Is fine wine an old people’s game? If so, how does one bring the younger generation into spending their hard earned income on better bottles?

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 13.56.22Purchasing fine wine is not only expensive but it also demands a level of wine knowledge. Therefore it naturally suits those consumers that have accumulated both wealth and experience over the years. Unsurprisingly, the younger generation tends to pay less for a bottle of wine as they earn less money and lack the confidence in their choices. One way of making wine more accessible is to educate young consumers but not everyone wants to be educated, so the challenge for the wine trade is to give the new generation confidence to engage with wine in an entertaining, non-intimidating way.

Fine wine is often seen as too formal, exclusive and rather complicated and none of these traits attract younger drinkers who seek fun and inclusivity. Therefore, the challenge is not only to inspire wine drinkers to trade up but firstly to motivate young consumers to appreciate good wines. In order to get consumers to drink less but better wines the wine trade needs to build effective new marketing strategies that are focused on the consumer and their eating and drinking behaviours.

There is currently a real interest and enthusiasm in food and wine in the UK concentrated particularly in London. The explosion of gourmet establishments such as trendy bistros, coffee shops, cheese and bread specialists, pop up restaurants and wine bars has seen an exciting revolution. Wine bars such as Vinoteca, 28-50, The Remedy, Sager & Wilde offer customers an opportunity to indulge in a better choice of wines and small sharing dishes while creating a deeper social bond and building loyalty, lacking in other sectors.

Diners are not only broadening their taste horizons when eating out from hotdogs to lobsters, but they are also starting to experiment with different ways to enjoy wine. Drinking wine over ice or mixing it with fruit juices are a couple of ways that a new generation of drinkers are getting their first taste of wine.  The latest consumer trend is towards fresher lighter still and sparkling wines for their versatility and food friendly appeal. In addition, indigenous grape varieties are increasing in popularity driven by the consumer desire for provenance and authenticity. Not only tastes are changing and challenging traditional wine perceptions but also the way consumers value the shopping experience.

Wine shops like The Sampler, Bottle Apostle, Vagabond Wines and Hedonism Wines are rightly putting the consumer at the centre of their business and focussing on their emotional as much as their rational reasons for buying wine. They have managed to embrace innovation and create shopping spaces where people want to be. Using Enomatic machines people can now sample wines before their purchase. By creating relaxed areas with beautiful displays, customers can socialise and be inspired to drink better wines. The most successful retailers don’t just sell wine but offer an experience.

However, the painful truth is that a huge amount of mass-produced uninteresting wine and food is still sold through supermarkets. Consumers may be more interested in the provenance of food and wine, seeking local organic produce but the price and promotional activities are still the biggest purchasing drivers. This has resulted in miniscule margins for producers and agents but worse still a dire selection and no service for consumers. It would be too easy to just blame supermarkets who under the premise of giving consumers what they want, use bottom end wines and heavy discounts to lure people into stores. But the wine industry would really benefit more from giving consumers a clear purpose for the consumption of better wines by offering incentives and connecting with them emotionally.

Nevertheless, the UK is one of the most price-savvy markets in the world. Wine consumers slot primarily into two distinctive groups. The minority who are highly involved and interested in fine wines, and a large group of consumers unwilling to spend more than £4-5 per bottle (according to the UK Wine Market Landscape Report by Wine Intelligence carried in 2014). Over 16 million consumers buy wine in the supermarkets and despite some large retailers (such as Majestic, Oddbins etc.) successfully selling more premium wines, the majority of wine is still sold at £4. The average price per bottle has increased to £5.34 but this figure provides a false perception of people trading up. When you consider the duty increase by 46% in the last five years the real price of wine has in fact fallen in recent years. As Tim Atkin MW put it bluntly “a lot of people are still drinking wine that is mediocre or worse.”

Despite all the challenges, there are many opportunities that the wine trade can embrace in order to engage with young consumers. Strategic use of social networking where consumers are encouraged to like, review or recommend on a wine online is one of them. The new generation is technology savvy and this trait sets them apart from previous generations. They spend 108 hours per year on average browsing the internet for work and study, 77 hours a year reading news online and 71 hours a year on Twitter. Thanks to social media they can participate in conversations about wine and post and share wine photos. Whereas advertising offers a wide coverage, it is limited to one-way conversation between the brands and consumers. However, directly engaging with consumers through social media has become a fantastic two-way marketing communication tool especially for producers that are based many miles from their target market. New World producers such as those from New Zealand and Australia have proved to be natural communicators reflecting their understanding of social media and its value in engaging with consumers and the wine trade.

An online retail presence is also a great platform to attract new consumers but is still very much under utilised by wine companies. It not only offers convenience, which is often a key deal-breaker for today’s consumer, but also competitive cost, a wide range of exciting wines and fast hassle-free delivery. Whereas purchasing wine in store or restaurant can involve social risks by being embarrassed in front of friends or colleagues, buying wine online offers a more friendly and relaxing environment. It also helps less experienced consumers to search for wine in a less daunting way that assures them that the wine is good enough to share with others, instead just using price as the quality indicator.

