Australia's Independent Wine Shops

by Chuck Hayward

Australia's independent wine shops: Educating locals and tourists alike

Post by Chuck Hayward | October 8th, 2010

Wine enthusiasts often seem drawn to browse through wine stores on their travels, as if they were answering a magnet’s pull. They do this partly out of curiosity, as visiting a wine store in another country reveals a bit about their wine culture, and partly for comparative purposes.

Front of Prince Wine Store

Of course, there is the ever-present desire to uncover an amazing bargain or to nab that rare bottle. For me, wine stores represent ground zero in my effort to discern new trends and discover new wineries. So it should come as no surprise that I headed to a few shops on this recent visit.

Melbourne's Prince Wine Store is at the forefront of showcasing imported wines and promoting new winemaking projects from up-and-coming winemakers in Victoria. This large store has a contemporary look and a very strong selection of Australian wines, as well as imports, including quite a few from California and Oregon.

Emily Laughton at Jasper Hill tasting

The interior is dominated by a large room with glass walls dubbed "The Cube," where tastings and wine classes are held. In fact, it was a tasting of new releases with Jasper Hill winemakers Ron and Emily Laughton that brought us there. Ron is one of the leaders in Australia's growing biodynamic movement and producers of cult-level shiraz from Victoria's Heathcote region. The wines highlighted the intense yet elegant fruit that comes from Ron's site.

Friendly faces at East End Cellars

In Adelaide, the major city near the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale growing areas, East End Cellars is the place to search for new producers from these historic regions. (Rumor has it that other American importers of Australian wines have scoured the shelves here to put their portfolios together.) Today, many winemakers in the state are experimenting with new varietals, in an attempt to shake off the yoke of shiraz and cabernet that dominates the local industry. Tempranillo and sangiovese have been grown in Australia for the last decade or so but new wines made from exotic grapes such as fiano and cortese now share space with riesling and grenache. At their Friday tasting, we had a chance to sample some nebbiolo from Vietti, yet it was a gamay from New Zealand's Te Mata Estate that was the best of the wines being poured. In a separate room, an extensive collection of older vintages from South Australian wineries always makes for an interesting  search.

While proximity to the state's wine regions has led East End Cellars to focus on these new bottlings, imported wines are also making their way into the store. However, they are very expensive, thanks to the taxes Australia imposes on imports. Many wines cost three times as much as what you will find here at JJ Buckley.

Sydney dinner aftermath

Best Cellars in the hip Surry Hills area has been a mainstay of Sydney's wine scene for years. I first met proprietor David Matters through his association with Dave Powell of Torbreck and always try to catch up with him and his staff, as we did on this trip over French bistro food and Tasmanian pinots (tasting notes to come). Best Cellars is a member of the prestigious Alliance of Fine Wine Merchants and has helped launch the careers of many people in the wine business.

However, independent retailers such as these are struggling against the purchasing power of large retail chains who can offer strong discounts on brands from larger wineries. Across the country, these smaller wine stores cannot compete on price and are being forced to close. But there are still success stories. As Dave Matters pointed out, "It is the small producers and imported wines which are saving the independents from the power of the chains. Our business has been fantastic."  Each of these stores does their bit to educate wine buyers in their respective cities about the unique wines of Australia and of the world. That (and my natural curiosity as a wine enthusiast) is why I always make a point to check in with them when I am in town. And that is why you should visit if you decide to make a trip down under yourself.