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Imports leap as Gen Y experiments

By Jeni Port

So there was Jeremy Stockman and Grant Ramage, wine buyers for Vintage Cellars, in the back of a bar in Priorat in northeast Spain — which is hotter than hot with wine drinkers around the world just now — pondering wine, life and everything. But mostly they were wondering how they would manage to taste 120 gregarious, beefy local reds in the 42ºC heat and not fall over.

They did survive the afternoon’s tasting, saw some smashing reds just right for their Australian customers and sealed the deal over a cup of coffee.

Coffee? Nothing stronger? They were working, they stress, and still had miles to go that day, on to other producers, other regions, more wines.

There’s little sleep — or beer time — for Australian wine buyers these days as they criss-cross Europe in search of value-formoney wines. Wines like the Tandem 2004 Tempranillo/Cabernet/ Merlot for $21.99 that Stockman and Ramage picked up on their European trip.

The raison d’etre of many an Aussie buyer is no longer to hunt down the best, the most expensive or the wine with the grandest reputation; it’s got more to do with value, taste and positioning. “We want people to taste these wines and feel comfortable with them,” says Ramage.

Evidence is growing that Australian wine drinkers are indeed very comfortable with imported wines.

In 2001, sales of imported wines were around 13 million litres. Last year, 2007, the figure was 34 million litres. That’s impressive growth and a look at the stats shows that it was steady growth too until an almighty jump — a 10 million litre or 40% leap in fact — occurred between 2006 and 2007. Imports now represent 7.1% of the wines we buy.

Retailers and sommeliers can take a big slice of the credit for the increased consumption.

Sommeliers are far more adventurous than they have ever been, especially when it comes to wines served by the glass, an excellent innovation that allows us to get to know a Spanish Albarino or an Alsatian Pinot Gris without paying for the entire bottle. Of the 28 wines offered by the glass at the award-winning Taxi Dining Room, 22 are from overseas. Five years ago that would have been considered unusual, not now.

Retailers too have loosened up. Some don’t even sport a separate imported wine section anymore. The Prince Wine Store in Melbourne has its imported wines right alongside Australian wines because it chooses to list by variety, not country.

At Randalls, it’s a similar story. If you want a $30 Chablis you’d better look in the Chardonnay section.

Randall Pollard of Randall’s, who imports around 20 European wines exclusively as a result of his annual buying visits, instructs his staff to offer customers a non-Australian wine together with an Australian wine.

“We’ve got a vin de pays at the moment from Cornas that’s a Merlot, but it’s a really good Merlot for $20, so things like that that are really good value we would offer to people,” says Pollard. There also appears to be a financial bonus involved for retailers importing wines directly and exclusively. It cuts out the middleman and any potential competition.

“But it’s difficult,” adds Michael McNamara, a partner in the Prince Wine Store who will bring in almost 5000 cases of wine this year. “We have to fund all of our own shipments.”

There is a less appreciated aspect to importing your own wine as Stockman and Ramage discovered at Vintage Cellars. You can move the wine fast to its destination and by using refrigerated containers (which some European distributors/producers don’t always do) you get a fresher, less heat-fried, product. The two buyers also persuade or cajole their exclusive suppliers to use screwcaps — incredibly successfully it must be said — instead of cork. Again, that’s a big tick for wine freshness, something that hasn’t always been a feature of European wines in the past.

It has been argued that if you took the glasses of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Champagne out of the hands of Australian drinkers, the domestic sales figure for imported wines would be closer to 4% rather than 7%.

We now drink 3.3 million bottles of Champagne annually and import some 18.4 million litres of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc making these two wine styles the dominant drivers of growth. Even successive interest rate bites aren’t dimming our enthusiasm. Or so it seems.

“It doesn’t appear to be,” says Rob Hirst of Fine Wine Partners, an importer specializing in top end premium wines including Bollinger Champagne and Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc. “It seems to be going from strength to strength. It’s just extraordinary.”

The full version of the article can be found in the July issue of the Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine. To take out a subscription to the Grapegrower & Winemaker, telephone +618 8292 0888 or visit www.winebiz.com.au



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