Taking our wine names to the world

For all the international success of Australian wine (we exported $2.46 billion worth in the year to January 2009, 17% less than in the year to January 2008), our export markets know little of the diverse regional wine styles flowing from our 112 official ‘geographic indications’ (GIs).

Our export success to date rests primarily on ‘brand Australia’ –  based on fruity, fresh, reliable varietals, more often than not sourced from multiple regions and bearing the generic origin ‘South Eastern Australia’.

It has been a remarkable achievement requiring a massive investment in vineyards, wineries, inventory, marketing and distribution. And while it provides a solid base for expansion, the fairly narrow focus to date tends to typecast Australia as one big, hot country producing predictably fruity, alcoholic wines.

About  twenty years after Penfolds Grange won its international reputation as ‘the one true first growth of the southern hemisphere’, accolades for our upmarket wines tend to be more for our big, juicy, warm-climate reds, notably shiraz, then for any other of our specialties.

We shouldn’t lament that success. But we do need to tell the rest of the story – perhaps starting with the world’s opinion makers and chipping away year after year. We certainly have the wines to build an expanded image of Australia.

Just how entrenched the image is came through at a large-scale pinot noir tasting on the Mornington Peninsula in February. The UK’s Jancis Robinson, no stranger to Australian wine (she recognised the unique glory of Hunter semillon quarter of a century ago), said the Australian pinots would turn heads in London. They were more refined and delicate than she’d anticipated.

At the same event, on his first visit to Australia, respected Burgundian vigneron, Frederic Mugnier, said, “Australian pinot is not at all what I thought it would be. They are much better. The stereotype I had in mind was of dark, thick and jammy wines. They are the reverse – delicate, fluid, juicy and delicious – bravo”.

That was the wine talking of course – carefully selected examples of the best from Tasmania, Yarra Valley, Mornington and Macedon. One sip beats a thousand press releases.

Good wine always talks. At a Sydney dinner we wowed Dino and Stefano Illuminati, vignerons from Abruzzi, Italy, with 1998 vintage Peter Lehmann Barossa Valley Stonewell Shiraz – a big, warm, sublime, and stereotypical, Australian shiraz.

It was the sort of wine they’d become used to in their visits to Australia since the early nineties. They loved the style, partly because it related it to their own robust, earthy reds made from the montepulciano grape.

But they were not prepared for their next Australian shiraz, served blind at Sydney’s Level Forty-One Restaurant. The harbour lights sparkled far below. The waiter splashed the limpid, shimmering, crimson-rimmed mystery red from the crystal decanter into our Riedel glasses.

Dino’s expressive face lit up as he swirled the glass and sniffed. ‘Fantastico’, he said. Stefano agreed. They loved its beautiful fragrance and graceful, supple, plush palate. Quickly they agreed that it was French – and magnificent.
“Yes”, we Aussies agreed, “it’s a beautiful wine. But it’s Australian”. “No”, the Illuminatis gasped together. “This can’t be Australian”. Even more shocking was the revelation that it came from Canberra – Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2006. Once again, the wine had spoken. For the Illuminatis the stereotype was smashed – in the most delightful way imaginable.

They wanted to know about Canberra and how it was different from the Barossa and did Australia really make more than one style of shiraz. They’re keen to learn more on future visits.

Bit by bit, over time, our industry has to paint this picture to drinkers and opinion makers around the world.

And just as our industry brought leading writers to Australia twenty years ago, at the dawn of our big export push, it’s commencing a new pitch to the international opinion makers through the first ‘Landmark Australia Tutorial’.

The series of tutorials, held in the Barossa between the first and fifth of June, presented 248 top-notch Australian wines to a dozen carefully selected international communicators. The wines covered more than half a century of vintages, including Seppelt Great Western Hermitage K72 Shiraz, Wynns Coonawarra Michael Hermitage 1995 and Penfolds Grange 1955 and a diverse range of modern wines.

You can read more about the event at www.landmark-wineaustralia.com

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009