Australia’s Growing Pains

Southeast England, early 90s: I was a smitten schoolkid and should’ve seen it coming. The exchange student waltzed in from Down Under and bowled my beloved over. It happened every year; these sprightly, laidback Aussies won hearts without seeming to try.
Australian wine did much the same thing back then. In 1994 it was the third favourite country among readers of UK magazine Decanter. Now, I’ve just learned, it’s slipped to sixth. The reasons are complex and manifold. I touched upon many of them in my piece on Savour Australia, and won’t go into them again here.
Instead, I wanted to share some words of realism and encouragement. I had the pleasure of speaking to UK-based Master of Wine Sarah Abbott a couple of weeks ago, following her stint as guest judge at the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards. She summarised Australia’s position pretty well. “I think what you’ve had in Australia is huge, rapid and unprecedented success, coming from nowhere to having a fifth of all wine in the UK in the space of 15 years,” she told me over the phone from England. “You introduced a whole generation to it. It had accessibility, fun and enjoyment and came with a coherent message.”
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But times have changed. Australia’s at a stage where it wants to differentiate and go upmarket, moving away from what Abbott calls “cheery stuff that’s price driven”. Regionality and quality are key, as we heard time and again at Savour Australia. Abbott says – and I couldn’t agree more – that Australia has a lot to shout about on both of these counts. But getting the message across is tough, not least because Australia’s New World rivals – notably Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa – are capable of producing stunning wines and have a compelling story of their own. “It will be a painful time,” Abbott warned.
But Australian winemakers can’t influence the exchange rate or wait for their competitors to fall out of favour. They need to make the most of what they’ve got. The tricky part is working together as an industry – easier said than done when big players and boutiques are wont to act like enemies. I also agree with Abbott when she says we need to promote regionality while maintaining an overarching country identity. “Those things should go together, not fight against one another.”
But there are grounds for optimism. Abbott praised the “dynamism, drive and great sensitivity” of the winemakers and “the thrill, diversity and elegant generosity of great Australian wine”.
Wine consumers – and the girls I went to school with – are no longer easy prey for Aussie charm. But Australian wine has done a lot of growing up since then, too. It’s day should come again.

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