Dry statistics, river of wine

Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shed light on our wine-drinking habits and on our performance as a wine-exporting nation. And they make us think beyond the averages, reminding us, as W.I.E. Gates noted, of the man ‘who drowned crossing a stream with an average depth of six inches’.

We know, for example, that we drink about 480 million litres of wine annually, averaging well over 20 litres per capita. But the stats don’t show the spread of consumption through the population. We can only guess, therefore, at where the metaphorical wine stream flows deepest (some people consume 140 to 280 litres a year – half to one bottle a day) or where it flows not at all. As Len Evans once quipped, when he commenced writing about wine in the sixties, Australians drank only a few litres a head – leading him to the conclusion that statistically he’d been consuming the equivalent of a small village at the time.

In another sense, there’s an extraordinary precision in the ABS figures. I’m thirsty even thinking of the 479,732 million litres that we enjoyed in 2007–08. Most of that – 426,421 million litres – came from Aussie makers. But spurred no doubt by the then strong dollar, imports hit a record 11 per cent of the total at 53,311 million litres.

Even with the favourable exchange rate, though, we can see that some exporting countries fared better than our exporters did in their terms of trade. And behind those favourable terms of trade lies the benefits of regional specialisation.

This is well illustrated in the figures from France and New Zealand. In the year to June 2008, we imported a bit over seven million litres of French wine worth $142.9million. That’s equivalent, by my calculation, to $20.16 a litre – and that’s before the addition of wholesale and retail margins. While we don’t have a breakdown of French wines by style, we do know that imports of sparkling wine from all countries averaged $16 a litre. Presumably much of this is France’s great regional specialty Champagne.

The value of French imports is undoubtedly boosted, too, by other high-priced regional classics from Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley.

By far our largest volume of imports in the year, though, were from New Zealand – 23.9million litres worth $209.4million. The average price of $8.77 a litre is more than double the $4.18 per-litre value of our exports to them. With that sort of advantage, they don’t need to win the rugby. Give or take a little high-priced pinot noir, the Kiwi charge was led by sauvignon blanc from Marlborough. This has gone from zero a generation ago (the first vines were planted there in1973) to being one of the world’s great wine specialties.

Indeed, our average price of $3.75 per exported table wine litre compares poorly against Italian and Spanish imports averaging $5.69 and $6.23 per litre respectively. South Africa, though, seems to be our new source of cheap wine with an average price of just $2.19 a litre.

As a nation we prefer local white wine (203.9 million litres) to local reds and rosés (150.2 million litres). But red and rosé drinkers appear to be somewhat fussier than white drinkers. In 2007–08 Chateau Cardboard accounted for 37 per cent of red and rosé sales compared to 54 per cent for whites.

If that’s all a little too dry, I’ll leave you with one more thought, attributed to Mrs Robert A. Taft, ‘I always find that statistics are hard to swallow and impossible to digest. The only one I can remember is that if all the people who go to sleep in church were laid end to end they would be a lot more comfortable’.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008