Does Riverland = Swartland?
Australia’s winemakers have always been an innovative bunch, and there’s no shortage of winemakers looking to push the boundaries. What the country has lacked, perhaps, is a halo region that can serve as a crucible of experimentation.
Step forward, perhaps, the unlikeliest of heroes.
The Riverland was home to the ocean of cheap grapes that broke like a tsunami on these shores 20 years ago. It’s a big region with relentless sun and easy irrigation. It’s also cheap. And young winemakers are able to buy vineyards and plant them with non-banker varieties – Mediterranean grapes in particular, often organic or biodynamic and sometimes sufficiently hands-off to be natural.
Moreover, they’re often a bit more affordable than the same grapes from other areas. One on-trade wine buyer told me it’s the best place to go looking for interesting wines around the £10 mark.
China has been a game changer
The UK might still drink more Australian wine than anyone else – our 27m cases comfortably makes us the #1 export market in terms of size – but Australia’s eyes are firmly focused on China. Australian winemakers got in early as demand for wine in China was burgeoning and have made a great job of it.
China is their biggest market by value – as big as the US, the UK and Canada combined – and it’s seeing growth levels that we can only dream of. How will this impact the on-trade? As one importer put it, ‘the UK will only get the wines it’s prepared to pay for now.’
In other words, our importers won’t be able to negotiate on price as hard as they used to. China’s been a game changer in terms of how Australia views the rest of the world – and that probably means higher prices for us.
Clones could be the new varieties…
Much has been made of the new grape varieties doing the rounds in Australia. But there’s geekier stuff happening that’s having a big impact, too. In places like Margaret River that, frankly, don’t need to move much beyond Cabernet, Merlot , Chardonnay and (possibly) Shiraz, changes in clones are having a big impact in terms of improving quality.
‘It’s those [multiple] 1% changes that can add up to make a significant difference,’ as Cameron Murphy, Cape Mentelle’s estate director put it.
… but there are plenty of new varieties too
We’ve seen this trend for a few years, but it shows no sign of going away. Inside the next decade, some commentators have suggested that just under 10% of Australia’s vineyards could be made up of Mediterranean varieties. Fiano seems to be leading the white charge, but Sangiovese and Nero d’Avola are popular, too, while others swear by Spanish – and even Greek – varieties. This is a movement that’s still in its infancy. The question is, can you sell them?
Which brings us to... the classics
However much you might think that a £20 Touriga is worth £70 on your list, it’s going to be a hard sell. And perhaps you’d be better off sticking to the classics. After all, Australian wine sales grew 10% here last year. Not much of that growth was Nebbiolo!
One traditional producer told me that people were coming to their stand and uttering sighs of pleasure when served the Shiraz. ‘Now that,’ said one, ‘is what Australian Shiraz ought to taste like.’ Much as we like to seek out things that are different, often the classics are classics for a reason. If you want to go a bit left-field, but not too much, then there’s plenty of good Grenache out there…