by James Halliday (October 30, 2002)
From time to time I shall be inviting my wine writing colleagues to
contribute guest editorials to this site. The first is from Australia's
pre-eminent wine authority, James Halliday.
The Australian wine industry continues to grow at breakneck speed, but
the question is how long will it be before the pace slackens. Looking
at the industry's growth since 1996, it is immediately apparent that exports
are the driving force.
Here the irony remains: the official Federal Government policy is to
back winners, not losers. Yet it has provided hundreds of millions of
dollars to support the restructuring of failing dairy and sugar industries
while singling out the wine industry for a usurious tax regime which inevitably
restricts domestic sales growth.
This is of particular concern to the smaller wineries. In 1990 there
were around 530 of these; now there are 1440, with a birth rate of 200
per year. Yet over this 12-year period, domestic consumption only grew
from 300 million litres to 384 million litres. It hardly needs be said
this is an ominous scenario for the small and new producers which have
to overcome major logistical and financial barriers if they are to become
Wine is the only Australian product to have its very own sales tax: the
so-called WET, or Wine Equalisation Tax, of 26 per cent is levied in addition
to the ten per cent GST applied to all other (non exempt) products. The
resultant impost is twice the average tax imposed by the major European
producers and by California.
It is all very well for the Federal Government to point out how well
the wine industry is performing. The real question is how much better
the performance would be if wine were not so savagely taxed, and how much
better it would be able to cope with a strengthening Australian dollar,
and with a recently announced multi-billion Euro assistance package to
the nine wine-producing members of the EU "to meet the challenge
of New World exporters."
Ominously, France has at last abandoned the line "We don't
like those fruity Australian wines, therefore no-one else will" as
it has seen Australia push it into second place in the United Kingdom,
and threaten to do so in the United States.
The much-parroted need to over-deliver in terms of expectation on both
price and quality is, if anything, more important than ever. The English
press, once nigh-on unanimous in its praise of Australian wine, is becoming
increasingly critical. Whether its criticism is well-founded is beside
the point; the best response is to make the Australian wine proposition
more appealing than ever.
This means a better price/quality ratio, but also providing wine styles
and varieties which satisfy the up-to-the-moment demands of a constantly
changing market both here and abroad.
It is here that Australia has the upper hand. In 1986, 85 per cent of
the vineyards were planted to non-premium varieties, 15 per cent to premium.
Today, 89 per cent of vineyards are premium, 11 per cent non-premium.
Then, 28 per cent of the plantings were red; today the figure is 58 per
It is a rate of change (and improvement) which European producers such
as France are incapable of matching – not because of lack of funding,
but due to deeply entrenched conservative cultural attitudes born of long-term
reliance on subsidies.
These changes lie behind the spectacular increases in the amounts of
chardonnay, shiraz, merlot and cabernet sauvignon being grown. These are
the four most important varieties for both the local and international
markets; it is these which pay the bills.
But there is also a fashion industry component provided by the new and
trendy varieties all but unknown in 1996. Viognier wasn't separately recorded
in the figures for that year, but we do know it increased by 91 per cent
between 2001 and 2002, with 1302 tonnes crushed in 2002, or around 85,000
This Northern Rhône variety produces a rich, almost oily, full-bodied
wine with a fruit pastille flavour; it can be barrel-fermented or stainless-steel-fermented,
without much turning on the choice. It is also a la mode to add five to
ten per cent to shiraz, as is done in the Northern Rhône.
Pinot gris is the other major newcomer, although not so major as to rate
a mention in the 2002 figures. Widespread through northern Italy (where
it is called pinot grigio) and Alsace (confusingly called Tokay d'Alsace)
it needs a genuinely cool climate; even then its tendency to neutrality
led one prominent New Zealand winemaker to describe it as "like painting
a picture with white paint".
The foremost new red variety (not recorded in 1996) is undoubtedly petit
verdot, outshining all others with a 134 per cent increase between 2001
and 2002, producing 14,354 tonnes. The fourth leg of red Bordeaux wines
(where cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc are far more important),
it was regarded as a source of colour and tannin in the blend.
Its late-ripening performance made it problematic in Bordeaux, but there
are no such worries in Australia, and we shall see sharply increasing
amounts both in blends and as a single varietal wine.
Sangiovese, the red grape of Tuscany, has also made the list in 2002,
with 4597 tonnes, up 40 per cent on 2001. That's almost 300,000 cases,
and more if blended with cabernet sauvignon, merlot or other varieties
(as is the practice in Italy).
There are dozens of other varieties with French, Italian, Spanish (watch
for tempranillo), Portuguese or Russian homelands which are being commercially
grown or trialled here. For the consumer, the party's only just begun.
For those small producers recently lured into what seems a glamorous industry,
it may well be over.