ADELAIDE, SOUTH AUSTRALIA – Savour Australia – the first international conference dedicated to Australian wine – is about to wrap up with a Grand Tasting of umpteen gazillion wines in a large convention hall with umpteen gazillion people trying to elbow their way to a table and then block it for anyone else. You know the drill.
After two days of some very interesting business sessions, lunches, tastings, dinners and more tastings, here are some cursory impressions about a wine industry that is eager to win back our hearts and affection.
1: Australian wine is hurting, and they know it. As I noted in my earlier post, there is a strong apologetic tone to Savour 2013. The industry is acting like a wayward boyfriend who desperately wants to get back in his girl’s good graces by promising he’s reformed. True, Australia seems to have fallen off the bottom of the world in terms of the consciousness of the U.S. wine consumer, but is that entirely Australia’s fault? If so, what exactly are they doing to change that perception?
There’s the upcoming “Restaurant Australia” advertising campaign that ties wine and cuisine and tourism, a solid approach nostalgic of Paul Hogan’s “we’ll put another shrimp on the bar-b for you” campaign of the 1980s. But I haven’t heard much talk of how the Australian wine that wants our love differs from the one that bored us.
2: The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming! Like the rest of the wine world, Australia is also courting the Chinese. (So much for that reformed boyfriend act!) China’s burgeoning wine trade is well represented here, and the presentations featured simultaneous translation into Mandarin. Most of the Chinese I’ve seen don’t look like they’re old enough to drink alcohol; wine in the Middle Kingdom is apparently a young industry in more than one sense of the word.
Even so, “America is the prize, not China,” one Australian trade official told me in a private conversation. “China is exciting, but we don’t have the connections, we don’t know if they will still be there in three years or if we’ll just be shown the door.” Too much uncertainty in a volatile economic climate and fickle political system outweighs all the trauma of dealing with the three-tier distribution in the United States. There is also some concern that China’s potential is not just as a market, but also as a competitor in producing inexpensive wines for export.
3: The 15.5% shiraz is not dead yet. Monty Python aside, as much as we keep trying to put the alcoholic fruit bomb stereotype of Australian shiraz out for the corpse collector, it just refuses to die. There was some mention during the business sessions of Australia’s mistaken flirtation with high-alcohol wines and an oblique mention of “a certain critic” whose affection they ardently desired to court. But I haven’t heard much talk of ratcheting down those levels in order to achieve better fruit balance and terroir expression. And in several of the tastings, I’ve felt that familiar burn on my palate from shiraz and the popular “GSM” (grenache, shiraz and mourvedre) blends.
4: That said, there are some terrific wines on display here.Those include shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, of course, but also some delightful wines made from tempranillo, nebbiolo, and even nero d’Avola. Among whites, fiano, roussanne, verdelho and of course semillon can be stunning. And I’ve always felt Aussie Riesling tends toward a clunky style, but I’ve tasted several delicious examples that have me reconsidering my impression. Aussie chardonnay also has stepped up in recent vintages. Don’t worry, I’ll mention some names and wines in future posts.
5: Australia recognizes the importance of social media, but is snubbing bloggers.Snubbing may be too strong a word, but on the whole I think WineAustralia and the various speakers (from Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.) are correct that Facebook and Twitter are the best social media tools for reaching directly to consumers, and that courting bloggers and their limited audience (of other bloggers) is a waste of time and effort.
6: Where are the younger wineries and winemakers?There’s a strong corporate presence at Savour, understandably so since large companies like Treasury Wine Estates and Jacobs Creek are major sponsors and play a major role in Australia’s export markets. But I wish the conference organizers had made sure that smaller wineries and younger winemakers had a more prominent role. At last night’s final dinner reception, I had a brief discussion (shouting match, actually, given the din of the place) with Victoria Angove, who along with her brother is taking over the family winery and beginning to steer it in a new direction. Here’s Australia’s story, I thought – don’t court us with the same bouquet of flowers you brought last time. Show us something new.
I’m hoping more of those smaller wineries will be at the Grand Tasting, which starts in about 20 minutes. Stay tuned.