There have been several articles recently about the “euro-fication” of wine lists in Australian restaurants.The charge is that lists are now dominated by obscure varietals from obscure parts of Europe. It is further alleged that there seems to be a focus on organic and natural wines to the point that wine lists are only recognisable to the wine cognoscenti. In short wine lists have become elitist, and worse, discriminatory to Australian winemakers.
Is this true? And if it is true, why has it happened?
Certainly in the city and inner suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne wine lists tend to be reasonably short and have a bias toward little known imported labels and varieties. In fact any Australian wines that appear are also fairly arcane. Gone are the days of the icon labels of Australian wine appearing, like familiar beacons, on Australian wine lists. Few Penfolds (except perhaps the obligatory single vintage of Grange), no Wynns, or Tyrells or Yalumba. Twenty years ago the average wine lover could have identified 4 out of 5 wines on restaurant tables by a quick glance over at the label. No chance now.
How did it come to this? Blame the GFC. It destroyed the economies of many European countries - and most particularly from a wine point of view, Italy and Spain. Producers in these countries have lowered their prices to stay competitive. They have been able to do this off the back of low wages as unemployment stays incredibly high. Producers have been forced to access foreign markets as the local economies have collapsed. Many small to medium companies in Italy sell little wine in their own country. Most of it now goes to reliable and rich export markets like Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Canada, the USA and increasingly, Australia. (ABS - Imports of wine to Australia have more than doubled from 7.1% of total domestic sales in 2005 to 15.7% in 2013, and this in a growing total market).
With our strong dollar and the lower costs of production in Europe, foreign wine has become significantly less expensive to bring into this country. And as everyone is unfamiliar with the wine and its real unit cost, it is easy to apply a significant mark up, with the restaurant client none the wiser.
The GFC has played a big part in Australian travel behaviours as well. The continuing strength of our currency has seen Australians travel in record numbers since the GFC. (ABS – between 2005-2013 outbound trips by Australians increased by 81% to 7.6m).
And what happens when we travel? We go to new places, and eat and drink the local produce. Australian minds have been opened, and when we return home there is nothing like choosing a foreign wine at our local restaurant to reprise those wonderful travel memories. The glut of overseas travel by Aussies has opened the door to foreign, especially European, wine.
What about the sommeliers - why have they indulged this foreign invasion? Well hey, sommeliers travel too, you know. A good many of them have become importers as well, so they can bring back their own vinous discoveries to wax lyrical about, and unleash on their adoring public.
Why have consumers flocked to foreign wines? There is no doubt that there is some "familiarity breeding contempt" for the standard offering of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and NZ Sauvignon Blanc. The other 1364 wine grape varietals on the planet can offer new excitement in palate breadth and texture. Further, the Europeans are on a major quest to kill oxidation in the wine-making process - they are manic about it. This has allowed once rough, awkward, ancient varietals to sing and find their true expression in the world of wine.
Yes, there are alternative varieties being produced in Australia, but it is a work in progress. Unquestionably some producers have hit their straps - think Bellwether’s Vermentino, S.C. Pannell's Nebbiolo and Castagna’s Sangiovese. There is way more to come on this front.
And the attraction to organic wines – why has this emerged? Only 2% of Europe’s vineyards are certified organic (EU Standing Committee on Organic Farming February 2012). So the rise of biological imports seems to be more of a point of differentiation for a marketing edge. However, if the European wines are of good quality, value for money and, added bonus, organic...is there any reason why you wouldn't buy them?
Where is this all going to end? Is the Australian wine industry under threat from our new found love of all things imported? Fear not, we are likely to get the best of all worlds. The Australian dollar will depreciate as it eventually returns to its long term average. This will make imported wines significantly less competitive and will see the demise of the hobbyist and less robust importers. But what this "import crazy" chapter will leave with us will be fantastic. We will have a new generation of Australian drinkers that are open-minded, well travelled and ready to embrace anything good quality that comes their way. And the Australian wine industry will have had its palates honed on the wave of imports, a maturing vine stock of alternative varieties and the accumulated wisdom of how to produce them under Australian conditions.
We will have broken the shackles of our vinous history by having a consumer base that is ready for anything and a production base that knows how to satisfy those more adventurous palates. That is eons away, in a good way, from where we were 10 years ago. In the process we will have embraced a much swifter move toward organic production. That can only be a very good outcome for both producer and consumer.
There is nothing like foreign competition to re-hone an industry that had become a little complacent after significant growth of the 1990's and early 2000's. And in the long run this next iteration of our local industry will have benefit for all.