Aaron Ridgway discusses what we can do to restore faith in the varietal-country marriage that gave the world countless lauded examples of Australian Shiraz.
At the recent Wine Australia Export Forum in Adelaide, one of the topics discussed was ‘How can we make Australian Shiraz exciting again?’ To some, Australian Shiraz is yesterday’s news. To others, it remains the country’s viticultural calling card. What most Australian winemakers would agree on, however, is that the variety itself is more exciting than most U.S. wine drinkers realize. But can those same winemakers accept that the future might lay in their hands?
Shiraz In the U.S: a history of success
As with most attempts to discern the future, we must start in the past. Back in the 1990s, American consumers were showing more and more interest in fruit-driven red wines. Australia had tons of Shiraz in the ground. Exchange rates were in Australia’s favour and the shrimp-on-the-barbie approachability got together with sharp pricing to make a lucrative power couple.
The end? Not quite. Over the next decade so much Australian Shiraz was sold in the U.S. that the country came to be known for little else. ‘I need an Australia Shiraz I can sell for $X,’ buyers would howl. ‘Where are your Australian wines?’ the average retail customer would ask, looking specifically for Shiraz. The risks that come with being a one-trick pony were offset by huge sales and years of positive sentiment. Australian wines were, good and good value, and there was no need to proselytize a broader appreciation of regions, varieties and styles. If everyone wants chocolate, why talk about cheesecake?
By the time the recession brought Australian wine’s 10-year run to a halt in 2008, another problem had developed. Australia had no middle. At the fine wine end, a vast collection of full-bodied red wines (yes, mostly Shiraz) with big alcohol levels and even bigger scores. At the bottom, millions of cases of sub-$10 ‘sunshine in a bottle’ wines. It didn’t matter that the wines at both ends were well-made, and, in the case of the grocery wines, well-priced. Australia was done. Collectors either ran out of money or patience with the dizzying concentration of some of the reds, and value drinkers moved on, to Argentina, Spain and California.
It is important to note here that while Australia was consecrated as a Shiraz specialist, even in the boom year of 2007, when total exports to the U.S. peaked and value climbed almost to a billion dollars, Shiraz was 29 percent of the mix. A lot, but by no means the whole story. A whopping 85 percent of New Zealand exports to the U.S. are Sauvignon Blanc, yet people still find ways to explore Pinot Noir, Syrah and Bordeaux varieties.
With no middle, Australia collapsed (just as the Star Wars trilogy would without ‘The Empire Strikes Back’). There was no broad appreciation of regions, much less sub-regions. Australia had become an appellation; a vinous tap sticking out of a continental barrel the size of Brazil. ‘Australian wine’, ‘Shiraz’, ‘over-extracted’, ‘fruit bomb’ came to mean the same thing.
Australian Shiraz in the U.S: alcohol problem?
Perhaps the source of greatest exasperation among makers of Australian Shiraz is the belief that 14.5 percent alcohol is a sign of bad quality. No one seems to complain that Barolo, Priorat, Napa and areas in Southern France frequently produce wine that reaches the same level. Indeed, Wine Enthusiast journalist Kerin O’Keefe wrote last year that 14.5 percent alcohol among Italy’s top red wines has become ‘common’ in the wake of climate change and modern winemaking practices.
Australian Shiraz In the U.S: the way back?
So, what can Australia do to restore faith in the varietal-country marriage that gave the world Penfolds Grange, Henschke’s Hill of Grace, Rockford Basket Press and countless other lauded examples of Shiraz? Here are three ideas, in no particular order:
- Show Shiraz with other varieties: a line-up of five Shiraz wines gives a buyer a chance to roll eyes and cite past category challenges. Showing a couple of Grenache or Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines will allow for a deeper exploration of region and style
- Encourage comparative tastings: build stories around how Shiraz from Australia, France, California etc. are complementary and distinctive. During the boom it was enough to just come from Australia, but now it’s important to contrast with global benchmarks
- Visit the market as often as possible: the U.S. market is crowded and complicated, but there is still huge potential to build lasting relationships with buyers and accounts. Some Australian brands nurtured a group of core customers over time and it proved to be a good strategy as things began to turn around
These are not the only ways in which Shiraz can be re-contextualized and given a fairer chance in the market. New brands and packaging, emerging regions, natural and organic winemaking, pouring back vintages and continuing to educate the trade are all factors to discuss and promote too. And for some drinkers, there was nothing to fix in the first place. They love Australian Shiraz and don’t question its merits. The question is, can Aussie winemakers love it again, too? I’d bet my bottom dollar that they can.
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