To further battle the intimidation driven by lack of knowledge, producers can use packaging to communicate with consumers. Many young less experienced consumers rely heavily on descriptions from labels (or for that matter medals won and alcohol content). There are thousands of wines to choose from and it can be difficult for consumers to select one over another. Still many labels are as confusing as ever making it hard to gauge the quality of wine prior to purchase, even for a wine expert. Clear descriptive clues and attractive label design manages the perception of wine’s quality and drives the likelihood of purchase. Clever packaging can offer a promise of value that consumers will appreciate and a promise of something special.

Design recognition (including logo, brand symbols, patterns, colours etc.) also plays a key role in brand familiarity which is one of the most informational cues consumers use to assess wines before buying. Investing in brand image and marketing requires an entirely different approach depending on the scope and goal of brands. Whereas consistency is required for mass brands, experiences are essential for luxury brands. Many luxury brand owners have realized that the story of wine and its lifestyle projection can inspire and emotionally engage with consumer as much as the actual taste of wine.

Despite the visual appeal of a bottle and its brand familiarity, the most powerful influencer in selecting wines is a friend’s recommendation. When asked, the majority of consumers are more comfortable to ask for a recommendation from friends and family than asking questions in a store. The same factor wins when asked what would encourage consumers to trade up. Retailers have the opportunity to change consumers’ perceptions of the shopping experience by creating a more approachable atmosphere and using language that consumers understand. The wine trade also has an opportunity to create more wine events and focused tastings in order to encourage people to spread the word. Each loyal consumer has the power to play a role of an ambassador for the individual producer or brand.

Boutique wine producers may be able to learn from the recent rise in popularity of craft brewers around the world. They have much in common as they are small, independent and traditional. Neither have large financial investments yet their impact is significant. Craft breweries use experimentation with flavours and packaging to cleverly tap into the Millennial’s desire for adventure and to encourage beer drinkers to come back for more. This has resulted in the UK beer market seeing a shift in demand from lager (which has dominated the market for nearly 40 years) towards more full-flavoured beers, stronger Pale Ales and seasonal beers.

In conclusion, when communicating with the consumer, the goal should be to encourage people to make their choices on more than simply price and to experiment and try new styles. In order to make wine less intimidating, the wine trade would benefit from using familiar language that consumers understand instead of focusing on exclusivity and formality. Furthermore, the wine trade should not merely expect consumers to buy better wines but needs to offer incentives to do so. The most effective strategy to achieve this is to build on brand familiarity and loyalty, grasp the power of communicating through packaging and label design, encourage recommending and sharing of wine online and above all to offer a better shopping experience. Wine does not have to be a commodity but can be an enjoyable and social experience. Ultimately, the biggest challenge is to make good wine more recognizable, available and accessible to consumers.

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Posted by on January 23, 2015 in Wine Market


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The Douro Revolution

End of harvest festivalThe Douro Valley with its dramatic and breathtaking landscapes is one of the most distinctive wine regions in the world. But that is not why this area is famous; whether you are cruising the Douro river or exploring the streets of Porto and Gaia, you are never far from being seduced by a glass of Port. Indeed, Port wine production runs through veins of Douro history, culture and even politics. It is the region’s distinguished and age-worthy Ports that enjoy a worldwide reputation. However, the recent shift to the production and marketing of characterful table wines is changing international perceptions and the reputation of what this hot, dry, remote and once barely inhabitable place can offer.

Douro DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) was one of the world’s first regulated wine regions, initiated by Marques de Pombal and created in 1756. The growing demand for its sweet, rich and opulent wines with high alcohol spurred commercial interest in fortified wines and subsequently in regulating its production by classifying the vineyards and certifying the wines. This laid the foundation for what was to become one of the most successful wine brands – Port. As shippers based in Villa Nova de Gaia started to blend and market their own brands, local table wines remained largely overlooked as it became difficult for individual producers to make and sell wine economically. Recent law changes (in 1986) brought new dynamism with many new Quintas (winegrowing estates) focused back on developing and perfecting table wines.

Of the region’s 45,700 ha of land planted with vine, close to three quarters are designed for Port production. Out of the three subzones (Baixo Corgo, Douro Superior) Cima Corgo is still the center of Port production but a search for land that is suitable for production of quality table wines (with high altitude and north facing slopes) has caused a frenzy of renovating and planting on new sites over the last decade. Thanks to considerate investment, incentives from the Portuguese government and the EU and the evolution of modern winemaking and a new generation of well-educated winemakers, Douro is undergoing an exciting change.

The economic prospects of the region are challenged by the wide gap between the relative poverty of the hundreds of small growers and the wealthy flagship Port houses. Over 40,000 individual vine growers work the majority of the land, each owning an average of 1.2 hectare giving them minimal profits. The additional challenge for the production of fine unfortified wines lies in the fact that grapes destined for Port production fetch a better price (Port grapes fetch €900 per pipe but table wine grapes only €225) and that 80% of local consumers buy wine in supermarkets under €2 a bottle, unprepared to pay premium prices. Port’s biggest challenge is the rising price of brandy in Europe (due to short harvests and the removal of an EU subsidy for the distillation of excess wine stock), forcing producers to pay an extra €14 million for the fortifying spirit in 2013, on top of a €21 million rise in 2012.

