“Victoria is my ‘Desert Island’ wine region.” That’s according to Victoria Sharples, founder of London’s Swains Wine Bar and Store. It was a view part shared with other leading wine buyers who took part in The Buyer’s latest online debate in partnership with Wine Victoria. It was a chance for them to discuss what they see as the opportunities – and potential challenges – for the region in the UK as well as taste through a selection of wines that represent what are some of the most diverse terroirs and micro climates to be found anywhere in Australia. In the first part of our report we look at what it is about Victoria that makes it stand apart from other regions and the fact it is the strength of some of its 21 sub-regions that has given it so many talking points. In the second part of our report published later in the week our panel looks at where Victoria sits within Australia as a whole.
You can taste and discover the potential of wines from Victoria for yourself at this week’s London Wine Fair in the Wines Unearthed section.
Our thanks go to our panel for taking part in the debate. They include:
- Victoria Sharples, founder of Swains Wine Bar & Store in Hampstead Heath, London.
- Jamie Wynne-Griffiths, founder of Propeller wine agency.
- Angela Mount, wine buyer and consultant.
- Stuart McCloskey, managing director of The Vinorium.
- Frances Bentley, wine buyer at LWC Drinks.
- Roger Jones, co-owner of The Harrow at Little Bedwyn.
- Kim Wilson, managing director, North South Wines.
Representing Wine of Victoria was
- Stephanie Duboudin
You can watch the full debate here.
Victoria punches way above its weight. Australia’s second smallest state it can boast some 21 sub-regions, some of which are world famous in their own right. It is also home to more wineries (up to 800) than anywhere else in the county.
You can probably find a wine for every day of the year in this part of south Australia such is the diversity available from a myriad of micro climates and local soil conditions. From the warm-climate of the west and north of the region, including the Murray Darling, Swan Hill and Rutherglen, to the cooler southern areas, like Yarra Valley, just half an hour’s drive from Melbourne.
It has made it the perfect growing area for a wide number of red and white wine varieties, particularly Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz as well as fortified wines from the Rutherglen region.
But what does all this mean to buy UK buyers looking for something either tried and tested or different and interesting from Australia? Is it Victoria that is the main calling card, or are they more interested in particular sub-regions, styles and types of wine from any of the unique growing areas? Does it matter that Victoria often plays the supporting role in the story to some of its more well-known regions like Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley?
That was the task of our leading panel of wine buyers, merchants, importers and restaurateurs.
Desert island region
(Click here for Victoria Sharples on why Victoria is her desert island wine region)
Victoria Sharples has a head start on the rest of the panel as she was actually born and raised in Victoria. “This is like coming home for me today,” she says.
She says she first started importing Victoria wines into the UK in 2005 at a time when “Australia was a force to be reckoned with” and there were so many excellent premium wines being sent by producers to the UK.
The situation has changed somewhat in the subsequent years when it is fair to say Australia slipped from “being the darling” of the wine industry to a rather more muddled position. The country, and Victoria in particular, was still making great quality premium wine, it’s just not as much of it was making its way to the UK.
“I am seeing a resurgence now, there is more interest,” she adds and the fall-out from the huge tariffs placed on Australian wine by China, means producers are looking to re-engage with the UK.
“All the classic regions have a lot to offer, but Victoria is my desert island region: it has so much potential to offer, and has everything from sparking right the way through to sweet. I think it is somewhere that has been overlooked as South Australia has been a lot more ‘shouty’ than Victoria ever has been.”
Victoria also does not have the big wineries that do so much of a region’s marketing and instead is largely made up of much smaller producers, says Sharples.
It is that diversity that keeps taking Roger Jones back to Victoria. “It’s got everything from Marsanne to stickies, great Chardonnays, Pinots and Syrahs,” he says.
Stuart McCloskey, managing director and founder of The Vinorium, the specialist Australian wine importer and retail business, says: “Victoria is our most exciting wine growing region: we support eight producers there already and we would love to double or treble that amount. They produce some of the best wines in Australia.”
