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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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There is more to New Zealand than good employment opportunities and green lush scenery!

Bear Despite producing less than 1% of total world wine production, New Zealand wines attract a lot of admiration from wine drinkers. Talking to Clive Donaldson, wine sourcing manager for Morrison’s, he confirms that New Zealand wines are amongst the most appreciated by their customers, offering exciting flavours and inspiring consumer confidence. It is true that the success is driven primarily by the eternal Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – as it claims 85% of all NZ wine sold in the UK. But as Jancis Robinson says there is more to New Zealand than just Sauvignon Blanc.

New Zealand Winegrowers released their 2012 and 2013 vintages and several lucky Londoners had the chance to try over 150 wines from all regions yesterday. There was much ‘mmm’ and ‘ahhh’ around the Rieslings and Pinot Noirs and my guess would be that these two grape varieties have a particularly promising future.

About 2012 and 2013

The 2012 vintage was a very small crop year, 28% less than 2013, thanks to a very cool spring and summer which was only saved by warm dry days in April delivering the weather the grapes needed to ripen fully.

The 2013 vintage is described as “a vintage to remember” by Philip Gregan, CEO of New Zealand Winegrowers, “with an outstanding summer providing near perfect conditions for growing grapes”. Sir George of Villa Maria agrees “15 years of advancement in winemaking technology paired with perfect growing conditions means this year is set to exceed all previous vintages”. However, Duncan McTavish, winemaker of Man ‘O War, admits that as it was a very hot and dry year, particularly in the North Island, it will affect yields and quality.

Ones to remember:

Felton Road Riesling Bannockburn, Central Otago 2013 (9.5% abv / RS 55 g/l / RRP £15)

Felton Road Block 1 Riesling Bannockburn, Central Otago 2013 (9% abv / RS 65 g/l / RRP £18)

Don’t get put off by the level of residual sugar.  Riesling’s vibrant acidity tricks your palate to hardly noticing its sweetness. These wines are bursting with fresh, juicy peach and tropical fruits and are very enjoyable and comforting with that delicate structure and gracefulness of Mosel Riesling.

Pegasus Bay Riesling Canterbury 2010 (12.5% abv / RS 26 g/l / RRP £16.50)

Priceless racy acidity matched with vibrant citrus orchard fruits. Reminded me of zesty orange marmalade margarita, minus tequila of course.

Brancott Estate Flight Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2013 (9% abv / RS 13 g/l / RRP £10.50)

This wine is due to be launched in the UK very soon and I have a feeling it will do very well. Low & lower alcohol wines, despite their healthy credentials, tend to be boring. But not this one! Naturally low in alcohol (no reverse osmosis), it has bags of typical green grass and gooseberry fruit. Off-dry (to be technical) but I dare say the majority of casual drinker will not pick up on that and will just enjoy the fruity flavours of this crisp clean Sauvignon Blanc.

Staete Landt Viognier Rapaura, Marlborough 2012 (14% abv / RS 4.5 g/l /RRP £ 18)

Very fresh and crisp aromatic Viognier, Very enjoyable.

Seresin Rachel Pinot Noir Marlborough 2010 (14% abv / RRP £ 25)

Cherry cherub flavours with distinctive reduced balsamic notes and earthy spicy finish. Rather seductive and a real crowd pleaser.

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2013 in New Zealand

 

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Small thoughts after a grand tasting…

Eagle THE GREAT RHEINGAU RIESLING REVIEW

LONDON – 19th SEPTEMBER 2013

When leaving the grand halls of the German Embassy where the VDP Rheingau tasting was held yesterday, I could not help but feel sadly frustrated. I’m very fond of these fine, if pricey, Rieslings, don’t get me wrong. But bringing them to a dinner table is another matter.

It is not often you get to try so many exceptional wines in one tasting. The wines were pure, energetic and achieved the ultimate balance between acidity and sweetness. Not a single wine showed weakness or disappointment. There is no doubt in my mind that the quality of the wine is of the highest. But the rest is a mystique worthy of less praise. The labels, the names, the classification, you name it. Will this ever change?