Convincing both local and international consumers of the value of wines across all price points and getting them to explore the diversity of more premium table wines is the next big step, and one that will require creativity. Angola, France and the UK are the largest export markets with the US, Brazil, Canada and China promising the highest potential for growth. Although the perception is often that Portugal is about cheap and cheerful brands such as Mateus, Lancers or Sir Cliff Richards’ Vida Nova, consumers are also starting to embrace more premium Portuguese wines. Recent figures from ViniPortugal show a remarkable value increase of 31% in 2014 UK exports (a 22% increase in volume) indicating consumers are trading up when purchasing Portuguese wines.

Douro’s producers are creating their own identity for unfortified wines. The great diversity of indigenous varieties such as Viosinho, Rabigato, Codega de Larinho, Donzelinho, Malvasia, Gouveiho (Spain’s Godello) and Bastardo, Sousão or Tinta Amarela (known as Trincadeira) is remarkable. While the majority of the wine world is focusing on growing international varieties, this challenging yet unique point of difference could make or break the Douro. Dirk Niepoort is one of the pioneers of the Douro as a source of such high quality table wines. This stubborn, highly charismatic and often controversial man has revolutionized the way the world views Portuguese wines and has successfully entered export markets that many producers can only dream of through his approach, balancing tradition with innovation.

In order to produce characterful, approachable fresh wines with good acidity and lower alcohol, the focus is on terroir and a winemaking philosophy where less is more. For example, Niepoort’s own vineyards are farmed organically and many of their growers follow the same path. There is evidence of a move from buying grapes across the region to a focus on individual sites or soils in order to drive unique styles and single block expressions. The growing shift is towards farming own vineyards and taking better care of the land, a trend that has seen a global revolution. Christian Seely is proposing to increase his vineyards by 100ha, doubling his current area with not only indigenous varieties but also a plan to experiment with Syrah, which should be suitable to local schist and granite soils.

This ongoing revolution is slowly changing the relationship between fortified and unfortified wine production in the Douro. While attention is still fixed on fortified wines, economic prospects for the region are turning towards more approachable whites and reds labeled as Douro DOC or more flexible Duriense VR (Vinho Regional). The flagship red varieties – Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (Spain’s Tempranillo), Tinta Cão, Tinta Barocca – make the best Ports but are also capable of making noteworthy unfortified wines. This adaptability and the fact that these still wines do not require ageing like Ports (either prior or post release) allow early consumption and providing commercial benefit.

In years ahead, Douro will not be a place known just for cheap fruity wines but for great wines. The outstanding diversity of indigenous varieties, the rising quality and immediately approachable and affordable styles have unique potential in both established and emerging markets. What is more important is that there are an increasing number of people – producers, wine critics, sommeliers, importers – that share the same desire to promote Douro wines. Prospects will heavily depend on whether this enthusiasm will inspire consumers to actually buy these wines in years to come. Growing value and not volume and embracing innovation and fresh thinking is the key for long-term success for the Douro.

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Posted by on November 23, 2014 in Portugal


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How fair are government taxes on wine around the world?

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 00.19.37Government tax rates on wine differ significantly between countries and it is difficult and complex to accurately compare them. Different considerations and challenges such as economic, cultural, political and legal determine how taxes are applied. Whether they are fair or unfair depends on your point of view. The wine industry constantly fights to avoid increases in excise duty in order to protect their sales and profits. Producers that rely on local demand call for higher import tariffs in order to protect their domestic wine industry. Alternatively, those relying on exports call for free trade or tax rebates in order to sustain and grow their business. Consumers are principally against any type of tax. Whereas governments rely heavily on tax revenue, yet never seem to be satisfied.

There are huge differences in government taxes. For instance excise duty rates vary from €6 per bottle of wine in Norway to zero in Hong Kong. On the first glance, this significant rate difference seems unfair. Why should consumers pay so much for their favourite tipple in one country while others enjoy much lower pricing? However, comparison of taxes is complicated as the value of rates is based on different cultural, political and economic philosophies of countries. Following a period of alcohol prohibition, Norway’s high taxes are linked with strict restrictions by the government alcohol monopoly Vinmonopolet. Whereas Hong Kong, thanks to its global connectivity has had zero tax since February 2008 with a view to economic dynamism and liberalism.

However, even within the European Union where the majority of members share the same currency and similar economic goals, the excise duties vary so remarkably it can hardly be considered fair. The United Kingdom is one of the highest tax paying countries at £2.05 per bottle in comparison to traditional wine producing country such as France which only charges €0.03 per bottle. So if you buy £5 bottle of wine in the UK (being the average price), 57% is tax and about 28% is retail margin and the liquid is barely 25%, making it poor value for money for consumers. No wonder then that thousands of Brits travel across the channel every year to take advantage of the bargains in Calais.

