OZ Wine: Outback steps forward

17 March, 2015

The Australian wine category has had a turbulent time with surplus, a strong dollar, corporate travails among the major producers and consolidation. Christian Davis reports 

Oz Clarke discovered Australian wines for himself while he was touring with the Royal Shakespeare Company, performing in Hedda Gabler with Glenda Jackson at the end of the 1970s.  

In the forward to his Australian Wine Companion (2004) Clarke writes: “I hit the streets of Sydney and Melbourne and I’d buy the cheapest wine in the shop. It would be bursting with fruit, with ripeness, with a cheery ‘grab-me-and-drink-me’ personality that was a revelation. And the way wine was drunk was a revelation. You didn’t have to get your best crystal and order a three-course dinner to drink wine at any level.”

Referring to that period, he wrote: “Northern Europe had no popular wine-drinking culture because it had almost no enjoyable popular wine. More than any other New World country, Australia provided this,” said Clarke.

These old quotes sum up succinctly the essence of Australia’s popularity among what became mainstream wine drinkers. Prior to the major multiples selling wine, it was essentially the tipple of the upper and middle classes, who were basically drinking French, Italian, Spanish and a few German wines.

But things started to go wrong during the late 1980s and 90s, when Australian producers were chasing volume and, certainly in the UK, the multiple retailers took advantage of surplus and disarray among the producers to discount heavily and use Australian wine to attract consumers into their stores. Arguably the writing was on the wall. 

There might also have been a element of ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ as the likes of Chile, South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina started to get their acts – or wines – together. The increasing strength of the Australian dollar has hardly helped in pricing entry-level wines. 

Jean-Christophe Coutures, chairman and CEO at Pernod Ricard Winemakers, which makes Jacob’s Creek, says: “The challenge has been the perception of Australian wine. We see this as linked to the unsustainable supply situation as bulk commercial wine has been pushed into the domestic and export markets, often at discounted rates. 

“However, we are already seeing perceptions change and we are confident this will continue to improve as consumers are reacquainted with the quality, craftsmanship and diversity of Australian wine. Our new Jacob’s Creek Made By campaign is an example of this. It highlights the people, places and passions that go into creating every bottle of Jacob’s Creek.” 

Accolade Wines’ general manager UK, Ireland & global partners Paul Schaafsma is defiant and unequivocal. He tells Drinks International: “The biggest message I would like to say is: Australia isn’t broke(n).”  

Jane Robertson, category director of Accolade’s insight team, backs that up by stating that Australia still commands around 21% of the all-important UK market and it is actually growing.

Treasury Wine Estates’ general manager UK, Ireland & western Europe, Dan Townsend is even more positive. He says: “Australia is riding the crest of a wave from a quality perspective at the moment and this is having a significant impact. Australian wine stands for more than just £5 per bottle. There are increasingly successful sales for wines selling at £8 and over as well as at £10 and over. 

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