Aussie wine’s global focus — part three of three

This third and final of three articles on the recent expansion of overseas wine interests by Australian producers starts with one of the earliest ventures and ends with two of the newest.

In 1990 when the then family-owned Thomas Hardy and Sons acquired Domaine de la Baume in France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region, Australia’s wine industry knew little of the optimism, growth and profitability we expect today.

Producer-led discounting, even of red wines, fed steadily into the equally aggressive retail chain and from there into the welcoming cellars, cupboards and glasses of appreciative wine drinkers.

Indeed, the flatness of the domestic market was one of the driving forces behind Hardys acquisition not just of Domaine de la Baume, but also of Casa Vinicola Barone Ricasoli, in Chianti, Italy, and of two wine merchants in London.

Some time later, Bill Hardy wrote that  the family was “keen to continue expanding in order to offer increasing returns to our shareholders and interesting job opportunities to our staff”.

Europe was obviously high on our list of areas for potential investment as it is the major wine producing and consuming region in the world and has a very positive image for its wine. Europe was also of interest because we were a little uneasy about the strengthening of the EEC scheduled for 1992. We felt that we would be in a more favourable situation as a producer of wines within the EEC than as an outsider trying to sell products into the EEC. We had also noted the first cracks appearing in the Eastern bloc countries and there appeared the likelihood that the European market would expand with the opening up of these countries”.

And so the acquisitions of early 1990 gave Hardys “a distribution base in the most influential wine market in the world [UK] and production bases in the two major wine producing countries of the world.”

However, difficult times lay ahead and the vision was not to be realised immediately. When the Berri Renmano Co-operative and Thomas Hardys finally merged into the listed BRL Hardy several years later, the English and French connections remained but the Italian was  never taken into the fold.

Whiclar and Gordon Wines, Thomas Hardy’s U.K. distribution arm, became BRL Hardy Europe Ltd. By this time the decrepit la Baume winery had been gutted, re-roofed and filled with gleaming new stainless steel wine making equipment able to process, first 800,000 and, later, 1.6 million litres of wine annually.

The focus was on cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot and sauvignon blanc grapes sourced from the company’s own small vineyard and from contract growers within the vast Languedoc-Roussillon region.

The aim was to produce varietal wines, under the ‘Vins de Pays d’Oc’ appellation, for world markets. The appellation is specific to the very large Languedoc-Roussillon region, spread along the Mediterranean coast and its hinterland.

Hardy’s La Baume wines have to date enjoy little success in Australia but, according to Bill Hardy, made early and solid inroads into the less parochial, value-orientated U.K. and Scandinavian markets.

The French themselves, observes Hardy, seem a long way from recognising the quality potential of an area traditionally seen as a “producer of simple, light low-alcohol wines” — a perception being eroded gradually by the Australian influence.

That influence now includes not just BRL Hardy but Australia’s largest producer, Southcorp Wines. With Les Vignerons du Val d’Orbieu, Southcorp formed a 50:50 joint venture company — Penvale — to produce the La Perouse label for distribution in the U.K., U.S. and, later, the Chinese markets.

While Southcorp has made no capital investment in the winery or vineyards, viticulturist David Morrison works with French grape growers and the Southcorp wine making and marketing team are involved in fruit selection, wine making and style decisions.

Southcorp has also established a beach head in California through two new ventures. In a 50:50 deal with Paragon Vineyards, the Independent WineCompany was formed to produce the new Seven Peaks label.

Paragon will the Seven Peaks wines in its Edna Valley winery and Australian wine maker, Ian Shepherd (formerly of Seppelts Great Western) will move in.

And his role could expand rapidly as Southcorp’s second venture comes to fruition. Last year Southcorp bought land at Pasa Robles on California’s Central coast and is developing 250 hectares of vineyards to feed the new Seven Peaks label and to create a new brand totally owned by Southcorp.

This and the other endeavours mentioned over the last few weeks are just some of Australia’s off-shore adventures adding to the truly global influence of Australia’s extraordinarily vigorous wine-making culture.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998 & 2007