Governments can receive a significant amount of funding through wine taxes. Some of this revenue is used to offset the cost of crimes and health damage that are related to alcohol abuse. The wine industry in the UK paid over £15 billion in duty and VAT to the government in 2010 yet the Institute of Alcohol Studies claims that alcohol related harm was estimated to cost society (England) £21 billion in the same year. This includes £3.5 billion of NHS cost, £11 billion of alcohol-related crime and £7 billion of lost productivity due to alcohol. This estimate suggests that alcohol consumption brings more financial losses then benefits to the government. However an accurate estimate of the economic cost of alcohol consumption is difficult to calculate due to the number of variables involved.

From the wine industry’s point of view, there is a danger that taxes reach a level where reduced consumption materially impacts sales and profits. In order to avoid this, the UK duty increase was postponed in 2014 (as a result of the Call Time on Duty initiative). It was estimated that action will save the industry £175 – 230 million and protect over 6,000 jobs. On the other hand, the French government (starting from a much lower base) is keen to drastically increase the tax from €0.03 to somewhere between €0.30-0.60 per bottle, estimated to bring an extra €2 billion to the state government.

Taxes vary depending on whether wine is imported or locally produced. For example in Shanghai, tax for imported wines adds 48% to the cost of a bottle compared to domestic wine which only adds 30% to its cost. This protects the local industry. However, in India, the import tax is so high (a whopping 150% of the value of the wine), that a bottle of Jacob’s Creek costs US$40. Imported wines are therefore incredibly expensive and difficult to access for an average consumers. In order to make imported wine more available and pricing more affordable, discussions about reducing the duty to 40% are underway.

In Australia the tax is the same for wines regardless whether they are imported or locally produced. Thanks to the WET rebates, New Zealand wine exports to Australia have increased by 139% since 2005 when it was introduced. This is currently causing a lot of issues for local producers despite its fairness in free trade terms. In order to protect the Australian wine industry and control overseas competition, the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia is calling for Wine Equalisation Tax reform to address this issue. It is believed that the reform could earn the Australian government AU$25 million a year.

The notorious complexity of US taxes have been known to discourage wineries from trading directly to consumers. The original idea to lift restraints of the three-tier system in 37 states (including California) was to help the availability of wines produced by small and less known wineries and to promote selling wine directly to consumers. Whereas federal excise duty tax is fixed according to alcohol level, and for still wine up to 14% abv is charged at $0.21 per bottle of wine, state tax is much more complicated. Each state has its own rules and regulations, each requires different record keeping and payments. This challenging tax regime limits the number of states that wineries are prepared to work with and limits consumers’ choice of wine from other states.

Keeping tax systems simple and consistent may seem to be a good idea from administrative point of view. But when it comes to the link between taxes and the alcohol level of wine, there are some who call for more versatile tax bands. It is no coincidence that the majority of red wines do not reach an alcohol level over 15.5%. For example, in the UK still wines with alcohol between 5.5% and 15.5% are taxed the same. The result is that nearly all wines end up being taxed by the same amount which may be considered unfair. In order to encourage responsible drinking, promote lower alcohol wines and introduce fairer trading, many producers together with the Wine and Spirit Trade Association are therefore proposing a different alcohol tax band between 9% and 12% abv.

Government taxes on wine are so sensitive and impactful that their fairness and subsequent challenges or benefits are being reviewed constantly. Arguably, many governments struggle to balance fairness when applying their taxes. What some producers may view as fair trade others view as a threat to their profits and a limit to their growth. What some view as a restriction of free choice others view as beneficial control of alcohol consumption. However, what is certain is that hardly anyone believes that taxes on wines are fair to them and there will always be groups who lobby for change.

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Posted by on November 12, 2014 in Uncategorized


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The Big Picture – Marlborough wines in the UK

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Despite all the challenges, the UK is still a very important market for New Zealand and especially Marlborough wines. It holds a reputation as one of the most sophisticated and attractive wine markets in the world and is a hub where many wine trends are pioneered and where both small and large producers can be commercially successful. Despite export market share dropping from first to third place (after Australia and USA), the UK is still worth NZ$318.6 million so it is important not to lose sight of this market.

On one hand, New Zealand proudly shares the premium category with France with average price per bottle growing by 11% in the past year to £7.26. However, the record 2014 harvest (even higher than the oversupplied 2008 vintage) will undoubtedly bring many challenges in order to remain this quality driven growth. The biggest challenge being the enormous volume of low end bulk Sauvignon Blanc flooding the UK market, labelled under mysterious own labels and potentially devaluing the brand Marlborough SB.

The good news is that there is currently a real interest and enthusiasm in wine (and food) in the UK concentrated particularly in London. The explosion of wine bars such as Vinoteca, 28-50, The Remedy, Sager & Wilde is visible proof. On-trade offers customers an opportunity to indulge in a better choice of fine wines while creating a deeper bond with consumers and building their loyalty, lacking in other sectors.   The New Zealand Cellar set up by Melanie Brown encourages wine and food enthusiasts to experience the wide varieties and styles that New Zealand offers by promoting focussed wine talks and dinners.

The wine scene has evolved a lot since my first taste of wine in 2006 while working as an Assistant Manager at Oddbins’ fine wine branch in London. Shops like The Sampler, Bottle Apostle, Vagabond Wines and Hedonism Wines created shopping spaces where people want to be. Using Enomatic machines people can now sample wines before their purchase. By creating relaxing areas with beautiful displays, customers can socialise and be inspired to drink better wines. The most successful retailers don’t just sell wine but offer an experience.

