1995. A year of change in Australia’s wine industry and retailing

For wine drinkers, 1995 got off to a rotten start. The vintage came in a few hundred thousand tonnes of grapes under estimates, sparking a new round of price hikes that quickly worked its way from grapes to the finished product.

There was a shortage of wine anyway, and many wineries found themselves suffering financially for lack of stock despite a fairly strong increase in producer margins. The shortage was probably one of the reason why Mildara Blass acquired Tolleys and its very substantial vineyard holdings. The ranks of independent makers continues to thin!

Now the year ends with the leading wine industry earner, Mildara Blass, about to be acquired by Fosters. Nobody knows what their game is yet, but retailers are anticipating a tightening of credit terms in the new year.

Perhaps it was a case of “if you can’t lick em, join em”. For 1995 goes down as the year the brewers finally lost their long battle to see wine taxed at the same punitive rates as beer. Wowsers and treasury boffins seemed to side with the brewers, but the outcome of the ‘Winegrape and Wine Industry in Australia’ enquiry, instigated after an attempt at increasing wine taxes in the 1993 Federal Budget, was to keep wine taxes where they are. The wine industry had at long last been recognised for being unlike the brewing industry (some would add in its electoral impact as well as structure).

It was good news for an export industry trying to maintain a healthy domestic market in the face of shortage and rising costs. In any event, the decision may have crystalised big new investments in vineyards, and wine making and storage plant.

Internationally it was a solid year for Australia’s reputation, despite a tailing off in exports. Penfolds Grange 1990 was named wine of the year by America’s ‘Wine Spectator’; Penfolds Kalimna Bin 28 1992 was named red wine of the year by London’s ‘Wine and Spirit’ magazine; and the same publication named Stephen Henschke international wine maker of the year.

In Canberra, it was a year of great change for wine retailing. After almost twenty years dominating the local market, Farmer Bros went under to be replaced by Liquorland in two of its sites and Liquorland’s Vintage Cellars at Manuka; and its mail order business was taken over by Sydney-based Cellarmaster Wines which continues to prospect the Canberra market with glossy brochures bearing David Farmer’s smiling face.

Lloyds took the opportunity to open new outlets at Kingston and Dickson; Cand Amber moved into Civic; Jim Murphy opened his colonial-looking duty free in his existing outlet at Fyshwick markets; and there has been a general lift in the standard of wine merchandising in major grocery outlets.

For local wine makers it was a good year, too. They were spared the crop shortfall suffered in other areas and, in fact, recorded the biggest harvest on record.

And in the National Wine Show of Australia last month, our tiny operators mixed it with the big boys to walk off with four silver and two bronze medals. Helms Classic Dry Riesling 1995, Doonkuna Estate Shiraz 1992 and two different Lake George Tawny Ports won silver medals; the two bronze medals were won by a Lake George Fortified Sweet White and a Riek and Bootes Fortified Sweet White.

And for all the waffle in the wine press and talk of our tastes moving upmarket, the latest figures show that 79.6 per cent of all bottled wine we drink sells for less than $10 a bottle. Only 16.6 per cent costs between $10 and $15 a bottle. Which means that a mere 3.8 per cent of all the bottled wine retailed in Australia fetches more than $15 a bottle. In short, the wines most written about are the least sold.

And while we’re on the top shelf, I see that our latest James Bond, Pierce Brosnan, keeps Bollinger Grande Annee 1998 in his Aston Martin. A push of a button and it’s cold Bollie for all. But to us old hands that’s Bond on a budget. From memory, Sean Connery drank Dom Perignon. And it’s equivalent from the Bollinger cellar is Bollinger R.D. — a very definite step up from Grande Annee!

Exotic stuff indeed. But perhaps we should be seeing in the New Year with something from the southern hemisphere: Pelorus 1991, Salinger 1991, Taltarni Clover Hill 1993, Jansz Brut Cuvee, and Seaview Pinot Noir Chardonnay 1993 head my list. Happy New Year.