Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The New South Wales wine conundrum

The NSW wine festival kicks off later this week. It’s been running for the past few years as part of a concerted effort by many in the NSW wine industry to better promote the quality and diversity of wine in the state. There have been numerous NSW events and promotions, some of which have been excellent – the annual Sydney Cellar Door in Hyde park on a sunny Sunday, for example, has been a wonderful event, had huge attendances, and is a great way to spend an afternoon.

One of the underlying reasons for this campaign has been the lack of popularity of NSW wine within NSW itself. Walk into any bottleshop in Sydney and the wines of South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia, and even occasionally the tiny (yet quality) production from Tasmania are all better represented on the shelves than NSW fare. The same has been true of pretty much any wine list at a Sydney restaurant.

Such a meagre representation hasn’t been surprising historically, given that the only wine region with a significant reputation was the Hunter Valley, and it’s mainstays have been medium-bodied, savoury Shiraz and austere, dry Semillon (at least in its youth). As much as I love these styles of wine, and they do have a loyal following amongst a segment of wine drinkers, they haven't typically been the most popular wine amongst the punters. Beyond the Hunter, the past couple of decades, have seen the emergence of regions like Canberra, the Hilltops, Mudgee, Orange, and Tumbarumba, all with serious claims in terms of making interesting and unique wine. Nevertheless, with the exception of perhaps Canberra, I don't think any of these regions are yet associated with great wine in the minds of consumers. The winemakers across these regions, and the people who represent them have obviously thought it’s time to get their stories out there, get their wines in people’s glasses, and start to see if they can’t get at least a little bit more representation on local shelves and wine lists.

With all this in mind it was with interest that I read the below article that highlighted the fact that NSW wines remain very much under-represented, constituting something like 4% of wine lists for a number of top Sydney restaurants

With such a meagre representation, and no obvious broad pick up in consumption of NSW wine in the past couple of years, does this mean that this NSW wine campaign is failing, or perhaps more disconcertingly that NSW wine on the whole just isn’t very good? To my mind it’s neither, but below are some thoughts on the conundrum of NSW wine and the efforts of those trying to promote it.


NSW is the least parochial state in Australia. We might fire up around State of Origin time, but otherwise we’re much more relaxed about all that sort of stuff when compared to the other states. It comes through in the wine choices people in Sydney and elsewhere in the state make. We’ll buy what we like, and there’s virtually no state based bias in this decision. So while people in NSW will likely appreciate the efforts that are being made by the NSW Wine Industry Association and others over the past couple of years to highlight the depth and breadth of wine here, they won’t drink or choose a wine just because it is from NSW. It has to be a wine they would want to drink regardless. Hopefully the continued campaign and events maintain the largely positive tone it has struck, and doesn’t lurch into parochial hectoring, as I think anything like this would be counter-productive.


I’m of the belief that the NSW Wine Festival and other events will have to be run for a decade to really bear fruit. Efforts over the past couple of years have undoubtedly raised awareness and attracted new consumers, but in the main wine drinkers would still associate the Barossa, the Yarra, the Margaret River etc. with quality wine more so than they do most NSW wine regions. These regions from other states have got the track record and identifiable wine styles that consumers can more readily and easily select from when in a bottleshop or restaurant. These elements however, are still evolving and yet to solidify for a number of NSW wine regions, at least from the consumers perspective. To build these positive and more concrete associations are undoubtedly what the NSW Wine Festival is about, but only a sustained effort over time will achieve this.

Benchmark Wines

Every wine region benefits hugely from a great wine, a benchmark wine. Such a wine helps define a region’s identity, brings hype and interest, and perhaps serves as a guiding light for other winemakers. The issue with NSW wine as I see it, particularly when compared to other states, is the lack of iconic wine. The Hunter Valley certainly has wines such as the Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon and the Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz. The one other region that has emerged in line with the lionising of a benchmark wine is the Canberra district, and the wine of course is the Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier. It has become a perennial favourite of many wine critics in Australia, and no doubt this praise, along with the its popularity at the top-end of the market, has contributed in part to the emergence of other quality Canberra offerings and the broad success that the region has enjoyed in recent years. This is the only other region in NSW however, that can say this. When I think through the offerings of regions like the Hilltops, Mudgee, Orange, and Tumbarumba, I can think of many wines that I really like. Arguably a few wines that may become icons in time. But no one wine really stands out just yet. No one wine has really helped shape or define any of these regions identities. Campbell Mattinson, arguably Australia’s best wine writer, says that the Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier is the wine he looks forward to tasting the most each year. Is another critic saying something similar about the wines of these other regions? Not yet as far as I can see.

This of course is not a criticism. Becoming Orange’s or Mudgee’s Clonakilla will be no mean feat and it is not a given that it will happen, but I’ve no doubt that the emergence of a benchmark wine for any of these NSW wine regions would be a game changer.

Of course this is the thing that the people promoting the state's wine have the least control over. If it happens for any of these evolving NSW wine regions, then I’ve no doubt that 4% type representations on Sydney wine lists will quickly become a thing of the past. Until this happens, however, persistence and a long term approach to this NSW wine campaign will be necessary.




Anonymous said...

It's disappointing to go to restaurants in Sydney and find no Hunter wines whatsoever on the wine list. Seems we are in denial about the Hunter. There's an assumption that all the good wines come from somewhere else.

Red said...

Interesting comment. I've often found that the Hunter is the only wine region really represented on Sydney wine lists, though I'm sure there are restaurants out there that have no NSW wine whatsoever.

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