E-commerce has now also become a profitable new route to market. The UK online wine market is worth £800 million and accounts for 11% of total sales with 25% of UK wine drinkers now shopping online. Swig Wines, Naked Wines, Virgin Wines and Direct Wines are just some of the most successful online businesses that offer convenience, personal customer service and an extensive and exciting wine choice.

However, selling wine profitably in the UK is still very much a challenge. Fluctuating exchange rates and the rise of wine duty have pushed prices up and put a strain on consumers’ spending. More than 70% of all wines are sold through supermarkets thanks to on-going promotional activities. Shelves are filled with low priced wine driven by vast competitions amongst the key brands offering miniscule margins for producers and agents and dire selection and no service to consumers.

Directly engaging with consumers through social media has become a fantastic marketing tool especially for wineries that are based many miles from their target market. Being a keen blogger, Facebook and Twitter user myself, I have appreciated the ease with which I can interact instantly with producers from around the world. New World producers such as those from New Zealand and Australia have proved to be natural communicators reflecting their understanding of social media and its value in engaging with consumers and wine trade.

New Zealand wines have successfully penetrated all sectors of the UK market making it accessible to a wide audience, with Marlborough’s Sauvignon Blanc reputation leading the way. Despite its small yet still growing production (producing less than 1% of the world’s crop) it has grown in importance by focusing on value rather than volume. The World Atlas of Wine dedicated just one page to New Zealand in 1985 for its third edition, but by the time of its latest edition, eight full pages were devoted to the country.

Despite its relatively short history in winegrowing and winemaking, and possibly as a result, many producers are in touch with today’s consumer and offer easy to understand wines with great potential. Most recently, Pernod Ricard has cleverly tapped into the latest UK trend in low alcohol wines. Based on their consumer research they launched Brancott Estate Flight style, premium low alcohol wine (RRP £10.49).

Observing UK supermarket shelves, one may jump to the conclusion that the pungent Sauvignon Blanc is Marlborough’s one trick pony. Pony that may be sniffed at by some but the fact that its demand is growing shows its continued importance. Tesco offers 50 New Zealand wines, out of which 40 are from Marlborough and 37 are Sauvignon Blancs. But look further and you will discover pockets of diversity. From rising potential of Marlborough Pinot Noir to aromatic Pinot Gris and Riesling from Awatere Valley. UK consumers can now choose from a number of single vineyard SBs (Ara, Villa Maria), premium oak aged SBs (Cloudy Bay, Dog Point, Jackson Estate), sparkling SBs and organic/biodynamic wines (Seresin Estate, Walnut Block).

All in all, the future for New Zealand wines in the UK is bright. Marlborough, in particular, offers distinctively bright fruit flavours and trademark zestiness which is sought after by the modern UK consumer. But it also manages to attract more discerning wine enthusiasts with its diversity, innovation and premium lead exports and its producers’ willingness to listen to their consumers.

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Posted by on November 4, 2014 in New Zealand


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Going back to school with Wine Australia

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 15.44.09The idea of offering a one day wine school event in London first came from the talented Yvonne May, head of Wine Australia for UK & Ireland. Sadly her battle with illness cut her inspirational and tireless work short but her legacy championing Australian wine continues.

The aim of this compelling event is to make UK wine professionals aware of the diversity of Australian wines and provide them with up-to-date knowledge about new vineyard and winemaking techniques as well as a concise overview of todays developments, challenges and potential. As we can’t all fly to Australia, this is the next best thing.

So who better to guide us through the day than charismatic and knowledgeable Tim Atkin MW, UK wine journalist and the straight-talking and accomplished Steve Webber, chief winemaker at De Bortoli in Yarra Valley. The tasting flights were organised by Emma Symington, UK events and education manager, who had the tough job of selecting wines that demonstrate best the typicity of the key regions and their distinctive styles.

The challenge for the speakers was not only to captivate the diverse audience but also to summarise the entire Australian story within one day. It would seem that Australia has had a complete personality change so regardless the level of knowledge or experience in the room, there was plenty to learn. And if you have missed it, here are the highlights.

Australia boasts some of the oldest vines in the world (Tahbilk still has ½ hectare of un-grafted pre-phylloxera Shiraz vines from 1860). Despite only 0.025% of the land being planted under vine, you can find any climate and type of soil here. The diversity of wine styles has few limits. The finest quality wines are produced between 30 and 40 South latitude but you may be surprised to know that you can find wineries pretty much anywhere in the country (for example Granite Belt in Queensland). But some of the best wines come from cooler parts of warm climate regions. This is achieved through either higher altitude (Orange, Canberra district, Pyrenees) or going south with proximity to ocean (Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Tasmania).

Australian wines have come a long way since 1845 when the first bottle was exported to the UK. Then the majority of wines were fortified and it was not until the 1970’s that table wines took over the reign. Thanks to introduction of temperature control, the focus on international varietal styles and an open-minded attitude towards marketing, brand Wine Australia established its reputation in the export market for high quality table wines by the 1980’s.