Looking across the room there are eagles staring back at me everywhere. Some have sharp beaks and striking wings.  It is difficult to imagine bringing any of these bottles to your friends for dinner.  It may be true that wine experts can happily overcome these dated designs but I am doubtful about consumers. I also wonder how many would feel confident enough to present these tongue twisters at the party. “Oh hello I hope you enjoy this bottle of Randersackerer Teufelskeller Riesling….that I brought” Even if you get past all that how do you know how your bottle of Riesling will taste. Should you serve it before or after your meal, as an appetizer or a dessert wine?

I guess the wide range of wines from dry to sweet is both an advantage but also the biggest challenge. However, German producers seem unable or unwilling to simplify German Riesling for consumers. Volume sales are sinking year on year with a 13% reduction in volume in the UK market last year. As one of the producers nervously joked, “we were crap in marketing so we invented classification”. I rest my case.

Producers to watch:

Weingut Künstler

Weingut Leitz

Schloss Johannisberg (2011 Riesling Goldlack TBA aus dem Holzfass No. 173 that has just recently been auctioned for €1,040 per bottle is divine)

Weingut Josef Spreitzer

Weingut Robert Weil

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2013 in Germany

 

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Which export markets should German brand owners concentrate on?

Blue-NunWhich export markets should German brand owners concentrate on?

Export markets are volatile – tastes change, economic conditions affect personal spending power and competition can drive prices to a point where there is little financial benefit to producers.  A canny brand owner must be able to match brand strengths with potential consumers, balance production capability with demand and price their product competitively, all the while navigating the volatilities that influence demand.

In the current landscape, Germany, the 7th largest wine-producing nation, exports approximately 16% of wine produced annually with most of this consumed domestically. Their major trading partners are concentrated in Europe, North America and eastern Asia. The expectations of export vary from the promise of generating higher revenue, attracting wine consumers with higher disposable incomes, exploring new routes to premium markets or seeking high volume branded demand.

German producers have possibly not approached export markets in the best way so far. Continuous failed efforts to demystify German labels and styles, the engrained reputation for high volume semi-aromatic semi-sweet wine of no character or appealing image (known as Liebfraumilch) have played a key role. Also the fact that many producers are keeping their best efforts at home yet exporting some of the worst does not help matters. The director of the German Wine Institute recognizes that due to stiff international competition, producers will have to develop new markets more aggressively and innovatively in order to regain and maintain market share.

For brand owners whose aim is primarily an economic one, the ideal target markets should have balance of a large population, large disposable income and above average spending per capita on imported wine, with the USA being full of potential in particular.  The USA is currently the most important German export market, importing 297,000 hectoliters of wine, worth EU 103 million (EU 2.8 per bottle), equivalent to about one third of all export earnings. It has a large population with high disposable income and the highest spend on alcohol (and tobacco) in 2011.  Despite the USA producing over 18 million hectoliters of its own wine, consumers’ demand is so substantial that imports have increased by a whopping 170% in the last year. The growing trend towards more sophisticated and premium wines together with minimal discounting provides a perfect target for quality-conscious producers. The other end of the market also offers potential prospects as any innovative brand owner can profit from the latest US trend for Moscato, causing its sales to rise by 71% in the last two years.

Jan Matthias, owner of Weingut Staffelter Hof based in Mosel, producing organic premium wines, has successfully focused on the USA market. He explains that being able to offer modern labels, award-winning wines and a one thousand year history of winemaking provide a unique selling point and an important factor in consumers wine choice. Despite his total exports representing close to the national average of 15%, Jan is keen to expand his interest in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand but admits there is still a lot of work to be done.

