The Aussie Comeback

Winemakers hope for better times in the Land Down Under

by Matt O’GradyBefore there were written records, there was wine. Its cultivation spans the course of Western civilization, with wine having been in wide-scale production in most of Europe, the Middle East and Asia for thousands of years. So, by that standard, Australia is a relative greenhorn in the high-stakes world of winemaking. The Land Down Under—the spotlighted region at this year’s Vancouver International Wine Festival—has been making wine for a little over 200 years now, in which time it has helped put Shiraz—its most popular varietal—on the global map. The country is now the world’s fourth-largest exporter of wine (only 40 per cent of Australian wine is produced for domestic consumption), with exports to the all-important U.S. market rising from 578,000 cases in 1990 to 20 million by 2004. But like any sort of business with that kind of upward trajectory, sometimes you fall victim to your own success. Kym Davey, owner and managing director of Shingleback Winery in McLaren Vale (the Napa Valley of Australia), explains, during a break in the action at the festival, how Australian wine fell out of relative favour. “I think it was the perfect storm,” shouts the garrulous winemaker over the growing din at the Vancouver Convention Centre, touching my arm several times to emphasize his point. “It was a combination of the strength of the global economic crisis, a rising Australian dollar, and Yellow Tail and its cheap-and-cheerful shit—everything happened at once.” McLaren Vale is located just south of Adelaide in South Australia, home to 50 per cent of Australia’s wine production. Davey, a fifth-generation South Australian farmer, started the winery in 1995 with his brother John, on family-owned land in the Willunga Basin. Davey is the first to admit that it’s been a difficult few years for Shingleback and the rest of the Australian industry, although his winery, he feels, has weathered the storm better than many. “We never strayed from our core business. We never made a jammy wine,” he says, pointing to his entry-level wine, the Shingleback Red Knot Shiraz, which retails for $19.99 at BC Liquor Stores. “That’s always been good wine. It’s never been sweet. It’s never been over-alcoholized. It’s never been over-oaked. So we never got treated with the same disdain as a lot of other wines. We didn’t get beat up.” When Shingleback started, Davey’s intent was to dominate the U.S. market. “Originally I wanted 66 per cent of my market to be in the U.S. because there was an opening in the early 2000s: the Australian dollar was weak; the U.S. dollar was strong. We got in there very early.” But today, he says, Shingleback is selling half as much in the U.S. as it did during that peak period, with Canada now outperforming America. Among other reasons for the difference (the exchange rate being key), Davey credits high-quality buyers and distribution north of the border. “In the U.S., in 2003 or 2004, I was driving around in a black Hummer giving away television sets to salesmen to develop the market. In Canada we just had quality distribution. It’s a lot more level playing field here.” With the Australian dollar now in decline versus the U.S. dollar, many Aussie winemakers are hoping that tides will shift again and Australian wine will once again have its day in the global sun. As Brian Walsh, chair of the Australian Grape and Wine Authority, told an assembled crowd to launch the wine festival: “Australia is an island continent with ancient soils, old vines—but importantly, young, fresh thinking. We are confident, but not complacent, in the knowledge that our fine wines are the equal of any in the world today.” •