One prime reason for my visit to Australia—to look for insights into why the wines seem to be on the outs with Americans—turned up much less hand-wringing by vintners than you might expect. The Aussies are smart enough to know that they are caught in a perfect storm: the rise of Argentina, Spain and other parts of the world competing effectively against their big-volume wines, coupled with a wrenching change in the exchange rate between the Aussie dollar and ours, capped off by a financial crisis that has most people thinking twice about spending money on anything they’re not entirely certain of.
The Aussies have a healthy attitude about all this. Primarily, they know the financial situation is not limited to the U.S., or to them. They call it, quite rightly, the “GFC,” shorthand everyone there uses for “Global Financial Crisis.” We here in the U.S. tend to think it’s just happening to us.
As such, they are diligently at work trying to broaden perceptions of their wines here, and looking for other places to sell them. China has become a significant market. It’s more treacherous than selling in the U.S., but many of the export-oriented Aussie wine producers are going after China in a big way.
They haven’t given up on the U.S., even as the Aussie dollar not only has reached parity with our greenback but has surged past it. The Australian dollar, trading at 65 cents in the spring of 2009, today hovers around $1.02. That’s an increase of 57 percent to us, and yet Australian wines are still priced about the same as they were two years ago. In part, producers and importers who want to keep selling us their wines have bitten the bullet and absorbed most of those increases. (Also, since those trading internationally buy monetary futures, they can spread out the ups and downs.)
Given those stark figures, it’s amazing to me that Australia remains the No. 2 exporter of wine to the U.S. (behind Italy). But it is, and it's not just because Yellow Tail, which accounts for nearly half of all Australian imports here in the States, has been relatively unfazed by the economy; it sold about the same number of cases in 2010 as it did in 2009 and 2008 (according to Impact). As other low-priced brands have fallen away, new ones have replaced them. The picture isn’t bleak, but it isn’t rosy either. It’s somewhere between.
A growing number of sommeliers and retailers have noticed that Australia produces a range of styles at higher price points. Its widespread growing regions offer specific differences in character. Inspired winemakers, some young, others experienced, are gung-ho to try something different. Vineyards are going organic and biodynamic. A growing number are turning away from mechanization, as winemakers aim for greater expression. They are making wines that aren’t the same-old same-old, without losing that essential burst of flavor that characterizes the best Aussie wines.
From our perspective as U.S. consumers, I think of this moment as an opportunity. It always takes a couple of years for perception to catch up with reality. As we discover wines we like (usually made in smaller quantities), we can take advantage of this open door and grab them before others do.
To me this seems like what’s happening now with domaine-bottled Champagnes. On a visit to France in the early 1990s I remember tasting some of these wines, made from specific sites rather than the region-wide blends made by the big Champagne firms. I was wowed, but very little of it was available in the U.S. It took a while, but now grower Champagnes are here, and they are on every serious wine list.
In Champagne, as in Australia, big companies make the standard-bearers (and some pretty darn great wines). But now individuals are offering alternatives that can capture the imagination of serious wine drinkers. If it can happen with Champagne, can it happen with Australia?
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