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Australian Wine:  The Once and Future King?

You’ve never heard of Campbell Mattinson:  He’s a young, urbane Australian wine wordsmith who forsakes the academically erudite and plaintive wine writing style of legends past for a muscular writing style that is jocularly loose yet incisive, showing every bit of the wunderkind talent of his global English-language contemporaries, Jamie Goode and Neal Martin.

Likewise, you probably haven’t heard of Mattison’s *new* wine book, Thin Skins: Why the French Hate Australian Wine first published in Australia in 2007 and now just released in America.

Seemingly stillborn upon its October publishing date in the states and updated with a scant epilogue where the author notes, “The headiness described in the early passages of this book is now long gone,” the book formerly offered in situ context on the boom and looming bust of the Australian wine landscape and is now something of an ipso facto think piece on the manifested reality. 

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With recency in absentia as one negative checkmark, Thin Skins as a body of work brooks no favors for itself either.  Even when first published four years ago, it represented a compendium of articles and profile pieces, individually quite good, but collectively never quite transcending its constituent parts, especially one that supports the premise of the title.  And, unlike its subject matter, time has not aged the book into cohesion.

Worse still, brought to the U.S. market by publisher Sterling Epicure, the book is likely supported with little more than the gas it takes a truck to drive a meager allotment of books to an Amazon.com warehouse and the dwindling number of Barnes & Nobles that still populate the landscape, a veritable line item in an editors’ fourth quarter publishing spreadsheet under the header, “wine.”

Thin Skins seems destined for a hastened half-life and quick retreat to the remainder bin at Half-Price Books…it’s an ignoble fate heaped upon by my damnation.

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But, I’ve feinted purposefully, misdirecting by caveat because, despite everything I’ve mentioned having some inherent truth(including the author being very talented), Thin Skins is a wildly entertaining book that delivers on providing a teasing glimpse into a distinctly Aussie viewpoint on the factors that led to the Australian wine boom (Parker points, market forces, greed and drought) and in so doing the author makes three key points worth repeating:

1) The Aussie wine industry, save for its Gallo-like equivalents, is NOT happy about their country’s production being viewed globally as syrupy supermarket plonk

2)  Our U.S. perception IS NOT reality regarding Australian wine; their wine industry has an abundance of refined, terroir-based wines from small vintners

3)  The Aussie wine business will rise again on the international scene (in an entirely different form).

One key takeaway for me from the book is that Australia is remarkably similar to the U.S. 

In the U.S., some reports indicate that 90% of the wine sold is “corporate” wine, the kind found at supermarkets across the country.  However, what IS different is that 90% of our national conversation about wine focuses on the 10% of the wine production that ISN’T in the supermarket i.e. everything non-corporate – the boutique, artisan and interesting.

Yet, when it comes to Australian wine, we don’t continue our conversation about the small and beautiful.  Instead of talking about the superlative, we view their entire country production through the lens of the insipid, the Yellowtail and other critters that cost $6.99 at Safeway.

American wine consumers would be rightfully indignant if the world viewed our wines not as we do, a rich tapestry, but as industrialized plonk from the San Joaquin Valley.

This is where Australian wine is at today—a ‘perception is reality’ mistake of colossal proportions.

While offering an abundance of stories from small producers along the way, Mattison suggests that while it may take time, with Australia having 162 years of winemaking history, the day will come, sooner rather than later, when Australian wine forsakes its near-term reputation and is viewed on the world stage as a wine producing country that can proudly stand next to its New World peers.

I wrote recently that I’ve noticed a slow change in tenor from American influencers regarding Aussie wine, they’re becoming more sympathetic, they’re starting to speak less dismissively and more optimistically and holistically about Australian wine, discussing the merits and great diversity in the land of Oz.

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Recent Symphony IRI sales data bears this out as well.  According to a Shanken NewsDaily report from this week, Australian wine in the $15 - $19.99 category rose 23% in September.  In addition, growth is coming from varietals not named Shiraz (see also syrupy supermarket plonk).  Instead, Semillon, Riesling and Pinot Noir are showing growth.

Still, it’s not the land of milk and honey here in the states for Aussie wine, as it once was.  Overall sales are down by volume and dollars, but as Mattinson alludes the correction in the U.S. market isn’t going to be pretty, but it will be healthy and it’s quite possible that Australia will decrease in overall volume and dollar sales from persistent decline at the low-end for years to come as the high-end grows, but not at a rate to replace what was lost.

The net sum of that doesn’t balance a spreadsheet, but it does balance mindshare.

Pick-up Thin Skins if you want to get turned on to a great wine writer while also enjoying a greater understanding of Australian wine – where it has been and where it’s going—perhaps not as a future King, but definitely not in its current role as court jester.

Campbell Mattinson’s Wine Site:  The Wine Front



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