Not since the early eighties when the Aussie dollar peaked at double its current worth against some European currencies have I seen so many imported wines coming into the country.
Every Friday for the last three months I’ve attended commercial tastings where brokers and agents trot out their latest discoveries, with imports now outnumbering local wines. On top of that there are several standing invitations to visit wineries as soon as their foreign samples arrive.
But there are fundamental differences between the growing flow of imports now and what we saw back in the early eighties.
Then we had a more fragmented, production-driven industry. It was undercapitalised, largely unprofitable, driven by wine makers and riding on the back of rapidly expanding sales, especially of cask wine.
There was no shortage of wine. In fact, quite the reverse situation kept prices low and sales growing. But there was a shortage of premium grape varieties, especially of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.
In an article I wrote for the Australian Financial Review in about 1983, I estimated imports at around 3 per cent by volume of the total Australian market but 15 per cent by value.
Imports then were largely of reasonable quality bottled table wine. With our dollar buying between 6 and 8 French Francs, and the Americans yet to discover wine, French country wines like Muscadet, Pouilly Fume, Sancerre, Beaujolais, and Chablis were affordable and consumed by a comparatively high proportion of well informed Australian drinkers.
But times changed. The dollar collapsed in 1985. The Americans discovered wine. And the tremendously strong vineyard and winemaking infrustructure we had developed, fairly quickly turned to exports.
Rationalisation and more professional management saw the trend strengthen so that we now have a much stronger, more outward looking wine industry than ever before. It still needs the cask market. But that market is shrinking, and the strongest growth now comes from sales of bottled white and red wine, both here and in export markets.
Rapid growth, especially in demand for bottled reds, co-inciding with a run of small vintages, are the strongest forces behind the new flow of imports.
Pressure was on stocks of bulk red wine even before the 1995 vintage fell 250,000 tonnes short of expectations.
Wine makers had still not recovered from the disastrously small 1993 vintage. It had led to out-of-stocks for the first time in the history of the Australian wine cask. I saw wine drinkers stare in disbelief at bottle shop attendants when told their favourite tipple had run dry.
And I well remember big wine makers early last year wondering how on earth they could hold price parity of red and white wine casks when there was simply not enough red available. And what was available cost more than white of comparable quality.
Well, under the same pressures, people come up with similar solutions. For sectors of the wine industry, the solution is a perfectly sensible and welcome one: if we can’t make it here, let’s bring it in.
For Miranda Wines in Griffith, the shortage led to California. With a Golden Gate wine cask to fill, and a Californian wine maker with good contacts back home, one thing led to another. And by late 1994 Golden Gate red casks became a blend of Californian and Australian wine.
Miranda’s Bob Burton says it was a matter of importing or taking the brand off the market. He tells me Golden Gate Soft Red, Chianti, and Claret continue to sell well and appear to have been completely accepted by the consumer. Bob adds that when grape supplies meet demand, the winery hopes to return to full Australian production.
On a far bigger scale, Southcorp Wines, Australia’s largest wine maker, last week released a French-Australian blend in its big-selling Wynnvale cask and plans a similar blend for Kaiser Stuhl wine casks shortly.
I’ve tasted the Wynnvale red (51 per cent local— 49 per cent French) and vouch for the quality. Southcorp Chief Executive, Bruce Kemp, told me the move was a logical one to meet a demand that was far beyond Australian capabilities after the huge grape losses in the 1995 vintage.
It’s a sweet irony isn’t it that the French, still perceived as the makers of the world’s greatest wines, should now be providing vin ordinaire for the humble Aussie wine cask.
As wine drinkers, we should welcome these changes. A more open wine market, with perhaps twenty per cent imports instead of two per cent, not only opens our minds to the variety the world has to offer, but might finally provide the only foil to rising prices now that major production capacity is in so few hands.