Giving the southern hemisphere an American accent


This is a version of an article also published by the Financial Times. 

Independence Day weekend seems as good a time as any to examine one aspect of American independence of thought – about a certain class of wines in this case. In late 2013 on a visit to New York I was shocked to be told by a fellow wine writer that southern hemisphere wines were out of fashion. What? All of South America? South Africa? Australia and New Zealand? 

I have been trying to establish whether things have changed since then. Because there has been such a strong wind of change blowing through the winelands of South Africa, Chile and Australia, I was particularly concerned about how these new wines are faring in the US.

The dominant US importer of new-wave Cape wines, Bartholomew Broadbent (pictured, son of Michael, the man responsible in the 1960s for re-establishing wine auctions in London), is bullish about American demand for South African wines now. He describes them as ‘the most exciting and newsworthy part of our portfolio. People like Adi Badenhorst and Eben Sadie have hit the market at exactly the right time’. To illustrate
his point, Broadbent points out that his distributor 
in New York, Martin Scott Wines, used to have a dress code for its sales staff. ‘It was always jacket and tie. About a year and a half ago, this quarter-century-old wine distributor had an all-day management meeting and it was decided that the sales people were forbidden from wearing coat and ties. The reason: the profile of the wine buyers and most influential voices has changed. Today, hipsters are the wine buyers and they don’t give the time of day to a stuffy suit.

He adds, ‘Adi and Eben are the greatest and most natural hipsters in the wine business… highly intelligent, totally irreverent, anti-establishment, unbelievably passionate and truly among the best winemakers in the world right now. [They’re] lovers of the quirky and low-alcohol wines that are all the rage in the USA today. This combination makes them and their wines highly desirable in today’s US wine market, especially appealing to the young somm[elier] community who speak the same language, smoke the same weed and think along the same lines.’

Who would have thought that smoking habits would be so important to wine sales? Broadbent represents just one Chilean producer and reckons Chile is a tougher sell. Overtaken by the popularity of Argentine Malbec, which has been seen as a cheaper alternative to the heft and polish of a Napa Valley Cabernet, Chile has come to be associated by American wine drinkers with a handful of big companies which can offer value but not much to titillate the discerning drinker.

Agustin Huneeus is ideally placed to comment on the fortunes of Chilean wine in the US. A Chilean who once ran Chile’s biggest wine company Concha y Toro, he now has extensive holdings in high-quality California wine and is based in San Francisco. He explains that the big Chilean companies naturally sought big distributors in the US, which has had the result of corralling Chilean wine strictly in retail rather than on restaurant wine lists (a problem that has beset Australian wine in the UK).

Vine Connections is a small company based in Sausalito in California’s Bay Area that has been trying to break out of this limitation. They began with Argentine wine way back in 1999 ‘when Americans were hard-pressed to find Argentina on a map and Malbec was basically unknown (people would ask, “Is that a blend?”)’, according to partner Ed Lehrman. Soon afterwards he and his colleagues introduced top-quality Japanese sake to the US market.

‘In 2001, Japanese sake was known only as cheap, hot, US-produced liquid served in sake bombs that resulted in more than a few hangovers. We have successfully shown that both places deserve broad recognition as producers of excellent beverages.’

But more recently the masochists at Vine Connections have added a third string to their bow. ‘We started with Chile in 2013 and felt that it lay in between Argentina’s and Japan’s challenges. Many people have the idea that Chilean wine is just one thing (cheap and cheerful), because the artisan, estate, family wine industry is fairly new, and many regions in Chile weren’t even producing wine 15 years ago. There was little knowledge of specific soil types and microclimates, something people like [soil scientist] Pedro Parra are fixing, and quickly. So Chile has the challenge of being misunderstood (like sake) and the challenge of being new (as Argentina was).

‘Chile will succeed in the US with commitment, perseverance and education, three things that Vine Connections and our Chilean wineries have in spades. And at the end of the day, Americans love newcomers and underdogs.’

The new, lighter wines of Australia have the same problem, compounded by the fact that Australia per se, while selling substantial volumes at the bottom end of the market, is struggling to re-establish itself as a fine-wine producer in the US.

Even Ronnie Sanders of Vine Street Imports in New Jersey, a specialist in the sort of new-wave, hipsterish Australian wines that are the darlings of sommeliers in Melbourne and Sydney, admits, ‘it’s been a really rough road selling Aussie wine in the US for, I’d say, the last seven years. It’s certainly gotten a bit better in the last three years but it’s still really tough. Funny thing is that the sommelier crowd was really the first group to stop buying. They are now probably our biggest supporters with retail really not getting what is happening in Australia right now.

‘There are a few brave retailers who do support us, and those that do actually sell a good amount of wine. [But] really it’s been the top echelon restaurants and the “farm to table” places that have been our bread and butter. We’ve been extremely active in the marketplace with educational seminars entitled “Defend Australia” because most retailers and restaurateurs in the US are completely ignorant about Australian wine and event serious somms really have no concept of what Australia is or what it can do. Most still think that all that is made down there is over-extracted and has too much alcohol. Once they see it, they get it. The US press, which still does drive retail here, really has not figured it out yet.’

Tiny New Zealand, incidentally, is doing brilliantly in the US, selling almost as much by value as Spain and more than Chile.

I could recommend hundreds of exciting new-wave wines from South Africa, Chile and Australia, and indeed have done (see our database of nearly 114,000 tasting notes), but here are a few favourite new-wave producers. And of course there are hundreds of admirable established ones too.

South Africa
A A Badenhorst
Sadie Family Wines
Thorne & Daughters

Clos des Fous
De Martino
Garcia y Schwaderer

William Downie
Luke Lambert
Ochota Barrels