In particular he picks out sub-regions such as the Macedon Ranges “that really push winemakers to the edge”.
Angela Mount agrees with Sharples that of all Australian wine regions Victoria has “such a wealth of opportunities” for its producers and premium wine. The challenge is getting them over the line particularly with buyers in the on-trade where regional Australia is certainly not as easy to sell as the major regions in France.
It’s really a case of working as hard as it can in talking to and educating buyers and consumers about its premium wines and what makes Victoria special, she adds. “They need to be grabbing hold of millennials and Generation Z and communicating to them about why these wines are so premium.”
Regions within a region
Frances Bentley says it is the strength of its sub-regions that makes Victoria as a region so interesting. She can remember working at Oddbins when it was stocking premium wines from the Mornington Peninsula, Geelong and the Yarra Valley.
“I don’t think these are new wine regions to people. They have grown up with them and my generation understands Australia as a premium winemaking region. They don’t need to be introducing them [to regions like Yarra] in the same way that maybe they would have done 10 years ago.”
Kim Wilson at North South Wines says that although it has its stand out regions, like the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula, there are also a lot more that are emerging and becoming important in their own right, like Kings Valley, particularly when promoting Mediterranean varieties. Then there is the Rutherglen and its stickies like Campbell’s Rutherglen Muscat “which is like Christmas in a glass”. “For me it is its diversity and value for money compared to European equivalents,” she adds.
Mount says she does not see it as an issue that ‘Victoria’ might be less well known than the sum of its parts. After all does the average UK consumer even know Melbourne sits inside Victoria? she asks
“Within Victoria you have such a diversity, you have got so many regions. People have heard of Mornington Peninsula or the Yarra, but do they know they are in Victoria?”
Sharples says she is delighted to see Wine Victoria embark on a major marketing exercise in the UK as the region in the past has lost out to the investment behind other parts of the country.
That said it is a hard region to bring together under one voice as the 21 sub-regions don’t necessarily talk to each other and have different forms of funding.
“If you have got Wine Victoria actually bringing it all together and making an impact here, I think it’s really important,” she says.
Jones also welcomes Wine Victoria’s new front foot approach and is confident the regions can come together in an effective way. “It’s only a matter of getting everyone working as a team and highlight the diversity of the area. I think it will work and gives another story to shout about Australia.”
Having a website that makes it clear on the home page where all its sub regions sit within the wider state would be helpful to any consumer looking for more information, he adds.
Sharples remembers a previous campaign that used a jigsaw to illustrate the region’s great diversity which she thought was a very effective way of getting the message across.
Bentley questions whether the ‘Victoria’ aspect is that relevant to the average consumer. “It’s important from our perspective to understand how they all knit together and it’s important for the wineries to access the funding and to organise themselves so from that perspective it is very crucial, but for consumers it makes no difference,” she explains.
Wine Victoria’s Stephanie Duboudin was on hand to explain its role is not actually to “promote the overall region itself, but the regions within it”. “So we become the vehicle to effectively do that. There are certain regions that already have really strong awareness and by us collectively doing this together it gives the opportunity to a lot of the other smaller regions.”
Sharples also says the impact on the Chinese tariffs on the wider Australian industry might actually be to the benefit of many of Victoria’s smaller producers who were not exporting to China in any case. Instead it has made Australia “re-focus” what it is doing and “Victoria can tap into that” and use Wine Victoria to promote all 21 of its regions.
North South Wines is very invested in Australia as a whole and Victoria specifically, says managing director, Kim Wilson, for not only is local wine producer De Bortoli one of its major shareholders it recently took on property and vines in the Rutherglen area of Victoria and now has 820 hectares in the state and is sourcing wine from Kings Valley, Yarra, Heathcote and the Rutherglen.
In terms of finding homes for its wines in the UK, Wilson says the market is quite split. Whilst she finds it frustrating that not more of the major multiples will get behind wines from Victoria – mainly due to pricing issues – it has far more success with independent wine merchants and regional wholesalers, particularly with wines from the Yarra Valley.
