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Australian wine producers up their game in quality initiative.

Byline: WINE HELEN SAVAGE

CAN you describe Australian wine in a word or sentence? I struggled to complete this final question on the survey sheet handed out at Wine Australia's recent annual trade tasting.

I'd love to read what other people wrote. I suspect that although the answers would be overwhelmingly positive, they'd also be wide-ranging.

Australia built a reputation for cheap, reliable, fruity wine, with a relatively small number of well-known brands.

But as Paul Henry, until recently the UK and European director of Wine Australia, admits: "Australia is no longer fast, good and cheap; it can only afford to be good."

Two factors have brought this about. Competition from other countries is fierce, as Paul points out, 'everyone now punches their weight'; and then there's the bullish strength of the Australian economy, which has forced up the value of the Australian dollar and sterling such that Australian wine is now roughly 30% more expensive for us to import than it was two years ago.

Paul argues that there is now clear blue water between wine sold just because it's cheap and that which appeals because we think it's a quality product. This is clearly shown by the difference between the average price of a bottle of Australian wine in the UK shops, pounds 4.59, and the cheapest recommended retail price of any wine in the tasting - pounds 6.99. There were many hundreds on show, and the majority cost over pounds 10. Given that Australia still holds on to top spot in the UK off-trade wine market with a 21.7% value share, this means that there is still an awful lot of very cheap wine sloshing around out there.

The good news for qualityconscious Australian wine producers is that demand for their wine in the pounds 6 to pounds 7 bracket rose by 14.5% last year, despite clear evidence of cash-strapped consumers being ever more careful with their pennies. The industry can look forward to a bright future if Australia can win back consumers from buying other countries' wine, find new customers and sell more wine at home, notwithstanding the effects of catastrophic summer deluges (the floods spared most vineyards) and forest fires.

To achieve at least part of this vision, Wine Australia has just launched A+ Australian Wine, a bold new strategy and brand designed to positively reposition the standing of Australian wine. The big idea is to convince consumers that 'if you think you know Australian wine, think again'. You'll then discover that Australia makes really great wines that taste like no others and they're worth forking out for. Wine Australia then want to encourage everyone who enjoys them to share the good news. The A+ Australian wine campaign will rely a lot on the web and social media.

This new strategy is worldwide; it has also been launched in China and the United States. And fortunately the quality really is there to support it.

Australia really does offer something special - and you'll have to pay more and more for it. "They're not afraid of putting the price on, are they?" I heard one wine trade old-timer mutter to his friend as they took time out over lunch to flick through the tasting catalogue.

High-quality, sustainably-produced wines that express a unique sense of place are not just the preserve of small, boutique wineries. Even bigbrand players like Jacob's Creek are keen to sing from this same hymn sheet and to take a leadership position in promoting premium Australian regions to the world.

The London trade tasting showcased how clear regional styles are emerging. But a more remarkable exposition of how Australian wines can exhibit a vivid sense of place was provided by well-known wine writer and broadcaster Andrew Jefford, who spent a time during 2009 as senior research fellow at the University of Adelaide while preparing a new book about how geography, soils and climate influence the taste of Australian wine.

The full text of Andrew's thoughtful presentation can be read on his website (www.andrewjefford.com), but the gist of it simply put, in his own words is, 'the biggest challenge for Australian winemakers is to trust their vineyards.' The temptation to use science and technology to craft a wine is strong in Australia: not just by using specially-cultured yeasts and enzymes, but also by the adjustment of wine by adding acidity, tannin and a range of other substances, none of which are at all harmful, but they didn't occur naturally in that particular batch of ripe grapes. Andrew's selection of eight fine wines that allowed the fruit to speak for itself was firm evidence that Australia can be very surprising - and more exciting than ever before.

And they make it even harder to describe Australian wine in a word or single sentence.

WINE OF THE WEEK Vasse Felix Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon 2009 Waitrose pounds 10.99 RIPE, tangy, dry white, with the smell and mouth-watering taste of lemon, greengage and gooseberry; subtle and lingering. Try it with fresh crab.

Wine Extras ONE of Andrew Jefford''s star Australian wines with a vivid sense of place is available locally from Carruthers & Kent or from Waitrose: Clonakilla Hilltops Shiraz, 2009 (pounds 16.99) - a ripe, brambly but fresh-tasting red in which floral scents, peppery complexity and firm tannins combine to make something rather special.

Two improbably cheap Aussie wines from online specialists www.findwine.co.uk are well worth seeking out: Karri Oak Estate Semillon/ Sauvignon Blanc 2008 from Western Australia (pounds 4.99), a zesty dry white and The Opportunist, Shiraz 2008 from the Limestone Coast of South Australia, is deep, plummy, peppery and fruity (pounds 6.99).

CAPTION(S):

REGIONAL DIFFERENCE A+ vineyards at Coonawarra BRAND BOOST An A+ vineyard at Langhorne Creek SENSE OF PLACE McLaren Vale, one of the Australian vineyards which is supporting the new A+ strategy to win back buyers and find new consumers
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Feb 4, 2011
Words:986
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