As we enter a new year, the wine trade and consumers are experiencing the latest, and some would argue the most significant trend in Australian wine for decades: reinvention. Reinvention is everywhere; from producers reinventing the range of varieties they grow and the way they make their wines to the regions those wines hail from, reinvention is helping to redefine Australian wine.
So, what’s driving Australian wine down the road to reinvention? Is it simply evolution; building on the platform of established Australian classic wines such as Shiraz and Chardonnay from established classic regions such as the Barossa and Margaret River? Is it a new wave of winemakers’ keen to push the boundaries of what’s possible even further? Or is it a result of push factors such as climate change, the need for a reinvention of Australian wine’s USP or the realisation that Australian wine needs (and deserves to) occupy a premium space within the market?
In truth, the road to reinvention is being driven by all of these factors, and in this article we look at the five key reinvention drivers and finds an industry in a state of flux, flux that is generating huge excitement.
Australian wine reinvention: From the ground-up
When it came to regions, Australian wine used to be comparatively straightforward, for the consumer at least. There were the classic regions that most had heard of – Coonawarra, the Barossa, Clare Valley, Margaret River etc. – and there were a few others that the more informed were aware of; Geelong, the Yarra Valley and Padthaway for example.
In the past few years, however, awareness of Australia’s collection of distinct wine regions has grown phenomenally. There are now over 60 recognised Australian wine regions, areas that range from Tasmania and the Adelaide Hills to the Canberra District right out to Western Australian centres including Manjimup and the Swan River. This proliferation has been caused in-part by a greater understanding of regions and Australian terroir coupled with the re-emergence of regions that had fallen from view. Perhaps the most obvious, and spectacular, example of this reversal of regional fortune is the Mornington Peninsula. In the past century Mornington Peninsula has gone from being an emerging region to abandoned region; from obscurity in the late 1970s to the darling of the trade today. It’s cool climate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays have wowed the world with their subtlety and complexity and have revealed a fresh wave of Australian wine.
The spectacular rise of Mornington Peninsula is a cause for excitement not just from the perspective of what this region will go on to achieve, but in terms of what other emerging regions will deliver. This stretch of the road to reinvention is one that will be well worth following.
Australian wine reinvention: Variety variation
It’s not just Australian wine regions that have proliferated of late; the collection of grape varieties has also expanded in tandem with the styles of wine that are being produced. Through a combination of winemakers’ desire to try new things, an increased awareness of the vineyards they are working with and rising environmental changes, new varieties are popping up across Australia, often with spectacular results.
A decade ago were you to go in search of an Australian Nebbiolo, Nero d’Avola or Assyrtiko, your search may have been long and ultimately fruitless. Today all these wines are available and their quality is turning heads. S C Pannell’s Adelaide Hills’ Nebbiolo shows how this notoriously picky vine can thrive under Australian skies, while Jim Barry’s recently-launched Clare Valley Assyrtiko is a fascinating example of how heat-loving vines can produce crisp, aromatic whites in Australia.
And it’s not just ‘new’ varieties that are providing fuel to the reinvention fire. Established classics including Grenache, Chardonnay and even Shiraz are adding to the wealth of diversity that is spreading through Australian wine. In the case of Grenache, winemakers in direct response to consumers-demands for more food-friendly wines, have begun crafting styles which are lighter, fresher and a million miles away from the luscious, alcohol-heavy wines of yesteryear. A tasting at d’Arenberg last year revealed Victorian Grenaches that were bright, packed with cherry fruit and had a firmness of structure and freshness of acidity. Similarly, Australian Chardonnay now runs the gamut from the wonderfully full, oak-tinted wines of Western Australia to fresh-tasting, sometimes reductive styles of cool climate Adelaide Hills, Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania.
This combination of grape innovation and reinvention is as exciting as it is significant. Such diversity will help future-proof Australian wine as climate change continues and, more immediately, it will drive continue to consumer interest in Australian wine as they discover these new wines.
