillo’s presence in the Sicilian vineyard has shown impressive growth during the 21st century.


Black Varietals

Compared with their white counterparts, black indigenous varietals have fared rather better in terms of retaining their place in the Sicilian vineyard.  The most import black varietal, and the second most planted varietal in Sicily, is Nero d’Avola.  Its area peaked in 2008 at 19,304 ha.   Although this area  had declined to 17,580 ha by 2012, this figure is still well above its area at the beginning of the centruy.  Nerrelo mascalese and Narello cappuccio are both natives of Etna.  Despite increased interest in table wines from Etna, both varietals have been in decline this century.


The black internataional varietals Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were first introduced to Sicily in the 19th century.  Their more recent history and reintroduction followed work by the IRVV in the 1990s.  The IRVV also trialled and recommended the planting of Syrah.   These three varietals showed rapid growth off a small base in the early part of the 2000s, but since about 2005 their areas have levelled off and are currently showing small declines.