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Brits opt for Australian wine

10 February 2005
Brits opt for Australian wine

The beleaguered French wine industry has had a tough time of late, and recent figures showing that Australian winemakers now take the lion's share of the UK's £4b-a-year wine market won't have added any cheer.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Britons now drink 38% of all the wine exported from Australia. Despite a couple of years of less positive figures, which suggested that Australian wine was lagging in the UK, and reports of numerous boutique wineries being on the verge of bankruptcy, sales have bounced back, hitting £350m.

We drank 225 million litres of Australian wine last year, and Aussie winemakers have the biggest market share in British supermarkets, which account for 80% of UK wine sales.

But here's the thing - the success of Australian wine in the off-trade is still not being reflected in most areas of the on-trade, which is worth just 21% by volume but a whopping 46% by value. Here, France maintains its age-old stranglehold.

Australian wines have been making some headway in pubs - AC Nielsen has put Australia's volume growth in the on-trade at more than 20% for the past two years - but the independent gastropubs and smarter restaurants are proving tougher nuts to crack, says Paul Henry of the Australian Wine Bureau in London. "We've got a big job to do - it's a real strategic focus," he admits.

And the toughest nut of all? The French sommelier, of course, who still rules in many of the UK's top restaurants.

Matthieu LonguŠre is head sommelier of London's La Trompette, and he includes a fair number of Australian wines on his award-winning wine list, but is he a fan?

"What I'm looking for is finesse," he says. "Wine with food needs structure, but not too much; and a richness, but with subtle flavours. I find the blockbuster style of Australian wines very difficult - they tend to overpower food."

So LonguŠre searches out wines from Australia's cooler climate regions. "I look at areas that show good expression of fruit and terroir," he says. He particularly likes the wines of Western Australian, singling out Margaret River, and he loves Clare Valley Rieslings, of which he lists three.

He says: "The Australian wines that sell well here [in La Trompette] are mostly those that are not so expensive - on the list between £25 and £40, which people see as good value. It's the cult Australian wines that are more difficult to sell." He admits that he sells more Australian wine by the glass, as an ap‚ritif, than with the meal itself.

On the other hand, Emmanuel Defever, at three-Michelin-starred restaurant the Fat Duck, at Bray in Berkshire, appears to embrace Australia wholeheartedly, having more than 100 Antipodean wines on his list. So is it safe to assume that he is a fan?

"Depends - not in general," he says. "I like to search out wines with personality and character, and for Australia that needs a lot of research. In the UK, we've got access to an awful lot of Australian wines, but not many of them are that exciting. And with food, it's a problem." His last point echoes LonguŠre's concerns.

"Australian wine often overpowers food," Defever adds. "In general, there's just too much fruit and not enough complexity." He believes that Australian Chardonnays all taste "quite similar", although he does like a really good Australian Riesling - and Shiraz, when it's not too overpowering.

So what of the gastropub wine buyer - surely, this is where Australian wines will sell easily. Well, Frenchman Ollie Daniaud, co-owner of the Westbourne in Notting Hill and the Pig's Ear in Chelsea, both in London, says that he finds Australian wines rather one-dimensional.

"The Wogga Wogga-style red is undrinkable - all blackcurrants and nothing else," he says. "And the whites still have a big issue with oak."

Daniaud does offer a handful of Australian wines on his list, even though he reckons there's not much demand for them. "The demand now is for French and Italian wine," he says, although he concedes that he likes Margaret River Semillon. And he adds: "Australia is rather good at Riesling and Pinot Noir."

Henry, it appears, has got a significant challenge ahead of him. "I know we have, but it'll happen," he says, optimistically.

The Australian Wine Bureau's plans include a series of specifically targeted tastings for the on-trade, to be held around the country. "We're being much more rigorous about what we put on the table," Henry says. "We want wines that are unique to the on-trade."

And he is continuing with his familiarisation programme by taking sommeliers out to see Australia. "It's important to see how Australian restaurants serve wine, and what dishes they serve them with," he says. "It's cost-intensive but it does get the message across."

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