However, as with best things in life, success did not last forever and today Australia is being challenged by a strong Australian dollar hindering its export markets, an imbalance between demand and supply skewed to over-production, limited water access and risk of droughts (it is impossible to establish new vineyard without irrigation) and the seeming lack of strong big brands as the market diversifies.

According to Steve, reducing the vineyard area to 120 000 ha from the current 150 000 ha would help to reduce the overproduction. Furthermore, in order to maintain sustainable profitable growth for producers, limiting their production to wines that can achieve retail value of at least £7 per bottle is advisable if not essential.

Comparing wines from a decade ago to those made in the last couple of years shows obvious changes implemented in the vineyards and wineries. So when was the last time you had a glass of Australian wine? And if you have to think more then five seconds to answer this then you had better visit your local independent wine shop, right?

Many boutique wineries are focussing on organic and biodynamic farming with notable attention being given to the vineyards. Despite the new technology and possibly because of it, producers find it challenging but inevitable to let go and move towards minimal handling. Spontaneous alcoholic fermentations are slowly replacing or complementing the use of cultured yeasts. Earlier picking and only token use of new oak (more French less American) is being reflected in fresher, more balanced, lower alcohol wines.

Riesling is no longer only produced in cooler higher altitude sites of Eden (500m) and Clare Valley (400-570m). But new ventures have proven successful in Tasmania (Josef Chromy) and Western Australia (Plantagenet in Mount Barker) thanks to their proximity to the cooling ocean breeze. Also Strathbogie Ranges in Victoria with its unique granite soil is starting to be known for its fine Rieslings (Mac Forbes), some fermented in old French casks for richer texture (Fowles Wine). There is a move towards slower alcoholic fermentations especially at the end of the ferment in order to reach balance between acidity and residual sugar. The majority of styles are dry but a few are starting to experiment with residual sugar, Grosset from Clare Valley being one the earliest pioneers (try his Alea with RS 12g/l).

Chardonnay, love it or hate it, is Australia’s best grape according to Tim. First planted in South Australia in 1937, it has transformed from a peachy and buttery spotty teenager to more sophisticated elegant grown-up. The trend now is towards extracting more phenolics and focussing on dryness away from sunshine ripeness. The ability to access more suitable and a wider variety of clone material is improving the quality. The combination of earlier picking, more use of whole bunch press followed by spontaneous ferment and minimal oak treatment (more old than new French) is reflected in crisper, delicate Burgundian styles.

Chardonnay is produced almost everywhere from warm & humid Hunter Valley (Tyrrell’s), high altitude Orange (600m) to cool coastal regions in Yarra Valley (Oakridge Wines), Mornington Peninsula (Kooyong), Tasmania (Derwent Estate), Margaret River (Leeuwin Estate) and Adelaide Hills (Shaw & Smith). However, there are strong differences in opinion on what Australian Chardonnay should taste like. Some are manipulating flavours by purposefully oxidising must, using wild yeasts or experimenting with different vessels whereas others prefer minimal intervention and focus on terroir, letting the wines speak for themselves.

Pinot Noir is everyone’s darling. Numerous winemakers are obsessed with this variety and as a result produce some of the best examples reaching the heights of Cote d’Or. Gone are the days when Pinot Noir was boosted with a small portion of Shiraz. Balance and lower alcohol (sometimes managed by using open tanks which blows off some of the alcohol) is aspired for. The focus is not on creating a particular style but to reflect an individual terroir/vineyard site which is what Pinot Noir does best. Unconventionally, use of whole bunch in order to exaggerate perfume and stalky freshness has a strong following despite being rarely used in Burgundy. Maybe it is all that inspirational and extensive drinking of DRC or Dujac who use 100% whole bunch as a textural component, jokes Steve.

Most Pinot Noir is planted in Yarra Valley (De Bortoli) as it thrives in this relatively free draining clay/silt/limestone soil. However, there are great Pinots made in many areas with cooling influence. From Mornington Peninsula (Ten Minutes by Tractor), Gippsland (Bill Downie), Geelong (Farr), Tasmania (Stefano Lubiana), Southern Fleurieu (Tapanappa).

Semillon used to be called Hunter River Riesling. There is definitely a resemblance to German Riesling with its high acidity, lower alcohol, lemony zestiness and occasional kerosene aromas. Three distinctive styles are produced in Australia. Hunter Valley Semillon (Brokenwood) has low alcohol (10.5% abv) and is dry, fresh and lean thanks to the warm humid climate, very early picking, no MLF and no oak. Their potential to age is timeless (Tyrrell’s). Barossa Valley Semillon (Peter Lehman) is richer but despite being picked early its alcohol resembles classic white wine. Margaret River Semillon (Suckfizzle) has more vibrant character thanks to blending with pungent Sauvignon Blanc. Its style resembles Bordeaux Blanc in many respects thanks to similar gravel and clay soils and French oak barrel ageing. But even Semillon is changing now as the tendency is to make early drinking more instantly approachable wines, possibly to re-capture the interest in these undervalued and possibly misunderstood wines.