“We are working on a project at the moment with De Bortoli to see how we can push these wines more and make them more accessible,” she adds, particularly the wines from its new Rutherglen estate. “We are quite fortunate and that we have quite a big sweet shop to play with and just need a lot of people to sell it to.”
Personally she says De Bortoli’s A5 Chardonnay made by Steve Webber is “one of my favourite wines in the world”. “I am a big fan, and my team is a big fan, of the Yarra Valley too.”
Jamie Wynne-Griffiths, founder of the new Propeller incubator-style wine agency model, says he has found the attitude of producers in Victoria “very helpful” and “really refreshing” when it comes to bringing in new styles, with a commitment to listen to what the market needs and how to make it happen.
He is also working with Periscope Management, that helps provide export opportunities for Australian producers, to bring a number of different family owned, boutique sized “Halliday five star wineries” over and look to find their mark in the UK.
(Click here for Wine Victoria’s Stephanie Duboudin on the region’s unique wine offer)
Wine Victoria’s Stephanie Duboudin says she was pleased to hear how familiar and well versed the buyers are in just how diverse Victoria is, but you still have to go there to really appreciate it.
“We get the full gamut in Australia. From very cool climate and a lot of maritime influence across the lower regions through to a more Continental type climate,” she explains.
Its challenge is how far it can it tip up the traditional market for Australian and Victorian wines and start to show more of what it can offer, particularly its “cooler climate expressions that it can do very well”.
“We have the largest concentration of smaller, family owned and artesian wine producers. Even the garagistes type producers are coming from Victoria. So this is a great opportunity to show what Victoria has to offer,” she adds.
Duboudin was also keen to stress that whilst clearly the Chinese market opened up huge new opportunities for so many producers, the UK remained the number one target for the majority of its members in Victoria.
The introduction of such high Chinese tariffs has meant a “tipping point” has been reached and producers are looking to re-align with markets, particularly the UK, that has such a strong consumer base looking to try new and different premium wines.
Lighter and fresher Chardonnay
The panel was given the opportunity to taste one of Mac Forbes’ Chardonnays from the Yarra Valley to highlight and illustrate what that particular sub-region can do, particularly with Forbes’ focus on terroir. Here the emphasis is on balance and finesse.
Wine Victoria’s Duboudin says Chardonnay is a good example of the diverse styles you can find in Victoria with the Yarra offering more of a cooler climate, leaner style compared to the warmer regions.
Kim Wilson says she loves Yarra Valley Chardonnay and the “steely, citrus, almost match strike style” and with a shortage of Chardonnay from other major regions in the world there is definitely scope and room for Yarra Valley Chardonnay to do well in the UK.
“We as a company are trying to get people to try more of this more Old World style,” she says and is currently talking to major retailers about switching supply to an area that can also offer so much better value.
(Click here for Angela Mount and Roger Jones on the rise of leaner, fresher styles of Australian Chardonnay)
Angela Mount says this Yarra Valley style of Chardonnay certainly fits nicely into the trend for lower alcohol, lighter, fresher wines. It is also the style that is getting people back into drinking Australian Chardonnay again. “With the issues and prices in Burgundy these are alternatives, but the consumer needs to understand that and it is about getting that message across very clearly,” she says.
Roger Jones agrees: “To get people to buy Australian wine at the moment it is the lean, clean, lower-alcohol wines that people are going for. That’s what my customers are looking for and these are the people who used to drink big heavy wines and are now changing.”
This switch is also reflected in the lighter styles of food that people are now looking to eat at home and when dining out in restaurants, he adds. “As we change the styles of food we are having then the same happens with wine.”
Victoria Sharples says that in all aspects of her work from blending, buying, selling and tasting it is the lighter, fresher styles that people are looking for, particularly at the premium end. “I would say two in a 100 customers want that rich, bold, heavy oaky style.”