Australian wine reinvention: Changing climate
Climate change is a real challenge to the Australian wine industry. Throughout many key regions vintages are becoming earlier, temperatures are rising and, in the irrigation areas, water is becoming a scarcer resource. In the face of these challenges winemakers have sought out new vineyard sites – often at altitude or with south-facing aspects – and have, as we have mentioned, reinvented their vine portfolio so that they can continue to produce world-leading wines. The by-product of the adaption has been a raft of new wines and sustainable winemaking practices that the rest of the wine producing world is paying a great deal of attention to.
Australian wine reinvention: The human factor
The creation of fine wine is ultimately a partnership of people and nature, and while nature is the ultimate arbiter – you can’t make a silk purse from sow’s ear – the human role is still key. Post-millennium, Australian wine has seen an influx of new winemakers whose ideas and aims would have seemed fanciful a couple of decades ago. At the extreme end of the spectrum you have the likes of Anton Von Klopper and James Erskine of Jauma whose natural wines reflect their vision to craft wines that are as free from human and chemical intervention as possible. Such wines are fascinating, idiosyncratic and bold and add yet another strand to the Australian wine narrative.
Less left-field, but no less diverting, are the efforts of winemakers such as Mac Forbes. Mac makes wines that reflect the places from which they hail. His attention to the site specifics of his vineyards in the Yarra Valley and his eschewing of traditional techniques have produced Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that are world class. And in a microcosm of the reinvention that has swept Australia, Mac also likes to look into experimental vines, wines he bottles under his ‘EB’ label and which includes varietal Chenin Blanc and Arneis as well as innovative blends such as his Pinot Gris-Pinot Noir-Pinot Meunier EB13 P3.
And when talking of an obsession with innovation it’s hard to ignore Alpha Box And Dice. Founded in 2008, this young McLaren Vale winery’s mission is to create wines without boundaries, be those boundaries be regional, varietal or stylistic. Wines whose entire raison d’être is to be delicious and to express the minutia and complexity of site and vintage conditions. Using varieties as diverse as Grenache, Dolcetto, Barbera and Shiraz has enabled them to produce a portfolio of extraordinary new wines that are just what the wine buying public ordered.
Australian wine reinvention: The premiumisation process
Premiumisation, despite its funk of marketing-speak – is a distinct trend in Australian wine and will continue to be central to the industry’s reinvention and indeed its future prosperity. The latest set of Australian wine export figures of January 2017 revealed the average value of bottled exports hit a calendar year record, up by 5 per cent to $5.48 per litre FOB. With producers facing challenges from climate change, the strength of the dollar against certain currencies – most notably against Sterling following the Brexit decision – and intense competition at the lower end of the market from other nations, many say the only way is up. With so many of Australia’s regions producing world class wines it seems only logical that they should charge premium prices for those wines.
Premiumisation doesn’t just bring good news to producers though. Premiumisation could mean greater revenues and margins for retailers, offer consumers even better wines and the industry another USP: that of affordable fine wines.
Australian wine reinvention: Past, present and future
If one takes the long view, this reinvention – dramatic as it has been – isn’t really new. From its earliest days, Australian wine has had reinvention as part of its DNA. It’s had to. As a new entrant to the market it needed to find a niche, one that was initially delivered through fortified wines and once that market declined it reinvented itself as a source of affordable table wines. Then, as that market became crowded with other low-cost entrants, so Australia has upped its game again and fixed its sights on premiumisation. These latest reinvention trends then are perfectly in-line with what one should expect from such a vibrant wine industry. They do beg one issue though: if you think you know Australian wine, you may need to drink again…
Join us at Hall 9, Stand G06 at Prowein
To get an up-to-date view of the Australian wine scene and to experience Australian wine’s reinvention for yourself, join us at Hall 9, Stand G06 at Prowein. With over 500 wines from 34 regions and 39 different grape varieties, ProWein is a great opportunity to explore the diversity of Australian wine and the evolution that is taking place. Taste the wines at the stand alongside winery principals or attend an event to delve deeper into a particular topic.
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