Slaking Thirst For Novelty

Innovation: a word from Silicon Valley, not the Barossa. Yet it peppered my conversations with bosses of Australia’s biggest wine companies over recent weeks. The interviews were for the Top 20 feature in April’s Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine. You’ll find no spoilers here, merely a reflection on a recurring theme. This is about fleet-footed giants who know consumers won’t hang around if you don’t give them a reason to.
Many producers preach intimate knowledge of vineyard site and hands-off winemaking. But the major players juggle this with a markedly different mantra: intimate knowledge of consumer tastes and hands-on engineering of bottled novelty. Their preoccupation with relevance is understandable. In an industry where competition is fierce and margins razor thin, they have to build their “share of throat” anyway they can. Any throat will do, of course, but those belonging to so-called millennials – who make up a quarter of the drinking population – are particularly coveted. Last week a UK Wine Intelligence report found these 18- to 35-year-olds “have an overall lack of engagement with wine” and could easily be driven to beer, cider and spirits.
BONDI RD Range with Glass
Which may help explain why Casella, the group that gave us Yellow Tail – and which copped some flak for relying too heavily on the 8.5 million cases it flogs to the US each year – has brought out a sangría at 5.5% alcohol and a Bondi Rd Sauvignon Blanc spritzer at the same strength. This latter comes as a four-pack of 275mL bottles including the improbable flavours elderflower & mint and ginger & green tea. Better they drink something grape-related and graduate to wine than be lost for ever, the argument goes.
Casella’s spritzer isn’t alone in playing with alcopoppy packaging. Some notable debuts this year include the “naughty but nice” labels for De Bortoli’s 330mL Sia Moscato bottles and the piccolo-format bottles for Brown Brothers’ popular, and very good, Prosecco. Brown Brothers, like fellow Australian First Families of Wine member McWilliam’s, has also given its labels a mass makeover. Staid is gone, making way for a colourful, contemporary look. Treasury Wine Estates (TWE) went a step further for its Yellowglen Peacock Lane bubbles, drafting in jewellery designer Samantha Wills. The bottle looks good enough to drink.
TWE says consumers are looking for solutions for mind, body and spirit. These might be portion-controlled (à la piccolo format), calorie-counted (as with TWE’s own Lindeman’s Early Harvest or US brand Skinny Vine) or lower alcohol. Moscato and friends fall under this last heading, and both Jacob’s Creek (Twin Pickings) and Brown Brothers (Moscato with Sauvignon Blanc) have made new forays into semi-sweet territory this past year. The plan here is to bridge the gap between sweet and dry in the hope that sweet-toothed sippers will become committed wine drinkers when they, err, grow up. It’s an interesting area, and one often looked down upon by serious winelovers (see previous sentence).
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That’s not to say all the innovation is directed at this younger, dynamic segment in the market. Jacob’s Creek has been busy in the kitchen, rustling up a couple of wines to match Asian cuisine. Its white Wah wine for sushi now has a red brother for Japanese red-meat dishes. I’m yet to try the red but liked the white: citrus and tropical notes, savoury, grippy with a fittingly briny finish. Then there’s Lamoon, a Grenache-based, plum-sauce-and-five-spice wine that works well with a Thai beef roll. Beef’s also on the menu at TWE, where a pair of Pepperjack Shirazes have been created to go with two different cuts of steak.
Big Wine is also engaging in more small-scale, sustainable practices as people apparently become more interested in the origins of their booze. Hence Angove will soon add another organic wine alongside its Sauvignon Blanc and Peter Lehmann is working on its first carbon-neutral wine. The Barossa company has made a concerted effort to shake its blokey-red-and-Semillon tag in recent years, building a strong following among women and younger drinkers. Meanwhile Victoria’s oldest family-owned winery Tahbilk, which achieved carbon neutral status in 2012, released a pair of new wines to trumpet its green credentials. The Tower Shiraz (RRP: $17) is a fresh, bright-fruited, peppery affair and I was really taken with the Marsanne Viognier Roussanne: creamy, rich, harmonious and brimming with orange blossom, peaches and apricots (RRP: $15).
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Mainstream companies are also getting to grips with fringe varieties such as Carmenère, Grüner Veltliner and Montepulciano. “I’m an idiot. Am I on drugs?” said one CEO as he ran through the weird and wonderful grapes he’s planting. The likes of Fiano, Vermentino, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Tempranillo have tended to be boutique territory; now they’re anything but. Exhibits A and B: Jacob’s Creek Classic Fiano and Classic Sangiovese.
In general the cognoscenti applaud efforts to push boundaries on sustainable practices and wine styles. They tend to be more dismissive of gimmicks they see as dumbing down wine. But is there a clear-cut distinction? The success of these companies is built on a readiness to serve popular taste. On this evidence their thirst remains undiminished.

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