Alambie puts pressure on wine prices

A few weeks back I mentioned in a general article on high-quality cheap wines, the sudden appearance on the scene of the Alambie Wine Company and its brands, Salisbury Estate and Castle Crossing.

These are hardly household names yet, but they may well be in a very short time as this hungry, efficient, and very smart enterprise fills a gap created by price rises from bigger companies.

We should all cheer. The emergence of Alambie put a lid on domestic prices just as the export boom appeared to be unleashing a round of increases.

The seeds of what is now the Alambie Wine Company were planted twenty-five years ago when Peter McLaren established a 40-hectare vineyard at Nangiloc near Mildura on the Murray River.

McLaren, an agricultural scientist, planted not only vineyards but citrus orchards as well and claims his McLaren Management Pty Ltd is Australia’s largest horticultural farm management company.

With wine as with fruit McLaren sees total integration of production, manufacturing and marketing as crucial to success here and overseas. Strong exports of fresh citrus fruits to Asia and of wine to the UK, Sweden, and the USA earned his company the Austrade Primary Products and Commodities Award in the Governor of Victoria Export Awards earlier this month.

In wine making the concept of ‘total integration’ means simply that McLaren manages the vineyards from which he sources grapes, makes and packages the wine himself, and then takes it direct to the market place.

If it sounds simple, the first two steps especially add immeasurably to wine quality.

Any wine maker will tell you quality begins in the vineyard. Most might also add that Mildura is not their first choice of sites for high-quality table-wine grapes. Well, it is broadly true that Mildura’s wines can never scale the greatest heights, but they can provide very good everyday drinking at a keen price.

Indeed, much of the prejudice against Riverland wines gets back to the feeble flavours resulting from over cropping. And that’s where Alambie is different.

Without irrigation, grapes could not survive Mildura’s hot, dry climate. Pump plenty of water on and vines thrive… yields of 20 tonnes of grapes to the hectare are not unheard of. Plump grapes like that, of course, have little flavour. Modern wine making turns them into clean, fresh, but neutral wine cask material.

But over 25 years McLaren, in conjunction with CSIRO scientists, has developed vineyard management to a sophisticated level. Crops are lower than the area average, but viable economically because the quality is stunningly higher. That means better wines that finally retail for $5 to $9 a bottle rather than cask wine going out at $1.50 a litre.

With other investors McLaren now manages about 400 hectares of vines in the region. The development of minimal pruning techniques over the past 20 years not only cuts costs but increases fruit quality and produces healthier, disease-resistant vines. Mechanical harvesting also cuts the other big management cost to the bone.

As well, soil management, water control, vine selection, pest and disease control, and trellising design have all contribute to sustainable vine cultivation, lower costs, lower chemical use, and higher quality.

Vineyards are managed through to harvest with specific wine styles in mind and of course that’s done in conjunction with the winery manager, Bob Shields.

Acquiring the winery and the services of Shields were perhaps McLaren’s greatest coups, allowing him to process all of the grapes coming in from his fellow investors under one roof.

Bob Shields is an old accomplished hand when it comes to making wine from Mildura grapes. For years he was one of the leading technical people at Lindeman’s giant, state-of-the art winery just down the road at Karadoc. Here, with Philip John and Phil Laffer he helped develop mass-production techniques. Perhaps the most notable product being the outstanding Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay, a phenomenally good wine for the price now made in million litre lots and sold worldwide.

All that know how moved to Alambie with Shields and the innovation goes on in his new winery. The winery, he points out, cost just $2 million in a distress sale, but has a replacement cost of around $8 million.

Shields seems delighted with the quality of the fruit coming in, all to his specification. His work on chardonnay shows up in the outstanding Salisbury Estate 1993. I tasted it beside the similarly priced ($6-$8 a bottle) Lindemans Bin 65 this week. The Lindemans is a good product, but I rated Salisbury higher.

With wines like this pushing into export markets at keen prices, I think competing wine producing nations have a lot of catching up to do.