What with wildfires, drought, the economic downturn and competition from overseas, Australian winemakers are now facing a crisis that’s taken on Biblical proportions. What have they done to incur such divine wrath?

After years of churning out a generic, bargain-bin product, pigeonholing wines from Down Under in the cheap-but-cheerful category, the wine industry might have played some part in bringing this disaster on itself. In the future, Australia may no longer be capable of producing the type of low-price wines the country made its name on.

Many experts feel that salvation will lie in putting their faith in quality products produced in lesser known, cooler regions that demonstrate a subtlety and sophistication that demands a higher price point. But can they appease the palates of international buyers in time to halt the slow demise of Aussie wine?

We’re all guilty of having done it — you’re off to a party and trying to save some pennies, so when faced with the wines on display at the supermarket, you zero in on the usual suspects. Yellowtail, Hardys, Jacob’s Creek and Wolf Blass, are guaranteed to provide a fun fruity and less-than-challenging accompaniment to the evening for under ¥1,500, and this is what Aussie wine does best: fruit-driven chardonnays and Shirazes that pack a powerful punch but don’t hit the wallet too hard, right?

Well, in the future that notion will be dead wrong. Competition from upcoming wine-producing countries such as Chile, which can come up with a similar product at a cheaper price, has meant that consumers are increasingly switching their allegiances. While the weak dollar has meant that Aussie wine remains competitive in Japan, consumers in Britain and the United States are defecting in large numbers.

Recent years have seen huge droughts in Australia, meaning that water is at a premium, and high prices have driven up the cost of growing fruit. Australian-born wine expert Ned Goodwin believes that the vineyards around the Murray- Darling basin in New South Wales, south- east Australia — which were hit particularly badly by the droughts — are ultimately doomed.

“Grape prices have dropped and people can’t sustain this way of life environmentally because of the water crisis,” says Goodwin. Rather than pay labor costs, many wineries have decided to leave this year’s 2009 vintage to rot on the vine. “Eventually that whole area will just have to shut up shop and stop making wine, which means that Australia will no longer be the engine room for value wines,” Goodwin predicts.

This summer’s wildfires are another reason why whole vintages will have to be discarded. Smoke from the fires can taint the wine, leaving it with undesirable ashtray flavors. Hiro Tejima regional manager for Wine Australia in Japan visited the Yarra Valley in Victoria state, one of the hardest hit by the fires a few months ago.

“It was pretty scary, but nevertheless the wine industry wasn’t that badly hit,” says Tejima. “There was just one winery, Roundstone, that was completely burned and other wineries that were partially burned, but they were quick to rebuild.”

It’s not just bargain Australian wines that sell well globally. Some of the country’s premium wines are also appreciated overseas and can command huge price tags. The catch is that any wine has to satisfy the palate of internationally renowned wine critic Robert Parker before gaining acceptance in the overseas wine market.

“Robert Parker is extremely important everywhere,” says Tejima. “He has had some negative effects on wine globally because he really is set on a certain style of wine that he likes. Winemakers around the world may have felt that they have to cater to that preference, and some Australian wines have met that profile.”

The style of Australian wine Parker enjoys most is a big-hitting Shiraz, which tends to be high in alcohol. Wines that satisfy his criteria score high in his system, which awards individual wines points out of a possible 100.

“Huge behemoths like Chris Ringland of Three Rivers in the Barossa, wines with 90 out of 100 points from Parker, are marketed as being superlative wines,” says Goodwin. “This changed the image of Australia, but everything was ephemeral because these wines weren’t built to last but were built for points.” The drawback of highlighting these wines as exemplars of quality Australian wine is twofold. First, they tend to be prohibitively expensive, and second the high alcohol content can be off-putting, especially for Japanese consumers who shy away from overly alcoholic wines. The ’95 vintage of Chris Ringland Three Rivers, which garnered 99 Parker points, costs a exorbitant $900 online and has a whopping 16 percent alcoholic content.

The solution is for Australia to promote wines from lesser-known areas.

“The perception of Australia is just Shiraz which punches you in the face,” says Tejima. “Unless you’re eating steak every day, you might want to take a step away from Shiraz. We’re a huge country. There are 64 regions with a vast diversity of climatic conditions and terroir.”

Tejima works for Wine Australia, a government body that actively promotes Australian wine. The organization launched a Regional Heroes campaign in May 2007, highlighting 20 premium wines from other regions in Australia.

“I wouldn’t say we have just begun, but our office has only been in existence for 10 or 11 years, so we need much more time,” he says. “Every time we do quality events, there are quite a few people blown away with wines that they didn’t expect to see from Australia, especially cool-climate delicate wines.”

Though Shiraz can “punch you in the face,” there are different styles of Shiraz that that are more delicate in character.

“Shiraz from producers that are higher in altitude have a character more that you might find in a northern Rhone, a little more pepper and a little more spice,” says Carl Robinson from Jeroboam, who import wines to Japan from Australia.

Rieslings also thrive in cooler regions such as Tasmania or Clare Valley in the north of South Australia. Pinot Noir is another grape that grows well in cooler areas. Geelong in Victoria is gaining a good reputation as a Pinot region, as is the Macedon Range in the same state.

If there’s such a wide spectrum of wines from different regions, though, how come we don’t see them on our supermarket shelves?

“We’re keen to highlight some of the cooler-climate wines that are hugely successful in the United States but have never really broken the Japanese market,” says Robinson. Wines that are superfamous, such as Clonakilla, which is one of the top 10 wines in Australia, remain unheard of here. It was a big struggle to sell them as Australian wines, we had to sell them as fine wines and not mention that they were from Australia,” says Jeroboam’s Robinson. “The other hurdle is convincing Japanese consumers to part with more money than they’re used to paying for a bottle of ‘plonk.’ “Apart from knowing that French regional brands have some cachet, most Japanese lump all wines into the cheap- and-cheerful basket. The perception of Australian wine is favorable here, but we have to get Japanese people to become more ambitious consumers in general. You do have a slew of incisive fruit- friendly styles, but they’re difficult to sell because of this marketing problem.”

“There is a saturation of wines from regions like the Barossa valley but on the international stage there is not a lot from new regions,” says Emanuel Skorpos of Flinders Run in the Southern Flinders Range. Flinders Run produces an excellent Shiraz that has just attracted an importer in Japan.

Goodwin also criticizes Wine Australia for not doing enough to promote quality Australian wines.

“Bureaucracies like Wine Australia push Australia as being fruity, frivolous, polished and good value for money,” says Goodwin. “There is going to have to be a huge focus on cool-climate and high-quality wine making in the future.”

Australia seems to be situated between a rock and a hard place, with people perceiving its wine production as either bottom of the range or inaccessibly expensive. Wine Australia have got their work cut out for them if they want to change international perceptions.

It’s also time for consumers to get their snouts out of the bargain-bin trough and sniff out the elegant and complex wines that Australia has to offer.

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