Wine imports not a bad thing

Not since the early 1980s, 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 Australian 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 in the early ’80s. Then we had a more fragmented, production-driven industry. It was under-capitalised, largely unprofitable, driven by winemakers and riding on the back of rapidly expanding sales, especially of cask wine.

There was no shortage of wine. In fact, 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 about 3% by volume of the total Australian market but 15% by value. Imports then were largely of reasonable-quality bottled table wine.

With our dollar buying between six and eight 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 Australians who enjoyed bottled wine.

But times changed. The dollar collapsed in 1985. The Americans discovered wine. And the tremendously strong vineyard and wine making infrastructure which 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 out ward-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, coinciding 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. Winemakers had still not recovered from the disastrously small 1993 vintage. It had led to “out-of stock” 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 winemakers 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 winemaker with good contacts back home, one thing led to another. And by late 1991 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 winemaker, last week marketed a French-Australian blend in its big-selling Wynnvale cask and plans a similar blend for Kaiser Stuhl casks shortly.

I’ve tasted the Wynnvale red (51% Australian — 49 % 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 20% imports instead of 2%, not only opens our minds to the variety the world has to offer, but might finally provide the only foil to rising prices with major production capacity now concentrated in so few hands.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1995
First published 16 April 1995 in the Canberra Times