drinks300Snobbery is catapulting demand for foreign wines. By Ben Canaider.

Increasingly our wine lists are becoming more and more populated by imported wines. And not just the usual Old World wine suspects, like Champagne, Bordeaux or Chianti. Wines from lesser known or tasted French regions, such as the Jura; wines from Sardinia and Sicily; Spanish and even Portuguese table wines are now more commonplace; and there’s the new offerings we see from South America, not to mention North America. The reason behind this immigration is twofold. At a wine-cultural level, Australia is becoming a more macro, globally aware wine consumer. Tastes are evolving and becoming more sophisticated, but perhaps only as much as a certain très posh snobbery drives some of these new wine-drinking trends. We buy Jermyn Street bespoke shirts instead of Yakka and drive European cars instead of Holdens, so it is unsurprising we want to be seen drinking imported wine. And at a financial level imported wines have—thanks to the high Australian dollar of recent times—been an attractive inventory item for both sommeliers and other wine list compositors, not to mention the large supermarket liquor buying groups. Landed unit cost prices can be low and the choice very wide. For some restaurateurs the imported wine attraction has been the lack of any retail price let alone wholesale price comparisons or transparency. Margins can be so stratospheric that Gordon Gekko might even take an interest in the hospitality business. This was neatly demonstrated to me at a business luncheon only the other day when a newly imported Spanish red from the Ribera del Duero was wine-listed for $52. It’s LUC is around $16. In Spain you can buy it in the supermarket for just $6… So given the cultural aspirations associated with drinking ‘foreign’ wine, and given the apparent money-for-old-rope margins that both off- and on-premise businesses can make out of selling it, why are we not yet a 24/7 imported wine drinking nation? It comes down to the three Ts: tradition, taste and trust. Australian Bureau of Statistics data regarding Australian imported and domestic wine consumption over the past 15 or so years makes for some interesting study. Imported wine sales in 2007 represented 7.1 per cent of total wine sales in Australia. In 2014 that percentage had tripled to nearly 20 per cent. Yet while origin of production shifts our domestic wine consumption, per se, it’s not necessarily rising or falling. Per capita we are still around 22 litres. Once again, like clothes and cars, it is not as if we are wearing or driving any less, but where we buy the product from is the variable. Nevertheless, the fact that 20 per cent of wine sold is imported is a striking stat. That’s one in five bottles. Not to get ahead of ourselves, however, two of every three bottles of imported wine are from New Zealand, which supplies us with 61 per cent of all imported wine. AKA sauvignon blanc. After New Zealand comes France, with 17 per cent of the imported wine market, but with an impressive 33 per cent of the total value—thanks no doubt to Champagne. Italian imports represent nine per cent of sales, then in fourth comes South Africa, with about four per cent. The trendy importers, such as Chile, represent not much more than one per cent of Australian wine import sales. So while imported wines may seem über-hip, they really only strut their stuff on inner city wine lists and in the smaller independent wine retailers. Trust and tradition and the taste for bolder, fuller, fruitier expressions of the grape, such as red wines from the Barossa or McLaren Vale, still dominate a lot of drinking. Trust in known local brands—such as Penfolds or Wynns, despite their off-premise presence—is still a strong motivating factor for many drinkers staring at the wine list. Indeed, a strong imported wine inventory on said list can perhaps only add to the intimidation factor, helping to create a distance between your business and the customer. A $50 red wine from Spain unknown to the man on table 17 is a nightmare, but a $50 Australian brand, and a recognisable one at that, is a sign that the owner of this restaurant has got it right. In terms of evolving wine tastes and consumption habits, it is salient to remember that only as long ago as 2002 Australians drank 50 per cent of their domestically produced wine from soft-pack cask, or Chateau Cardboard. In the meantime it’s wise to consider the listing of some broader and more widely representational imported wines, if only to keep an aspect of your list international. But to go too long on them can land you with a static and quickly deteriorating inventory of wines. This is particularly evident when it comes to whites, such as the Italian and Spanish examples. Many are still sealed under cork, and vintages always seem slightly out-of-date. If I see one more bottle of 2011 Albariño from Galicia on a wine bar’s list for $46 I’ll be asking the sommelier for the fresher 2013 Chilly Bin Bay sav blanc from you-know-where—and at two-thirds of the price. Besides cork taint risks and older vintages of whites, imported wines, particularly at the more attractive end of the wholesale pricing stick, can suffer inconsistencies at the hands of batch-bottling, poor or (worse) unrefrigerated shipping conditions, and Australian dollar fluctuation. While the dollar has been high it has been a good time for serious wine collectors to go long on the traditionally expensive vinous blue chips, like bordeaux and, to a lesser extent, burgundy; but such inventory acquisitions are hardly going to help the vast majority of licensed cafe, bar and restaurant operators. Besides, just like our local manufacturing sector, Australian wineries— all 2500 of them—need as much local support as they can get. 

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