A self-inflicted barrel shortage, changes in nomenclature and sourcing, and producers of the cheaper wines getting uppity. It's all happening Down Under. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. I'm back from my four-week break. Picture of Riverland vineyards courtesy of Riverland Wines. See also the accompanying tasting article.
Remember when we all envied Australia for its low rate of coronavirus? Now the country’s splendid isolation seems not quite so splendid, and certainly not for wine producers.
Australia depends for its imports on some of the longest maritime routes in the world.
But transporting goods around the world is pretty much of a nightmare at the moment, thanks to COVID, shortages of both labour and shipping containers, not to mention the Suez Canal jam, all of this leading to unprecedented delays and soaring shipping costs.
One small effect of all this is that Australia’s winemakers are now desperate for barrels made from French oak, the dominant sort used for ageing wine. Wines from the generally very successful, and generous, 2021 vintage in Australia are ready to be transferred from tank to barrel for the usual maturation process lasting many months, but the country has virtually run out of new barrels. The situation has been exacerbated by the effects of wildfires in Australian wine regions last year, which meant that far fewer barrels were ordered for the 2020 vintage than usual, leaving stocks of barrels in Australia at an all-time low.
Wildfires in California in 2020 also reduced US orders of French oak barrels so, contrary to some reports, there is no global shortage of them, but they are in such short supply in Australia that they can cost more than AU$2,000 apiece (£1,100/€1,250/$1,500), double what they cost only a few years ago. Producers in many countries have been reducing the proportion of new oak they use but classic Australian reds can be so powerful and tough that they really need the discipline of new oak to calm them down.
Then there are the effects of shipping bottlenecks, which affect Australia more than most. About 60% of all Australian wine is exported, and the bibulous domestic market can’t help out much as it is currently suffering from the effects of unaccustomed prolonged lockdowns, with wine orders from restaurants and bars at zero.
Anyone who is doing up a house, or moving between countries, is likely to be aware of the worldwide shortage of shipping containers, but these are one-off inconveniences. For Australia to maintain its position as the world’s foremost exporter of wine by value outside Europe (though it has recently been overtaken by Chile in terms of volume), it needs to be able to ship it. Put that together with the evaporation of Australia’s most valuable market, China, at the end of last year when China imposed crippling tariffs on Australian wine imports, and you have a situation that is testing even the famous can-do spirit Down Under.
The Chinese effective ban on Australian wine cost Treasury Wine Estates, the Australian-based wine conglomerate whose most famous brand is Penfolds, a reported AU$77.3 million in sales in their last financial year. But the company has been particularly creative, now sourcing wine for its Rawson’s Retreat brand, previously popular in China, from South Africa. The labels look identical to those until recently used on bottles of Australian wine – except for the small print. Treasury are in geographically expansionist mode, as witness yesterday’s wine of the week from Bordeaux and these new champagnes.
Another development in Australian wine comes from the three big inland wine regions Riverland, Murray Darling and Riverina, whose routinely irrigated vineyards churn out the sort of wine that goes into all those inexpensive blends sold with the catch-all appellation South Eastern Australia. Producers here are responsible for about 70% of all Australian wine by volume and, via production levies, contribute substantially to the generic body Wine Australia.
Last month they announced they were forming a new association, Australian Commercial Wine Producers Limited (ACWP), to lobby for more of a say in Australia’s wine policy. They feel, with some justification, that all the marketing effort and most of Australia’s widely admired academic wine research has been directed at helping those making Australia’s smarter wine and that much of this has been underwritten by them at the cheap end. Despite all this attempt at ‘premiumisation’, Australia’s exports of premium wine have almost halved since 2009 if China is excluded from the figures.
The ACWP are also looking for a revised levy structure, more attention directed at the water supply which is so crucial for their business, and are hoping that the recent Australia–UK trade agreement will see Britain importing even more inexpensive Australian wine such as the 25 million case-equivalent that is shipped in bulk to the UK each year – six times more than arrives already bottled, and most of it from ACWP producers.
I can understand why they feel aggrieved – and feel a personal interest now that some much more interesting wines are coming out of this long-ignored underbelly of the Australian wine behemoth. At a tasting last July of more than 130 of the quirkier Australian wines now being imported into the UK there were no fewer than three wines proudly bearing the appellation Riverland and one labelled Murray Darling.