Tapping into new markets in Australia is particularly tempting as many consumers are familiar with the variety. The increasing disposable income, forecasted stability of the Australian dollar and the third highest alcohol spending per head of any nation offers great potential. However, the country’s geographically remote cosmopolitan centers, loyal domestic consumption (one third of Australian wine production) and local abundance of low-priced wine will pose logistic and pricing challenges. Unsurprisingly, neighboring New Zealand wine continues to account for the largest share of total imports here. German wine imports are currently occupying 7th place and growing healthily, with Riesling being the most successful and the easiest to market.

The brand owners planning to introduce a new wine style or aiming to brave the heavily discounted game, should target the UK, a trendsetter market but with very challenging margins.  While the USA market is full of potential and Australia promising a glimpse of new interest, the UK is showing an unsurprising decline in both value (by 14%) and volume (by 20%). Yet it is still the largest export market worldwide, worth EU 38 million. Timid marketing activity combined with the persisting confusion over German labeling (even by aficionados) and the focus on the heavily discounted lower-end of the market is fueling this decline. Despite the average price having risen by 8% over the last year, it is still disappointingly low at EU 1.3 per bottle and is a poor commercial proposition.  The UK market is one of the most sophisticated yet challenging and competitive worldwide due to aggressive discounting driving sales. However the continuing consumers’ thirst for bargain opens up an opportunity for competitively priced high volume brands with generous marketing budgets. Naturally low alcohol Riesling production could tap into the evolving trend for lower alcohol wines. Alternatively, Pinot Noir or Dornfelder based Rosé could take advantage of its globally gaining demand (now presenting 10% of worldwide wine production). It is also a stepping-stone for any new products and an important market for setting wine trends.

On the opposite side of the market, if your brand offers scarcity, is high scoring and you are prepared to battle out logistical challenges and cultural etiquette then Japan and China is your bet. Just about every brand wine owner wants to do business with China. Its imports have increased by 19% over the last year, replacing Japan as the largest Asian market for German wines. Recent Wine Intelligence research predicts that China will be the most attractive Asian market for wine exports in the next 5 years. However, the challenges may overweigh the potential of this market for German producers. Even if you survived the bureaucratic issues, significant tax and logistical demands, the journey does not end there. To be able to understand the consumer behavior of 19 million wine drinkers may be the biggest challenge of them all with in-country presence being a necessity. Western consumer stereotypes just do not apply here. German brand owners may struggle to attract either adventurous connoisseurs (not brand seekers) or prestige-seeking traditionalists who account for 65% of all spending on imported wines according to Wine Intelligence’s Vinitrac survey in 2012. On top of that, German brand owners are, in most cases, white wine producers – a challenge given the Chinese love for robust red prestigious and status-driven wines.

Despite new emerging trends towards everyday affordable imports by younger and more experimental consumers within the Asian market, it seems unprofitable (in the near term at least) to market German wines to Asian consumers with low disposable incomes, low spend per head, a family oriented culture and with wine purchasing often as a gift rather than for personal consumption. The relatively obvious potential for Asian food matching with German Riesling is over-generalized as it is like saying that it matches well with European cuisine.

Many other markets may be worth exploration but brand owners must be aware of their challenges and suitability for their brands. Switzerland, with common language and cheap transportation. Norway with the highest spend per capita on alcohol and high brand awareness yet whopping alcohol tax (EU 6 per bottle). India with potential reach to 30 million new wine drinkers yet complex tax structure. Hong Kong with no duty on wine, optimum logistic capabilities and the highest average value per bottle (EU 6.8) but a tiny wine consumption (4.5 lt per capita). Singapore with demand for high volume brands yet limited market. Korea with its new drinking culture switching whisky for wine consumption and increasing wine sales at large-scale discount stores.

There is no one-answer-fits-all when it comes to recommending export markets to German brand owners.  Despite the various markets being complicated, looking at basic statistical research on national disposable incomes, alcohol spend per head and value per bottle of imported wines in potential target markets, some initial conclusions can be drawn. In brief, the USA offers the richest picking, UK trend setting and Asia the potential for growing prestige brands.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2013 in Wine Market

 

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