Shiraz is the signature varietal of Australia. I feel that to state that there are two styles of Shiraz now produced would not do justice to this exceptional and outperforming grape. The trend is towards producing fresher, peppery, lower alcohol styles using a portion of whole bunch and old French cask than new oak. Suitable climates vary from Yarra Valley – Beechworth (Jamsheed), Pyrenees (Dalwhinnie), Heathcote (Greenstone Vineyard), Canberra (Clonakilla) to traditional regions such as Barossa Valley (Penfolds), Eden Valley (Yalumba), Clare Valley (Taylors Wines), McLaren Vale (Wirra Wirra) and Hunter Valley (Brokenwood). But classic rich, dark fruit-flavoured, full-bodied highly concentrated styles are still around, collecting gold medals and being highly sort after (Torbreck).

Cabernet Sauvignon is the work horse of Australia and after Shiraz and Chardonnay the third most planted. It has been entirely transformed, many examples showing the typicity of bright cassis fruit with bitter sweet spice and fresh tannins. Arguably Coonawarra and Margaret River offer some of the best examples. Coonawarra (Wynns) is a unique region full of contrasting climatic conditions with hot temperature on one side and frequent spring frosts and rain at vintage. Margaret River (Cullen) with its terroir and climate resembling Bordeaux produces remarkable quality Cabernets. Clare Valley’s (Jim Barry) cool nights help to preserve fresh acidity and finesse in Cabernets and despite its relative remoteness it produces newsworthy wines.

Sparkling styles are still rare. Some of the best sparkling wines are produced in Tasmania taking full advantage of its cool climate. Both Jansz and Arras are well-established and distributed in the UK but there are many boutique producers that are waiting to be discovered in order to appear on British shores. The tendency is to produce Champagne style blends of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but surprisingly Pinot Meunier has not been planted yet in Tasmania.

Sweet wines have been made in Australia since 1982 and De Bortoli Noble One Semillon was one of the first successful brands. What may surprise you is that back in 1920’s botrytised Semillon was also made in a fortified style. These botrytised styles are now aged in new French oak creating a very similar style to Sauternes.

Fortified wines (rare muscats/topaques and ports) once accounted for almost all production but this has dramatically changed to the extent that only a few remaining producers such as Campbells and All Saints Estate in Rutherglen still excel at this blending art and Penfolds producing limited release ports in Barossa Valley.

Whatever the future holds with all its challenges, I believe that UK and Australia will continue their strong symbiotic relationship. The UK still remains Australian number one export market despite the stick that Brits sometimes give to Aussie wines, historically being too ripe and now for being too lean. Brits seek Australian innovation and their easy-to-understand wines that don’t break the bank. As the worldwide focus thankfully tends to premium wine production with individual site distinction improving quality and profitability, Australia is well positioned. After all I believe that this spectacular country is still at a learning stage and the best wines are still to be made and discovered by us.

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Posted by on October 5, 2014 in Australia


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Fresh Face of California

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 21.52.44 What happens when a room brimming full of delicious, authentic and diverse wines coincides with a hipster crowd? You get The Dirty Dozen tasting. True to its name, one of the coolest and beardiest tasting events in London. Amongst all that “I don’t care looks” and skinny jeans, I discovered the new California and learnt a thing or two.

 Many Californian producers have been in a pursuit of finesse for years but it has been only recently that this new wave has washed onto UK shores. Mainly thanks to Roberson Wine team, pioneers of new trends and finders of the best regional wines, our perceptions and misconceptions of what Californian wines taste like are being challenged.

 A place that was once dominated by rich, powerful and highly alcoholic fruit bombs is now being replaced by newly emerging bright and fresh wines. The reputation for over-ripeness and heavy-handed oak treatments was legendary. However, whereas it’s great for collecting high scores and awards, it results in wines that taste very similar and are more difficult to enjoy.

 But thanks to early picking and a focus on diversity and balance, numerous winemakers are producing wines that people would actually like to drink. That is not to say that Californian producers have ceased to produce late-picked concentrated blockbusters but many are reacting to the changing emphasis toward lighter, purer more vibrant wines.

Flowers Chardonnay from Sonoma Coast (The Wine Treasury £48)

The 2011 was picked early showing higher acidity than expected from classic Chardonnay. Yet the low yields ensured full ripeness indicated by fruit richness and texture well-balanced by moderate alcohol (13.7%) abv thanks to the cooling Pacific Ocean influence (2 miles away) and delicate roasted almost nutty notes more reminiscent of flat white than espresso. 100% spontaneous alcoholic fermentation and ageing in French oak barrels for 14 months (only 18% new) ensured elegance and defined fruit vibrancy.

Sean Thackrey “Pleiades” [plee-uh-deez] (The Wine Treasury £32)

This is one of Sean’s famously controversial and experimental non-vintage blends of Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Viognier, Syrah, Zinfandel and Mourvèdre. With pretty aromas of pear, donut peaches and Toblerone white chocolate it is reminiscent of white wine but the taste brings you undoubtedly back to red. Despite its premium price, the wine is labelled as Table Wine due to its unique combination of different regions and vintages. The wine changes every year. Sean is not giving much importance to the terroir element or paying much attention to winemaking rules but the main focus is on sourcing the best fruit. Some suggest that this wine taste better the day after it was opened.