In the past, the issue cool climate Chardonnay – and Pinot Noir – had from Australia was the price differentiation with what you could find in Burgundy, it was not a style issue. Now that prices in Burgundy are so high, Sharples believes there is a real opportunity for Yarra Valley-style Chardonnays. “You look at Mac’s Chardonnay and it has that minerally, savoury undertone that is not unusual in Burgundy.”
She believes when people are looking for “big and buttery” it is actually more the “savoury oak” and lees influence that they want.
Stuart McCloskey says its private customer market at The Vinorium has a very different take and demand for Australian wine and what is coming out of Victoria. Whilst the rest of the panel took to the leaner, cleaner, fresher, lighter, more acid driven wines he says its private customers are looking for the opposite – they still want those big, bold, full of flavour and mouth feel wines and not the leaner styles at all.
He says The Vinorium did a study last year that looked at 400,000 bottles sales over the last four years split by vintage and varietal and region and that was the overriding message that came through. We want big wines and not these fresher styles.
Half a barrel’s worth of big, rich textured Chardonnay from Beechworth sold out in one evening when it was put on the site, he says. Whereas lower alcohol, leaner styles from the Macedon Hills really struggle to sell. “We could delist all the cooler climate styles from our list and it would have no negative impact on sales.”
Tahbilk 1927 Vines Marsanne
The panel was particularly impressed by the quality and value for money of the Marsanne wine from Tahbilk which claims to have the largest single holding of the varietal in the world and first started planting it in 1860.
Sharples says it “is one of the best value white wines coming out of Australia”. Wilson agrees: “I think it is amazing and makes me think I need to start buying again. A bit of an age on it would be amazing.”
Jones says the issue for Marsanne is that it is mostly sold too cheaply for the quality of wine people were receiving. When he increased the price of it at The Harrow then more of his customers would buy it.
Again Mount says it is an education job to get more people to recognise and appreciate the quality you can get from Marsanne from Australia. Which is why it is so encouraging to see Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, in particular, championing lesser known varieties. “It’s all about communication and how you get that message across.
Kooyong Ferrous Pinot Noir Mornington Peninsula (RRP £45)
Tokar Estate Pinot Noir Yarra Valley (RRP £27)
The panel had the chance to taste, compare and contrast two styles of Pinot Noir – one from the Yarra Valley and one from Mornington Peninsula. The Tokar Pinot Noir benefits from the cool climate of the Yarra Valley, with the lowest temperatures in the key growing period of January anywhere in the state. Whilst the Kooyong Ferrous has the maritime climate influence coming through.
Sharples says the interesting thing about the Kooyong Ferrous is that is a good example of the single vineyard, single or mixed clone approach from a single vineyard Victoria. All of which comes through in the “warmth and depth of the wine” to it and “you can taste those nuances of terroir” and identify the iron rich soils. Which is clearly also reflected in the name “Ferrous” adds Mount.
The Ferrous is one of four styles of Pinot that Kooyong has become renown for and Jones says The Harrow listed Kooyong, and its four Pinots, right from the start of the restaurant opening. “To have four different Pinots from the same vineyard was a huge story at the time and worked very well for us.
He found the Tokar a “nice, fresh, simple, easy to drink Pinot whereas the Kooyong is a bit more serious and reflected in the price – but both great examples of Pinot Noir”.
(Click here for The Vinorium’s Start McCloskey on why Victoria is the most exciting wine region in Australia)
McCloskey is a big fan of Pinot Noir from Victoria and says it is a “toss up” between Victoria and Tasmania as to which region is producing the best wines. “They are sensational, really very, very good indeed. What we love is you get real vintage variation, year on year, the same producer the same wine is very different. So those wanting that Burgundy vintage variation, Victoria and Tasmania are the places. Definitely.”
The Shiraz chosen to taste is the much loved and recognised range of Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch wines from Fowles, situated in the Strathbogie Ranges, around 100 kilometres north of Melbourne. This is an area that sits around 600 metres above sea level and is characterised by ancient granite boulders dating back over 360 million years. The Strathbogie Ranges has emerged as a distinct, high-altitude and cool climate region, that helps to produce intense wines, but that also have elegance and finesse.
