While I am a big advocate for the Australian wine industry and production, I do sometimes skim the shelves in search of something ‘different’. This search often brings me to the international wines section in the store, where time and again I am fascinated by the variety of offerings that open when you look outside your usual comfort zone.
I recently attended an exciting global wine event — ProWein. It’s an industry wine show held in Germany, where 5700 producers from 62 countries come together across 13 exhibition halls to present their products in an industry-exclusive environment. If you’ve ever been to any of the Royal wine shows in Australia, think of that and multiply it by twenty. The purpose of the trip for us was to find interesting international wine imports for the Australian market. This got me thinking a lot about international wines in Australia and how much we know about the industry outside our own backyard.
Upon arrival it was clear that one could never view, taste, or even walk it all, so to find the right products for our market we needed a strategy. To find wines for Australian consumers it was important to understand how, as consumers, we are different and what we are looking for when buying our wines.
Living in a country without centuries of viticultural history, we enjoy many freedoms in terms of varietal selections grown in Australian wine regions. Unlike France, Italy, and other countries of the old-world winemaking where certain grape varieties are locked by law to specific wine regions, our grape selection is limited only by grape suitability to climates. This means that we absorb wines according to their varietal identity (their name), rather than their regional distinctiveness.
There’s also a reason why we call Australia the land of abundance — we love to have options. Unlike Europe, where close to ninety percent of wines consumed at bars and restaurants will come from local producers, in Australia we like to see a wide representation of styles and regions in our cafes, restaurants and bottle shops.
One of the other most important factors for the Australian market is our ‘consume now’ mentality. Vast majority of wines bought through various outlets are consumed within 48 hours of purchase, meaning it’s key for wines imported into Australia to be approachable, without the need for extensive ageing — which can be tricky for some complex European wines.
Lastly, it was important to also find wines that have some similarities to the market in Australia. While we do enjoy variety, it’s critical to have a baseline — something comparable that can be used to illustrate the differences. With all that in mind alongside an aim to present some range value diversity, we started tasting.
One of the big stand-out wines for me was sauvignon blanc from Alto Adige in Italy. Being a northern Italian region with a high altitude, it has a cool climate and suits this grape variety perfectly, ensuring good structural acidity (an important balancing component for sauvignon blanc). While these characteristics give the wine a fairly similar grassy notes that we’re used to seeing in popular New Zealand sauvignon blancs, the rich Italian clay loam soil gives the Italian version far more complex layers of aromas and a rounder palate.
Another great example of comparable wines were the European variants of pinot noir — the reds widely grown in northern Italy or the French region of Burgundy. In fact, due to very strict regulations about which grape varieties are allowed to be grown in Burgundy by the French law, you will never see ‘pinot noir’ written on the French label — it’s just expected knowledge that this is the style that is grown in the region. One of our favorite pinots came from the French subregion of Burgundy, Côte de Nuits, which present more sophisticated flavors due to the rich soil composition and slopes that expose the grapes to morning sun, ensuring longer ripening of berries and the development of more fine fruit characteristics.
Finally, I was pleasantly surprised to see some approachable Bordeaux blends. Traditionally made from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc, these wines are known for their ability to last long periods in the cellar. Unfortunately, young Bordeaux wines can be underappreciated if opened too early, with their development (as intended by the winemaker) interrupted. While changing the Bordeaux blend varieties would go very much against the style, which is protected by the French law, it was good to see many producers playing around with various levels of merlot in the blend, with many rising the percentage of merlot and thus making Bordeaux wines more approachable at a younger age. This goes very much hand in hand with the Australian ‘drink now’ culture, and I am excited to see more of these wines hitting our market in the coming couple of years.