The winemakers behind the From Sundays label are now making a Nueva Sangria Rosé (£20 from Nekter Wines) from Pinot Gris grown in Murray Darling that was left on the grape skins to give it texture, plus various fruit-flavoured oils and then carbonated. The creativity that’s evident in North America where producers have been playing around with fruits other than grapes is being mirrored in one of Australia’s least-celebrated wine regions.
Deliquente Wine Co’s 2021 Vermentino (expected to be £16.50 from various independents when it reaches the UK) may be only a few months old but it’s a thoroughly respectable rendition of Sardinia’s white wine grape grown in Riverland, with a nice dry finish and only 10.5% alcohol. Like their counterparts in more famous Australian wine regions, a number of producers in irrigated inland wine country, led by innovators such as Ricca Terra and Calabria, have been working hard with what the Australians call ‘alternative varieties’, wine grapes other than the most famous international ones, many of them Italian. (In the UK The Wine Society is in the process of shipping Gluck & Bray Aglianico 2020 Riverland, which will sell for just £12.95.)
Talking of grape varieties, this selection of new-wave Australian wines shown by a group of six UK wine importers suggested that there is nothing so outmoded as Australia’s grape name Shiraz. The majority of producers showing a version of it labelled their wines with the grape’s original French name Syrah, and the style of most of these wines was more like a fresh, mineral Côte Rôtie from the northern Rhône than a thick, medicinal, caricature of a Barossa Shiraz.
Not before time, Australia’s Grenache bush vines are getting the respect they deserve, and are being made into delicate, sweet, transparent wines more like Spain’s most fashionable Garnachas than concentrated Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Like California, Australia has a treasure trove of seriously old vines and seems to be making the most of them at last.
Another trend is, perhaps surprisingly, away from the screwcaps that Australian wine producers adopted en masse at the beginning of this century, in disgust at the quality of natural corks they were being sold. Today, nothing signals serious intentions and a small production run more than a natural cork in a bottle on an Australian shelf, even from producers who believe that screwcaps are technically the better choice. It’s called marketing.
Oh, and the labels and names of this new band of producers? The less conventional the better. Deliquente’s semi-sparkling Riverland white is called Tuff Nutt Bianco d’Alessano – a long way from the cheap South Eastern Australian Chardonnay that made Australia’s name on export markets in the Bridget Jones era.
Recommended current Australians
Ministry of Clouds Riesling 2020 Clare Valley 12.1%
From £21.53 Vinebud, St Andrews Wine Company, Pip of Manor Farm
Sigurd, White Blend 2020 Barossa Valley 12.5%
From £23.79 Iconic Wines, Vin Cognito, Bottle & Jug Dept, Pip of Manor Farm, North & South Wines
Place of Changing Winds Marsanne 2019 Heathcote 13%
£40 Pip of Manor Farm
Wilimee Chardonnay 2020 Macedon Ranges 12.6%
£55 Pip of Manor Farm
Aphelion, Welkin Grenache 2020 McLaren Vale 13.6%
£21 Pip of Manor Farm, £24.95 The Whisky Exchange
Murdoch Hill Syrah 2017 Adelaide Hills 13.5%
£26 The Salusbury Wine Store, Pip of Manor Farm
Ministry of Clouds Grenache 2019 McLaren Vale 13.9%
£27.95 Master of Malt, £29.50 The Good Wine Shop
Luke Lambert Syrah 2019 Yarra Valley 13.5%
£33.95 Vinified Wine, £37.50 The Sourcing Table
Bellwether Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 Coonawarra 13.5%
£35–£39 Woodshire Wines, The Whisky Exchange, The Good Wine Shop
Koerner, Vivian 2019 Clare Valley 13.9%
£39 Pip of Manor Farm
Timo Mayer Syrah 2019 Yarra Valley 13%
£48 The Sourcing Table
Bannockburn, De La Roche Shiraz 2011 Geelong 13.5%
Timo Mayer, The Doktor Pinot Noir 2018 Yarra Valley 13%
£49.95–£51.30 Vinified Wine, Marlo Wine, The Sourcing Table, Theatre of Wine
Cirillo, 1850 Ancestor Vine Grenache 2014 Barossa Valley 14%
£49.95 (2013) St Andrews Wine Company, £59.80 Hedonism
Wilimee Pinot Noir 2020 Macedon Ranges 12.6%
£60 Pip of Manor Farm
For international stockists see Wine-Searcher.com.
See also this set of 67 tasting notes on some of the quirkier Australian wines now available on export markets.