In an industry which celebrates the shift from bark to aluminium screwcap as its biggest innovation in the last 20 years, there is at last a new breed of Australian wine entrepreneurs and risk takers emerging in the second decade of the 21st century.
These true innovators are responding to dynamic changes in consumer demand, they are building on the strength of their brand and in doing so, they are creating a more valuable (and saleable) long term business asset.
“These new diversifiers” have looked at their idle commercial infrastructure – tanks, pumps, filters, refrigeration, barrel halls, bottling lines and cellar doors – and seizing upon their accumulated marketing knowledge, have decided to develop products which are “beyond wine”.
The Australian’s wine writer Max Allen might have been the catalyst for at least one of these innovations.
Allen went on a mission to flush out the best boutique ciders in this country (anything without the word Strongbow in it) and found an emerging range of local and imported artisan scrumpies. He argued that cider had many of the same qualities as wine – varietal fruit based, natural, depth of flavour, aromatic, alcoholic and diverse in style from cloudy to clear, still to sparkling. It also offered a nice refreshing alternative to chardonnay or sauvignon blanc.
Within months some wineries responded to this public discussion using their knowledge of fruit fermentation and alcoholic beverage product development to enter a new market.
Australia’s most famous shiraz region inspired some ingenious brands: David Franz Lehmann, son of Barossa wine legend Peter, made a grape and apple Golden Scrumpy; Kellermeister developed its very popular Boots Cider made by its former winemaker Trevor Jones; and Oscar and Hugo Bowen (sons of Balthazar’s Anita Bowen and former Wolf Blass executive Randolph) last year launched Squashed Apple Cider from their Barossa Valley Cider Company. There is also McLaren Vale’s Ekhidna Wines turning their hand to cider (as well as beer and ginger beer) and Oakvale, one of Hunter Valley’s oldest wineries making a sparkling apple and pear cider.
Of these winemakers turned cider brewers, one of the most authentic is Punt Road. The Napoleone family arrived in Australia in the 1920s and after World War II planted an apple orchard at Wandin in Victoria. Their Red Rich Fruit Company became one of the biggest producers and wholesalers of stone and pome fruit in Australia which provided the cash for the family to purchase the old St Hubert’s vineyard in Coldstream in the Yarra Valley in 1987.
They built a winery in 1999 and started selling the now very successful Punt Road wine range in 2001. Naturally enough as orchardists they also adapted quickly to the idea of alcoholic apple juice and Napoleone Cider seemed an obvious addition to their wine range. It is a serious cider – family grown Granny Smith, Pink Lady, Fuji andSundowner apples providing a balanced flavour (with no juice concentrate) and fermentation kicking off with a Rhone Valley white wine yeast.
Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander is perhaps the ultimate winery diversification phenomenon in Australia. Created by beverage entrepreneur Phil Sexton, a trained brewer who starting Perth’s Matilda Bay Brewing Company and Devil’s Lair winery in Margaret River in the 1980s, before selling the brewery to Fosters and the winery to Southcorp, Giant Steps ticks just about every consumer box.
Giant Steps is true to its ambitions to make super-premium pinot and chardonnay in the cool climate Yarra Valley region. But with a glass of pinot gris or sangiovese you can also sample sourdough breads from the artisan bakery, mix that with cheese (made by winemaker Steve Flamsteed who studied farmhouse cheesemaking in France) or enjoy the company’s own Innocent Bystander on-site roasted coffee blend.
And to complete the circle you can enjoy an Innocent Bystander moscato, at about the same alcohol level as beer but twice as pretty (and served sparkling direct from keg to tap). It’s made from virtually worthless Gordo and Black Muscat, doesn’t see a whisker of expensive oak and turns cash flow so fast it must make Sexton’s head spin.
Across the other side of the country James Clarke, who worked in marketing roles with Evans and Tate, Pipers Brook and Sandalford and his boutique distiller mate Paul White, have created another “beyond wine” brew, West Winds Gin which blends local and imported botanicals. They have utilised the skills of an experienced spirits marketer Jeremy Spencer (ex Brown Foreman and formerly of Woodford Reserve and Appleton Estate Rum) to create The Tailor Made Spirits Company. West Winds has already won gold at the 2011 and 2013 San Francisco International Spirit Awards and is well established in the bar and independent liquor scene.
And if you think this artisan gin is just a bit of fun by a few winemakers who like a crisp G&T, think again. McLaren Vale’s Salopian Inn, now run by winemaker Elena Brooks and chef Karena Armstrong, stocks no less than 168 gins from the UK, US and Australia – and that is right in the middle of one of our most famous red wine regions.
But diversification is not just about the clear spirit.
As demand for the beers our father’s drank (VB, Crown Lager, Tooheys, West End) declines, Australians seem to have a tirelessly growing thirst for exotic craft beers. There’s Pike’s Oakbank Beer which has a track record going back to the 1860s when the family were brewers and cordial makers; next door neighbour Clare winery Paulett’s Last Minute Bitter; Knappstein’s Enterprise Winery and Brewery, also in Clare (and supported by Lion Nathan) and Willoughby Park Winery and its Boston Brewery in Denmark, WA.
There is also the Barossa Valley Brewing Company in Tanunda, Vale Ale in McLaren Vale and Bluetongue in the Hunter Valley (which local winery Tyrrell’s was involved in), leveraging the strong brand names of their regions and banking on the consumer desire for a cleanser after a day of tasting Shiraz.
What do all of these projects have in common?
These winemakers are recognising that while they still love the excitement of vintage and the mysteries of an aged pinot, the consumer’s interest in wine is not endless.
With 9 out of 10 wineries failing to make a profit in Australia in the last few years and with retail monopolies cramping distribution, winery owners have decided that the only way they might ever capitalise on their vast investment and retire with enough cash to count, is to listen to the customer and add value (and a diversified product or two) to what they have.
GIN ON THE RISE
While gin has been around since the Middle Ages, recent data shows it has enjoyed a renaissance in Australia over the last five years.
Roy Morgan Research’s latest report shows that in 2009, 636,000 Aussie adults drank gin in any given four-week period — but by 2013 this figure had grown by almost 50% to 947,000. While slightly more women (483,000) than men (464,000) drank gin in 2013, the spirit’s popularity has risen almost equally among both genders. Men accounted for 49% of gin drinkers last year, just as they did in 2009.
Furthermore, gin’s popularity is growing among all age groups. Whereas 91,000 18-24 year olds drank gin in an average four weeks during 2009, this figure had surged to 175,000 by 2013 — a 92% increase.
The number of gin drinkers aged between 25 and 34 also shot up during the same period, from 126,000 to 205,000.