Australia: Boom to bust, and the journey back


Influential US wine critic Robert Parker also discovered Australia in the late 1990s, and began awarding very high scores to sweet, ripe wines. This encouraged other producers to pick late and make sweetly fruited, alcoholic wines. In particular, he praised highly the wines imported by Dan Philips and his company The Grateful Palate (which made many wines specifically for the US market in partnership with winemakers), and made a star of winemaker Chris Ringland.

These big, seductive wines sold very well in the US, but after a while collectors there began to realise that they tasted rather similar and that they didn’t cellar very well, and stopped buying them. In response to falling demand, The Grateful Palate began cutting its portfolio in 2008, then in 2010 it went out of business.

The strong Australian dollar also caused severe problems. Growing demand for Australian raw materials from China’s expanding industry pushed the Australian dollar to ever greater heights, to the point where it reached parity with the US dollar. This was obviously a problem for export sales, and when coupled with a fall in export demand caused by the great financial crisis of 2008, it was a disaster in the making.

The road back from this boom and bust has been a long one, but signs are that things are looking up. Wine Australia has also acted very smartly, realising that it needs to tell the story of Australian wine again. This is not the country of big brands with cute animals on the label – it is a country of 64 regions spanning many climatic zones, from cool to hot; it is about 100 different grape varieties; it is about 2,500 small producers. The result? A diverse and interesting wine scene. This has been the focus of the marketing.

There’s been a move towards farming more sensitively, with biodynamics, organics and sustainable farming taking the spotlight. There has been a wave of small producers who want to work more naturally, picking earlier to preserve acidity and aid site expression, and using alternative forms of elevage such as concrete and large oak, moving away from small new oak. The excess of the past has been toned down, along with the oak, and now, for example, Australian Chardonnay is showing a lot more restraint and poise. There’s also been an exploration of alternative varieties, more suited to some of the warmer, irrigated regions, including new stars such as Fiano and Nero d’Avola.


So how are things going now? Since 2013, exports have been recovering. There has been steady growth and now they stand at $2.5bn, which is still some way behind the heady days of 2007, but the trend is positive. Three free trade agreements with China, Japan and South Korea have recently been made, which should make Australian wine more competitive in these markets. China, with its 1.4bn people and growing middle class, is a very attractive market for Australia, and leading producer Penfolds has made a particular effort here. Australia has joined Chile and New Zealand in not facing an import tariff, while South Africa, the US and Argentina face a 14% tariff on bottled wine and a 20% tariff on bulk-shipped wine. China is now the most important market for Australian wine by value (A$848m), with a growth of 63% since 2015. Ninety-five per cent of the Australian wine sold (by value again) in China is red. Tourism is also a factor here: 1.3m Chinese visited Australia in 2017.