Chuck Is Off to Oz!

by Chuck Hayward

My Upcoming Journey to Australia

Post by Chuck Hayward | August 26th, 2010

Just like JJ Buckley's recent trip to Bordeaux, my upcoming journey to Australia is to gather more information about the wines there. Nothing beats traveling and talking firsthand with winemakers, sommeliers, and writers to learn more about the many facets of a country's wine business. Previous trips have been instrumental in boosting my understanding of Australia's wine regions and the industry's history, along with discerning future trends. As a bonus, it's also pretty fun.

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Trips to a wine region often have contextual issues which frame a visit. Many visits are educational in scope (i.e. to learn more about soils or winemaking), and for the most part, information travels both directions. In many cases, meeting winery owners or government officials leads to conversations about wine trends in America and/or ideas about improving business. Given the current state of Australian wines in today's American market, I imagine there will be a lot of talking and listening on this visit.

So, what is happening with Australian wine today and what can I expect to find? For one thing, I should see a very passionate wine industry full of energy and excitement. Cool-climate growing regions like the Yarra Valley and Canberra are captivating journalists and restaurateurs with food-friendly shiraz and pinot noir. In South Australia, home to larger-than-life reds that captivated Americans with their lush textures, many winemakers are refining their styles to make more elegant wines. And in almost every growing region in the country, experimentation with new grape varieties and production techniques, such as mucking around with grapes like fiano or graciano or making wines naturally without sulfites, is under way.

Interestingly, the current state of the Australian wine industry is being shaped by what is happening in America. Articles (such as this one) in past years have delineated the problems of the Australian wine industry, especially with shiraz, the country's workhorse variety.  Lately, wine writers like Eric Asimov have been trying to figure out why the American market won't drink even California syrah.  However, Australia is more than just South Australian shiraz and many efforts are being made by the Australian wine industry to correct that image.

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These efforts are being hampered by two important issues. For one, many of the boutique Australian wine importers that highlight the country's smaller wineries are either winding down their operations (like the Grateful Palate) or adding other countries to their portfolio, thereby diluting the primary emphasis on Australian wines. Even large companies, like Foster's, no longer export brands like Wynns and Devils Lair… wineries that had a long track record of sales in America. Equally important is the fact that many importers who have arrangements to deliver their wines to stores and restaurants are fighting distributors who aim to reduce the number of wines they carry. Distributors are eliminating wines that are difficult to promote or sell, and Australian wines increasingly fall into that category.

Therefore, the solution is knowledgeable and enthusiastic importers and distributors who educate and promote Australian wines in the United States. They will need access to wineries that represent interesting growing regions and new styles. Now if sommeliers and consumers are exposed to the delights of these wineries and regions, who will be left to import and distribute them? Who will show this country the diversity that exists in Australia? It is an especially important concern as the Australian wine industry seeks to reinvigorate their presence in our market.

I'm certain there will be plenty of conversation about this on the trip.