McCloskey says the Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch wines goes down very well with his customers who really like the “rich, savoury” style. “We do fantastically well with cool climate Shiraz. It’s right up there. There is a massive market for it. It’s more food friendly and with a bit of bottle age has a bit more of a Rhone style that goes down a treat.”
Sharples says it is that Rhône style that comes through in this wine, which is reflected in its “lovely freshness and crunchy fruit character”. It offers a great red fruits, Syrah-style alternative to the big Grenache dominant wines you find in the Rhone. “I think it is a lovely wine.”
Done well then cool climate Victoria Shiraz can offer a real alternative to what is happening in Barossa and McLaren Valley, she says.
Mount urges Victoria producers to do more to explain why their cooler climate wines are different to the Shiraz styles you can get in other regions of Australia.
Frances Bentley says LWC Drinks lists around 10 Australian Shirazes as it is just the style that people come back to. “It’s the classic, it’s what everyone wants. We have seen the style change over the years and there is more understanding of the breadth of styles and more willingness to push up through the price points, particularly in the on-trade.”
It’s also now reached more channels of the on-trade and is as popular in casual dining venues as it was in premium restaurants in the past, she adds. “It’s now one of things that you have to have on your list. We will never have any problem selling at any price point. At a decent food pub you may even see two now.”
Wynne-Griffiths says it is good as a buyer to remind yourself of Australia’s “hero variety” and what it can still offer the trade, even in light of the surge in interest in Mediterranean red wine style.
He says there is a real opportunity for aged Shiraz and to treat it more like a fine wine than the big Aussie wine we see everyone – restaurants like The Little Chartroom in Edinburgh, for example, is doing an excellent job in sourcing aged Shiraz to sell.
When it comes to Shiraz Wilson sees the cooler climate styles being harder for average consumers to get behind and that it is more the bigger, deeper, denser styles, which Heathcote in Victoria with its rich, red soils does very well, that might fare better.
The panel were united in giving a big thumbs up to the potential, choice, diversity and value for money of wines right across Victoria.
Bentley sums it up by saying: “The region’s got the products. It’s got a huge breadth of things it can offer consumers, it just needs to be a little better organised and there is an education piece to be done, probably by hand-selling. But it’s really encouraging to see these styles of wines.”
McCloskey says the region boasts “some of the best personalities” it works with in Australia and “unquestionably some of the best young winemaking talent than seen for years”. “It’s so diverse it’s an amazing region and the most exciting.”
Wynne-Griffiths says Sharples’ desert island analogy from the beginning of the debate really captures what Victoria is all about. “This is the region that covers all the bases and is capable of doing things at a full spread of price points, packaging and winemaking styles, so let’s just get these wines out there and on to tables and shelves and make sure these personalities get the coverage and the sales they deserve.”
For Sharples it is the “combination of personalities, consistency and diversity” and the fact it is 21 regions in one “that should not be overlooked” and its best position in the market is at that higher end.
The final thought goes to Angela Mount who manages to capture the state’s appeal in six words: “Diversity, provenance, quality, value, communication, education.”
Wine Victoria at London Wine Fair
Can you Unlock Victoria?
You can come and taste the diversity and breadth of wines for yourself at this week’s London Wine Fair at the Wine Victoria stand. There are 12 producers taking part and showing a wide variety of wines including cool climate Pinots and Chardonnays, to fortified wines and a wide range of alternate varietals. You are invited to Unlock Victoria by picking up a key from one of the Wine Victoria team walking around the fair walkabout, and seeing if it unlock the safe on the stand to win a fantastic prize. You can find Wine Victoria in the Wine Unearthed section on Stands 113-117 & 144.
- You can read what the panel thinks about where Victoria sits within the overall offer from Australia in the second part of our debate write up later in the week.
- To find our more about Wine Victoria go to its website here.