Broc Cellars Green Valley Valdiguié [val-dih-gee-ay] (Roberson Wine £22)

In comparison to Sean Thackrey, Broc wines are vineyard specific. Chris Brockway, the winemaker follows the philosophy of early picking, spontaneous whole cluster ferment with no/or low sulphur dioxide additions and minimal intervention. The Solano County Green Valley AVA is located southeast of the Napa Valley taking advantage of maritime climate with its cooling ocean influence mediating the summer heat. Valdiguiè is quite unique red grape variety, known in California as Napa Gamay, capable of producing fresh scented low alcohol (12%) wines. The 2012 is charming juicy tipple with lovely sour cherry streak and pretty floral brightness.

Wilde Farm Anderson Valley Pinot Noir “Donelly Creek” 2012 (Roberson Wine £39)

This is a single vineyard expression of Pinot Noir. Fresh, bright and beautiful on so many levels. Showing defined complexity full of rhubarb, cherry blossom and wild flower notes thanks to careful selection of Dijon clones. Nothing added nothing taken away this is a pure and magical Pinot.

Copain Syrah “Halcon” 2009 from Mendocino County (Roberson Wine £54)

For Syrah lover like me it only took seconds to fall for Halcon’s charms. Despite the warm and dry summer of 2009, the high elevation of Yorkville Highlands (760m) ensures that the wine achieves balanced moderate alcohol level (12.8%). Wells Guthrie, the winemaker, creates Syrah that shows Rhone attitude yet has Californian roots. The 2009 is perfect to drink now but if it does not match your budget try Tous Ensemble (‘all together’) Syrah 2012 which is available for the fraction of the price (£23). Still delicious but more approachable and blended from selected vineyards within Mendocino County.

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Posted by on September 19, 2014 in California


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The joy of taking the Master of Wine exam

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Ever wondered what it is like to take the Master of Wine exam? Notoriously one of the most demanding exams in the wine world consisting of three flights of 12 wines tasted blind and 11 theory papers all over four days. It has been two weeks since I attempted this challenge in London but the feeling is still very much fresh and racing through my mind. There is not a day that I am not asked what it was like and how I did. So here it goes.

The first day of this exam marathon is about to start and we (the candidates) stand nervously around waiting to be shown to our tables. Barely a word is spoken. The hall is filled with the future crème de la crème of the wine trade but anxious smiles and tense breathing belie that. Never mind how well prepared we are or how talented we may be, there is a palpable air of barely concealed panic.

We are all aware of the hopeless statistics of acing this exam. There is less than 10% pass rate on the tasting, the theory shows touch more success. Some people are more natural in blind tasting and others are more comfortable writing structured essays but I believe that anyone can learn both skills. I guess if I didn’t I wouldn’t be here.

Sitting at the end of the well-lit but rather soulless industrial room, I have a view of all 40-odd candidates. The overwhelming thoughts of who will be the lucky one this year come to my mind. This is our time to shine but all I can do at this point is breathe in shallow gulps and try and force some positive thoughts.

It seems like a century before we can start pouring our wines and then we are off like racing greyhounds. The wines are cold at first (Paper 1 is always whites) so you hold on to the glasses with your palms as if your life depended on it. I sniff all wines first and quickly assess what they could be. No grids for me. One thing I have learned is that the first initial judgement is usually the best and most accurate.

In order to calm my nerves I start with the flight of questions that I am most comfortable with. This time we were blessed with four lovely Rieslings that were instantly recognisable. Tasty too. A couple of swallows to build some courage, the heart rate starts to slow down and a hint of welcome relief follows. Before you know it we are asked to stop writing and put our pens down.

No doubt if I had more time, this would be so much easier but this exam is about the skill of wine knowledge as much as decision making and fast writing. There are 300 marks to be had and to pass you need to get at least 195 marks. You have a minute or two to decide what each wine is and then spend the rest of the time justifying your decisions on region, grape variety, quality, age, commercial potential, winemaking etc.

Fresh air tastes so good after the first exam I tell you, even with all the traffic heading towards Blackfriars Bridge. A quick cup of tea and a bite to eat and we are back in our seats getting ready for the first theory paper. It’s simple – you have 3 hours to write 3 essays that will be marked with equal importance. This is where true geeks shine.

This year the questions were tough but pretty fair – from management of the vineyard through quality control procedures to brand building and wine industry legislation. They are designed to test our breadth of knowledge but some were very specific so you really needed to be confident about the subject before answering. Choosing the right question is always crucial.

The biggest challenge here is the timing. Three hours may sound like a long time. In that time you could run a marathon if you were fast or half marathon if you were slow. But to write three academically structured essays filled with well-chosen global examples in a confident and critical manner is what gives this that punishing edge.

For the next two days you follow the same format. The pressure and stress lessens somewhat but the fatigue and lack of sleep start to play their toll. On the fourth day, we are allowed to show off our personality tackling more contemporary issues. The final whistle went off just after midday on Saturday, followed by generous helpings of Bollinger.

And how did I do? Well – we will find out in September!


Posted by on June 23, 2014 in Uncategorized


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