Wine review — Castello di Poggio, Musella & Illuminati

Despite a glut sloshing around the world, Australia continues its parochial wine-drinking ways. Indeed, distance — aided by a weak dollar — seems to be a one-way tyranny these days, holding back a potential flood of cheap, surplus foreign wine while allowing the free passage of our own in the other direction.

Thus in the year ended June 2005, imports represented just five per cent by volume and eight per cent by value of wine consumed in Australia.

Stripped of our fairly hefty Champagne drinking habit — and the pricey table wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy – the great bulk of imports consumed, I suspect, remain in the under $10 price range, with volumes tapering sharply above $15 a bottle.

Certainly this value area is the key focus for Australia’s two largest liquor retailers, Woolworths and Coles Myer. For both, imports play a profitable role in a tough market. And, increasingly, both import direct from producers, bypassing local wholesalers.

Importing direct is nothing new. At any time in the past one or two enterprising retailers – with an eye to bigger margins – imported direct, while the majority, of necessity, purchased from wholesalers.

In theory, a direct importer might pocket the entire wholesale as well as the retail profit margin. But in seeking an advantage over competitors most have traditionally undercut normal retail prices, effectively splitting the wholesale margin with customers.

With these two retailers sharing almost half of Australia’s take-away liquor sales and fighting tooth and nail to outdo one another, we can safely assume that today a greater proportion of the direct importing advantage is being competed away.

Curious at the increasing profile of direct imports in Woolies and Coles liquor outlets, I recently drove to Melbourne to visit the warring parties. On successive days I visited the Dan Murphy head office (Woolworths ‘big box’ brand) and Coles Myer Liquor Group to look at the overall imports list and, as a case study, to taste each group’s Italian imports.

What they have in common is a competitive urge backed by the resources and expertise to select and buy well – meaning a pretty good value offer for shoppers.

Tony Leon, Dan Murphy boss, an old-time trading retailer and former partner of the late Dan Murphy is still at the helm under Woolies’ ownership. In this no-bull, short-chain-of-command business, premium and imported wine man, Campbell Stott, reports direct to Tony and has support from the experienced former winemaker, Steve Creber.

The three have as good a nose for wine as for business and this translates into a growing portfolio of value wines from France, Chile, Argentina, Italy, Spain and Germany.

The focus is on very good under-$10 wines — increasingly under screw cap at Dan Murphy’s insistence — with a sprinkling of more expensive regional specialties of varying quality and value.

Within a somewhat more complex business structure, Coles’ premium wine and imports man, Jeremy Stockman – long-time retailer and wine show judge – reports to Grant Ramage, a wine experienced recent import from Oddbins, UK.

As Stockman’s selections appear not only in First Choice outlets (Coles’ answer to Dan Murphy) but also in the upmarket Vintage Cellars chain, the top-end section of his Italian range is, in my opinion, stronger and more diverse, and the cheaper wines are all interesting regional specialties.

Moscato d’Asti (Castello di Poggio) 2005 $13.99
Dan Murphy’s import is a lovely example of this unique, low-alcohol white made from moscato grapes grown in the vicinity of Asti, Piedmont. Beautifully, fresh, light and crisp with delicious, sweet grapey flavours, it weighs in at just 5.5 per cent alcohol by volume. Sweet wines might be unfashionable for some in Australia, but Moscato d’Asti is catching on as it ought. It’s a good case for regional specialisation as few Australian attempts at this style capture the light, tingly fresh essential to balance the juicy, sweet grapiness. Reduces to $12.99 in case lots.

Valpolicella Classico Superiore Vigne Nuova (Musella) 2003 $19.99
Watch for the specials on this as importer Coles Myer offers it considerably cheaper through First Estate and Vintage Cellars on occasion. It’s another Italian regional specialty made in Valpolicella, a little to the west of Verona, using the native red corvina veronese, rondinella and molinara grape varieties. This is a modern expression of the style – very bright and fresh with lovely perfume, medium bodied, juicy but tight palate, with a touch of new oak, and tart, dry finish. Valpolicella can be wishy-washy. But this one’s terrific – with the fruit and structure to accompany savoury food.

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ‘Riparosso’ (Illuminati) 2004 $8 to $11
Just to show that Australia doesn’t have a monopoly on value, here’s a savoury favourite from Italy. I confess to having sourced Riparosso for Farmer Bros in 1991 and, after their demise, introducing it to the Coles Myer group in 1995.  They continue to offer Riparosso – often misspelled as Riparossa in press ads — through Vintage Cellars, Liquorland and First Choice. It’s made in Abruzzi, on the Adriatic coast by the Illuminati family using the local Montepulciano grape. Family patriarch, Dino, elevated this variety to new heights and now his son, Stefano, continues to fine-tune Riparosso lifting it to new heights in the sensational 2004 vintage.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007