Who would have predicted 15 years ago that Australian wines would have leapfrogged the French by the mid-2000s to become the UK’s number one supplier of wine? I didn’t and I don’t know anyone who did. It’s refreshing, no-nonsense approach to wine as fruit-filled, great value sunshine in a bottle caught our imagination and seduced our palates. ‘For the past 15 years we’ve been humming’, as Andrew Hardy, director of the Petaluma Winery in South Australia puts it. According to a new survey from the IWSR (International Wine & Spirit Record), Australia supplied us with 31 million cases of wine last year, up 27 per cent in four years, compared to France’s 24.7 million cases, down 18 per cent over the same period.
But the rest of the New World has not stood idly by and watched Australia’s success on the touchline. Chile with its refreshingly crisp sauvignon blancs, South Africa its honeyed chenins and Argentina its juicy malbecs, are just three countries that have taken a leaf or two out of the Australian vineyard. California has made huge strides. New Zealand has the highest average bottle price of any country. Nor has France lightly surrendered its tradition. The French and the rest of Europe have pulled up their collective socks and started the fightback with much improved wines at more realistic prices, thanks in large part to the changes from plonk to quality in their southern regions.
Australia hasn’t always been its own best friend of late, queering its pitch, aided and abetted by the supermarkets, with deep-cut promotions that have cheapened its image and lowered expectations. Adding to our disenchantment, it’s become a victim of tighter supply outlets that have pinched its range of wines to such an extent that it’s easily pigeonholed as offering little better than Jacobs Creek, Yellow Tail and Hardy’s Stamp. ‘And it’s done itself no favours, says Iain Muggoch, buying director for Bibendum Wines, ‘by raising prices in anticipation of a reduced drought vintage and then coming up with a bumper harvest’.
Contrary to the general impression it puts out, however, Australia has a huge range of quality wines coming out of its 2,500 wineries, and it’s growing. Anyone prepared to pay a little more for quality will find quality and variety in Australian wines in independent wine merchants and on restaurants lists. We may not realise it yet, but as Australia is forced to pare down its big brand ambitions because of oversupply, and now the effects of the drought, the quality and range of its family and estate wines is getting better all the time. But then so is the rest of the world’s.