Opinion

Making the Case for Australian Wine

Your excuses for not carrying Australian wine are outdated—here’s why

Gordon Little
Photo courtesy of Gordon Little

The hangover from critter-label Australian wine is well and truly over. Today there’s a more invigorating selection of Australian wines in the United States than ever before, many from boutique family producers. Unfortunately, some retail and restaurant buyers are still holding out, avoiding Australian wine completely. Here are a couple of the tired excuses I still regularly hear as owner of Little Peacock Imports, an Australian wine importer, and why they no longer hold water—or wine.

1. “None of the good Aussie wines make it to the U.S.”

The subtext here is that Aussie wines in the U.S. are export-only brands, not “real” wines. Sure, a decade ago a lot of exported wines were driven by high Robert Parker scores and styles and not widely sold back home. That’s one of the big reasons my wife, Lauren Peacock, and I started Little Peacock Imports—to bring in wines made by small wineries across Australia whose main audiences are their cellar doors, local restaurants, and independent retailers.

But today there’s an enormous selection of Aussie wines from American importers, including companies like Negociants USA (Napa, California), Vine Street Imports (Philadelphia), Hudson Wine Brokers (Los Angeles), and Red Earth Wines (Seattle). Small-batch Aussie producers who craft anywhere from 60 to 600 cases of wines from special sites can be found from New York to California, and a lot of states in between. The range of offerings is compelling, with winemakers in the Basket Range of Adelaide Hills, such as Ochota Barrels, Lucy Margaux, and Jauma, showcasing an extremely hands-off focus, and producers like Moorooduc Estate in Mornington Peninsula, By Farr in Geelong, and Mac Forbes in Yarra Valley spotlighting exquisite cool-climate Pinot Noir.

“What I love about pouring the Australian wines that we do is that they are highly unexpected,” says Caleb Ganzer, the wine director at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in New York City. “A sommelier’s job is to find the new, the fun, the overlooked, the value wines, and the unsung heroes. Australia is chock-full of them. There is a veritable treasure trove of great Australian wines coming into the U.S. at every single price point.”

In fact, many of Australia’s historic and iconic wines have been in the market for decades—they never left. “We have retained national availability of some of Australia’s most sought after wines, including Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz and Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay, even when the going was tough, given past perception issues about Aussie wine,” says Kathy Marlin, the managing director of Negociants USA. “The interest and respect for these wines has only grown stronger, and it’s exciting to see new entrants in the category.”

2. “Our customers just don’t buy Australian wine.”

Oftentimes, walking into a bustling, well-appointed wine store, I’ll hopefully inquire, “What about something from Australia?” Usually I’m waved to the back of the store, basically out of sight, where a handful of bottles are sitting, dusty and unloved.

In a restaurant, I glance through the first 10 pages of ample sections on Bordeaux, Beaune, Beaujolais, Alto Adige, Campania, Russian River Valley—even Slovenia gets its own section these days—and turn to the “Southern Hemisphere” half page, which distills the offerings of four countries into four ponderous selections, including a $700 Australian bottle right next to a $40 Argentinian Malbec.

Of course nobody buys it! But the problem is context, not customers. While the bottles on the shelf and list languish, I can report an overwhelmingly positive consumer response to the hundreds of in-store tastings, dinners, classes, and events I’ve participated in during the last couple of years.

I’ve found that a regular Côtes du Rhône drinker also appreciates a Shiraz-Grenache blend from McLaren Vale, that a millennial who typically shuns Chardonnay actually enjoys the cleanliness of one from Adelaide Hills, and that somebody who doesn’t like residual sugar in Riesling will salivate over a limey, slatey, bone-dry Riesling from Frankland River.

Even within hotly contested categories, Australian wine shines. At a recent world Chardonnay tasting, the Stella Bella Chardonnay from Margaret River “was a huge hit and showed up a white Burgundy that was much more expensive,” says Kristen Wolfe Bieler, a New York-based writer and editor. “The group was really impressed and surprised.”

3. “It doesn’t work with our concept.”

I get it. If you’re buying for an Italian or French restaurant, your list may be restricted to bottles from those countries. However, for myriad other concepts, Australia offers fresh possibilities and attractive margins—if you’re willing to take a chance. Not only does Australia show unique, classic wine styles—rich aged Hunter Valley Semillon, zingy Clare Valley Riesling, and luxuriant Rutherglen fortifieds, for example—but the country also has some of the oldest ungrafted vines that still produce quality fruit, including Best’s 1868-planted Pinot Meunier in Great Western, Victoria, and Hewitson Old Garden vineyard in Barossa Valley, which has Mourvèdre dating to 1853.

At The Modern, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Master Sommelier Michael Engelmann has capitalized on the value and heritage of Australian wines, significantly growing the number of bottles on his list. “We pretty much always have an Australian white or red, or both, by the glass, which is a very easy way to introduce Australian wines and build a trusting relationship with our guests,” Engelmann says. “I have a good team that is genuinely open-minded and shows an interest for wines from all around the world. While the list is always a work in progress, and I don’t see the category getting as popular as California or France, I am pretty happy with it.”

4. “Our customers expect Australian wine to be under $10.”

Much as Franzia doesn’t speak for all Californian wine, cheap critter brands don’t speak for the whole of Australia. Thankfully, those bargain wines now tend to have their own separate shelf real estate, apart from most Australian wines. A younger generation of retailers and restaurateurs is now making more money upselling their clientele.

“Under $10 is not Oz’s wheelhouse to begin with,” says Kyle Meyer at the Wine Exchange shop in Santa Ana, California. “And as for value, South Australian Shiraz versus Napa Valley Cab on the premium end—it’s really no contest. At $50 or less, the well-informed money is going ‘down under.’ Not to mention, many of today’s South Australian reds have lower alcohols, finer acids, older vines, and less additives in the vineyard and winery than their NorCal counterparts.”

Indeed, the export figures bear out the successes of Australian wine. Imports of these wines to the American market at the $15-plus level have increased 11 percent over the past year, according to the industry group Wine Australia. “The expectation that Australian wines should be inexpensive is changing,” says Aaron Ridgway, the head of Wine Australia’s Americas market. “Not that prices have suddenly increased, but the selection of wines available in the U.S. is becoming more exciting, nuanced, and reflective of what Australia does to a globally recognized standard.”

So no more outdated excuses. Retailers and restaurants can find unique and delightful wines by wading deeper into the Australian category, and good margin doing so! The renaissance is already here, and I look forward to sharing a glass with you.

A Melbourne native, Gordon Little founded Little Peacock Imports, with his American wife Lauren Peacock in 2012, with the aim of helping American retailers and restaurants sell more Australian wine by importing wines they can be proud and excited to sell. Little Peacock works with distributors in fifteen U.S. states.  

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