Down Under

Undiscovered Australian wines shouldn’t be kept secret.
by Virginia Philip

Australia’s wine industry has been a major force in the wine world for decades. For the 17th year in a row, the United States is the second largest export market for the country’s wines. The fruit-forward style, easy-to-pronounce names and straightforward wine labels make them consumer friendly. In the “everyday drinking” category, options are numerous. Producers such as Penfolds, Lindemans, and Rosemount provide excellent choices. Then there are the blue chip collectibles such as Penfolds “Grange,” Henschke, Two Hands, Peter Lehmann “Stonewell,” and Torbreck “Run Rig.” Yet, during the past ten years, the demand for Australia’s wines has declined worldwide. The Australian wine market seems to be experiencing an identity crisis. I sat down with Matthew Lane, vice president –Americas, Peter Lehmann Wines, to discuss the past, present, and future of Australian wines.

down-under-2VP: Matt, you were born and bred in Adelaide, South Australia — the country’s largest wine producing state. What started your career in the wine business?

ML: I actually found my true calling in life after 10 years of playing golf around the world. When I finally (decided) I needed a real job, I turned and faced the wine industry and have never looked back. That was 21 years ago.

VP: You were actually named “Best Sommelier in Australia” in 2001. How did you make the jump from sommelier to vice president?

ML: I had a wonderful and eclectic sommelier career before being plucked off the restaurant floor by the Penfolds winery back in 1998. I was its brand/winemaking ambassador and traveled the world. I learned all the finer points of wine production and viticulture at the historic Magill Estates Winery, and saw, firsthand, the effort and time that goes into making Grange. After 15 years, I took on a new role as vice president of the revered and staunch Barossa Valley vintner, Peter Lehmann Wines. I oversee all aspects of sales, marketing, and operations for the USA, Canada, Central, and South America.
VP: Which three wine producers do you think put Australia on the map?

down-under-3ML: Lindeman’s, Penfolds, and Peter Lehmann Wines, of course!

VP: How have you seen the Australian wine industry change from the 1990s to the 2000s and now, today?

ML: Extraordinary changes occurred from the mid 1990s — when Australia was just starting to hit the world stage — to today. The United States, for example, started its love affair with Australia in the late 1990s. Then we probably had the biggest growth decade ever for Australian wine — the ten years of the new millennium — not only in export markets, but Australia, too. It seemed like there was a winery popping up every day during this decade. As an ironic twist, not only did we see immense growth, but we also saw the down turn of our industry, too — particularly in exports. Australian wines grinded to a halt as we hit 2008 through 2010. It really was a classic scenario of boom and bust.

down-under-4VP: Speaking of the grinding halt, tell me about the advent of the “animal label wines” and how you believe it either helped and/or hurt Australia’s wine industry.

ML: Yellowtail and Little Penguin introduced millions and millions of drinkers to “Theme Australia.” In context, that’s a good thing. What they didn’t do was help people understand the diversity of our wine growing regions and our long history of exceptional winemaking. These wines are not a complete and true reflection of who we are — or of our 190-plus years of winemaking history. Nevertheless, hats off to those who saw the opportunity and went for it. All in all, I feel it both aided and hurt our industry, equally.

VP: Australia has been known for its diversity of wine styles. Which varietals do you see as the flagship of Australia?

down-under-5ML: Shiraz will always be our cornerstone. It is so well suited from the delicate spicy flavors you get from the cooler regions like the Yarra Valley to the blockbuster Barossa Valley Shirazes like Peter Lehmann’s Stonewell Shiraz. Sadly, Riesling is definitely our best keep secret offshore. To all Australians, we are passionate about our dry, refreshing, crisp Riesling. I do hope the world catches onto Australia Riesling soon — they will not regret it.

VP: Anything new on the horizon?

ML: Most exciting wine region/state to watch — Tasmania and, I feel, the Adelaide Hills — for a wonderful delicate floral Pinot Noir and a more astonishing Riesling. There are also the focused lineal Chardonnays to Cabernet, which show well from several districts.

VP: What four climatic conditions give Australians an edge over their competition?

ML: I think it is much bigger than just the question. The amazing diversity that 64 wine regions can give — from some of the coolest and highest elevation vineyards in the southern hemisphere to diverse growing regions where Grenache, Cabernet, Mourvèdre, Shiraz, Semillon, and Riesling can grow extraordinarily well, often in co-habitation; i.e., McLaren Vale. It all harkens back to the wonderful diversity of our growing regions and grapevines that have made their homes in these regions for over 100 years. That is our core strength.

down-under-7VP: How do you feel about the future of Australian wines, and where they are headed?

ML: Bright, excited, and onward and upwards. We have had three terrific vintages in a row: 2011, 2012, and 2013 — small volumes, but some A++ wines are coming down the pipe. From someone who has seen and lived the last 20 years of the Australian wine industry, I have never been more excited than today. Make sure you get on board the boat now, or you will miss all the excitement. Today, the world is once again discovering that Australia is a country of wonderful diversity, regionality, and terrific wine. There are 64 wine regions which reinforce to the world that we are more than just Shiraz. One just needs to seek out our fresh, dry, crisp, thirst-quenching Riesling from Australia to see that. Cabernet Sauvignon has caught the attention of the critics, and there are wonderful examples, including our own mentor from Peter Lehmann. The future is extremely bright for Australia.

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